Katherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and has consulted for CSI and Bones. She’s published 58 books and over 1,000 articles, mostly devoted to crime, forensics, and serial murder. She also writes a blog for Psychology Today. Hearts of Darkness is a paranormal murder mysteries series. Learn more about Katherine and her books at her website.
Use “Thought Paths” for Texture and Mood
My best research for fiction is situated: I seek ways to experience a place, item, procedure, or issue that I want to use for my characters. It’s like living in a house that I’m renovating while I’m writing about its renovation. Travel is part of this process. Visiting my settings is one of the best ways to situate a tale. In part, it’s to see them, and in part, it’s to feel them.
I have always traveled for research. Why should I use someone else’s photo of a broch in Scotland when I can tramp through fields to stand in front of one? Of course, I would go to Maui to find Lindbergh’s isolated grave, or spend four hours in Cimetiére de Montmartre to ensure there’s a tomb of adequate size. For my Hearts of Darkness series, The Ripper Letter and Track the Ripper, my primary settings were in New York, London, and Paris.
For context, I often pick locations according to “thought-paths” – the trace of creative juices from thinkers, artists, and writers who worked in a specific place. Thought-paths provide subtle texture. Gestalt psychology holds that we can see the details of a figure only against a background. This also applies to our characters: they need settings. We don’t notice the background, but it still sheds feeling tones. A white figure against black, for example, feels different from white on gray. Or red. Characters entangled on a bed feel different from those characters on a table or inside a freshly dug grave.
For me, thought-paths feed the background tone and mood.
For Track the Ripper, I visited areas on the Left Bank in Paris where writers had lived, dined, and met for consolation and admiration. At the Café de Flore, you feel the ghosts of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus discussing the vertigo of free will. You sense Hemmingway in a warm brasserie on a cold winter day, scribbling precious words. I gave my characters a residence here.
For murderers and magists, I looked for darker thought-paths.
In London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, my research on Jack the Ripper had turned up an interesting fact, which launched The Ripper Letter. During the Ripper’s murder spree in 1888, hundreds of letters arrived to police and news outlets purporting to be from the killer, including one that offered the enduring moniker, “Jack the Ripper.” Although we don’t know if the killer sent any letters, some Ripperologists view the “From Hell” missive as the best candidate. It arrived with half of a preserved human kidney (and a kidney was missing from victim #4). Crime historian Donald Rumbelow discovered that the original From Hell letter was missing from police files.
So, who has it, and why? I focused on a suspect whose background offered intrigue. Dr. Roslyn “D’Onston” Stephenson was a former military surgeon who’d studied magic. I linked him to a series of contemporary murders in New York and created my female detective, Dianysus Brentano. To use the Big Apple’s settings for mood, I explored distinct areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan, such as the Met and Belvedere Castle in Central Park. Being at these locations not only yielded texture but also ideas about hiding places and escape routes.
For Track the Ripper, I needed to map out Whitechapel, to learn about it during the Ripper’s murders and also today. I can’t very well set something in a building on Leman Street if I don’t know what this street looks like. (Google Maps delivers these images in 3D, but not the all-important feeling tones from a busy street.) I took the crowded Tube, as my characters did, so I would know the right stops.
My Ripper suspect had mystical alliances in Paris, so I learned about the Society of Mutual Autopsy (a real organization) and a French “magist,” Eliphas Levi. I visited the Saint-Sulpice cathedral where Levi had his religious training. When I saw the soaring columns and vaulted ribs to the dome, I was better able to appreciate his ideas about magic and immortality. I also went to the Montmartre arrondissement, to see its winding streets, the Basilica de Sacre Couer, and the cemetery.
For background tones, I listened to the rhythms of French, watched the ebb and flow of people, and noted places where a plot could unfold. I merged figure with background to situate my story with grit, to better see my characters in motion. I know how Dianysus feels when she wanders through a crowded maze of mossy tombs or sees the Basilica’s ceiling mural. I felt heat simmering off the overlook on a summer day. I even drove a motorcycle.
It’s easy to forget the importance of background, but going out to experience your settings will remind you of how they can set a mood, move a plot, and deepen characters. You cannot see figures clearly without background, and the more you work at situate your background, the more grounded your story will be. I prefer to use thought-paths, but you might find a different route.
The Ripper Letter: Book One of The Hearts of Darkness Series
Ancient codes and a legendary killer lure a young detective into a dark and dangerous world. When a murdered historian is marked with a mysterious code, homicide detective Dee Brentano worries about his colleague – her missing father, Alexandre. FBI special agent J. R. Pierce tells her that Alexandre is wanted for this murder. Desperate to find him first, she discovers that Alexandre has items that several people – including Pierce – would kill to possess. One is a letter attributed to Jack the Ripper. Another is an erotic cryptograph. Dee encounters a potential ally in Detective Gregory Brenner. She’s attracted to him, but fears that he’s playing her to find her father. She’s also drawn to her father’s protégé, Scott Bateman, who can decode the Ripper letter’s secret message and the symbol on the murdered historian. It’s bait for luring supernatural entities. It’s also a map to locating her father. Dee must choose her path wisely. One leads to a supernatural lover, the other to an immortal serial killer.