Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Guest Blog: Larry Karp

Please welcome mystery writer, Larry Karp! I particularly wanted feature him because his mysteries involve Ragtime, which has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. He was gracious enough to write a bit about the research he did for his ragtime series, so I'd better let him get on with it!

My first four mysteries (a medical standalone and a three-book series set among collectors of antique music boxes) required almost no research. I had it all in my head. But that situation changed dramatically when I set out to write a trilogy based in ragtime music.

The stories were to be called THE RAGTIME KID, THE KING OF RAGTIME, and THE RAGTIME FOOL, and they were to take place at the birth, death, and revival of ragtime: 1899, 1916, and 1951, respectively. The first and third books would be set primarily in Sedalia, MO, the second in New York City. My goal was to use unaltered history as a framework for murder mysteries, built around interesting occurrences at critical moments in those histories.

I also wanted to present the settings as vividly as I could.

I began by reading all the histories of ragtime and its pioneers that I could find; then I went on to articles in music (primarily jazz) periodicals. My bibliographies in each of my three books ran to some five pages.

Then I made multiple on-site visits to New York and Sedalia (at the time of that Missouri city's annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival), tough duty. Many of the buildings still standing in downtown Sedalia and Harlem were there at the time of my stories, including a couple of Scott Joplin's residences. I took multiple photographs. I also spent a great deal of time in Sedalia's beautiful Carnegie Library, perusing microfiche copies of newspapers from 1899 and 1951.

I was lucky enough to have been in Sedalia on a sunny, hot Sunday in June, when there was no traffic on the city streets, and the only sound came from church bells. Easy for my mind's eye to see the city as it would have looked l00 years before. And the temperature of 96 degrees with humidity to match brought this line into my head: "They say the devil once spent a week in Missouri in July, then went back and set up hell to specifications." You'll find those words on Page 49 of THE RAGTIME KID.

I had a great deal of help. Since I'm a musical illiterate, I interviewed ragtime musicians and historians, and attended master classes, where the pros taught youngsters the ins and outs of good ragtime piano. How else would I have known what Scott Joplin might have told Brun Campbell, the Ragtime Kid, in the course of the piano lessons he gave the boy.

My luckiest stroke might have been meeting Betty Singer, a local historian, in the Sedalia Library. Betty's family has lived in the Sedalia area since the 1830s, and as she told me, "I love doing research. I'm sure you'll go home and find you need a piece of information about Sedalia. Here's my email address." Over the six years of the project, I needed more than one piece of information, and Betty provided me every one. Without her help, I doubt I could have written the books.

I can say the same about Seattle genealogist Mark Forster, who not only introduced me to the internet game of genealogical research, but ran considerable interference for me. Thanks to Mark's help, and many hours of my own on line, I discovered so much previously-unknown material about the real-life Brun Campbell, I was able to present seminars at both the Joplin Festival and the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento. If you don't think it was a kick to present new information to rooms full of ragtime pianists, historians, and fans, think again.

During the course of doing all this research, I had a good number of adventures and funny experiences. We're running low on space here, so you can read about a couple of these on my two most recent blog posts (March 9 and March 2), And I'd be glad to hear from you:

Thanks, Amy, for inviting me to write this piece.

My pleasure!

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