“Bring at least two extra light sources and wear old clothes,” they said.
“Listens to and follows directions” was always checked on my grade school report cards so — here I was — properly garbed, a flashlight in my hand, two more flashlights banging against me from the inside pockets of my gardening coat.
Oh yes, I was well-prepared, except for one thing. I thought you walked into caves. Now I was belly-crawling into a dark hole, two experienced cavers in front of me, two in back, and I was having a tough time keeping “you idiot” concerns off my face–should anyone happen to see it. Well, at least if there were snakes wintering in here, the two in front would see them first.
How do you feel about caves? I don’t mean the kind where you pay a fee and a lecturer takes you on a guided tour inside one of this country’s phenomenal tourist-attraction caves. No, not that kind. I speak of the unpublic kind, the dark, dank holes in the earth like the one I was crawling into back then.
The Ozarks area is full of these non-public caves, bluff shelters, sink holes, and so on. Plus, I should add, these holes under our landscape are often full of the underground rivers that are in the process of creating many of them. Touring is strictly on your own and at your own risk.
The first novel in my “To Die For” mystery series (A VALLEY TO DIE FOR) finds Carrie, along with her new friend, retired policeman Henry King and Henry’s adult daughter, Susan, exploring a cave in search of pictographs or some other historic phenomenon. Reason? They’re looking for anything that might halt county government approval of plans for the siting of a destructive limestone quarry in the valley where the cave is located. (Think dynamite, shaking earth, piles of rock, dust clouds, heavy, rumbling earth-movers and trucks.)
When high-powered rifle shots trap them in the cave, Susan and Carrie start a frantic search for another way out. Henry, bleeding, and dazed by sharp rock fragments a bullet has sent flying, stays behind to guard the cave entrance.
Okay, so I dreamed this cave up. It fit the plot and the danger I planned for Carrie, my major character, as well as for Henry and Susan. But what would the cave really be like? Sights? Smells? Radine, the stickler for perfect details, had to know, and she contacted a group of avid cavers in a town not far away. A week later, four cavers and Radine were crawling into a hole in the side of a bluff near the proposed quarry site. (Yes, the quarry plans were real.)
Fortunately, after a short belly-crawl, space opened up. Not large, like Carlsbad Caverns, or other caves where a full-sized cathedral would fit into the space, but about the size of, say, a large walk-in closet. We moved on, sliding, one-by-one, through a wall crack, straddling a creek running between our heavy shoes. I was now too far into this adventure to back out. (Back out literally, I mean.) I could see what problems Carrie would be running into quite easily. On we slid and crawled, admiring various cave features and–startling only to me–picking up an ancient, rusty beer can.
Eventually we reached another room, larger this time, with a number of tunnels leading into it and the sound of rushing water echoing from one of them. The group leader asked, “Want to go on?”
“No, I have enough details for my story,” I said. I think they believed me.
I told the truth. I could see in my head exactly what Carrie would soon see, and I could imagine exactly what was down that tunnel with the rushing water sounds. (For details, see A VALLEY TO DIE FOR, the first mystery novel in my series featuring Carrie McCrite and Henry King.)
This introduction into book research should have warned me. Of course, since then, I’ve spent a lot of time learning from knowledgeable people and walking with them in pleasant places, or at least in places that didn’t threaten a writer’s exposed skin, clothing, or peace of mind.
However, I have ended up exploring–in the interest of accuracy–several more eerie or scary places: A rough basement full of black pipes and water tanks. Or, how about a creek-filled water tunnel more than 150 years old? (See it in A TREASURE TO DIE FOR.) A walk-in refrigerator that served a hospital morgue early in the 20th century? A haunted hotel? (A WEDDING TO DIE FOR.) A collapsing mine shaft? (Oops, I wasn’t supposed to be there. Hey, guys, I imagined it.) Given the geology of the Ozarks, I have spent quite a bit of time exploring caves and bluff shelters. In these it was hands-off on discovered artifacts–except for a tiny “winkle” shell whose contents provided a bit of food for an American Indian more than five thousand years ago. (My guide, an archeologist, allowed me to keep the tiny shell. I guess this was because there were hundreds of shells, less than a half-inch long, all around us in that hidden cave.)
A historic gallows? The ear-numbing noise and acrid smoke from a fired Civil War cannon? Possible treasure from steamboats sunk in the Arkansas River during the Civil War?
You’ll read about all this in my short stories and novels.
Now, let’s hear your research stories. Anyone here just sit at a desk, calling on memory and imagination for book settings? If so, think of all the adventures, dirt, and torn clothing you’re missing.
Radine Trees Nehring spent a number of years as a broadcast journalist and feature writer for magazines and newspapers before her first book, "DEAR EARTH: A Love Letter From Spring Hollow," appeared in 1995, winning the Arkansas Governor's Award for best writing about the state. Her "To Die For" mystery series began in 2002 with Macavity nominee, A VALLEY TO DIE FOR. The series has earned more than twenty-five other awards including an Arkansas Book of the Year award, a Silver Falchion National Award at Killer Nashville, and first place, best mystery novel, from the Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc. conference. Several short stories featuring her major characters, Carrie McCrite and Henry King are available in anthologies. A FAIR TO DIE FOR is the seventh novel in the "To Die For" series. Radine is a member of Sisters in Crime, Authors Guild, Ozarks Writers League, and represented Arkansas on the board of Mystery Writers of America--SW Chapter for several years. She was chosen as 2011 inductee in the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame. http://www.RadinesBooks.com http://radine.wordpress.com
Ready for an Ozarks adventure? A FAIR TO DIE FOR from Oak Tree Press
Links to area attractions include War Eagle Fair: http://www.wareaglefair.com
War Eagle Mill: http://www.WarEagleMill.com
Hobbs State Park – Conservation area: http://www.ArkansasStateParks.com , http://www.FriendsofHobbs.com
Buffalo National River: http://www.nps.gov/buff
Hot Springs National Park: http://www.nps.gov/hosp
1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa: http://www.crescent-hotel.com