Saturday, April 4, 2009

When in doubt -- look it up!

Even a writer of cozies has to do research. You don’t realize how little you know until you start to write. I had a hassle this week with Google and the pink bollworm, but finally took care of it with a long distance phone call.

Then I checked out a web site mentioned by Janet Rudolph on her blog Mystery Fanfare ( that kept me tied to the computer for an hour.

It’s at, and lists
100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of -- “Beyond Google, Wikipedia and other generic reference sites, the Internet boasts a multitude of search engines, dictionaries, reference desks & databases that have organized and archived information for quick and easy searches. In this list, we’ve compiled just 100 of our favorites, for teachers, students, hypochondriacs, procrastinators, bookworms, sports nuts and more.”

It doesn’t mention writers, but the list can be “unbelievably useful” for writers, too.

One handy little site is, a free online dictionary with translations. Need a Hungarian word for “lover”? Never mind. “Sweetheart”? Apparently you can’t say that in Portuguese. “Wife” in Spanish turns up “esposa” which sounds about right. In Italian it’s “maglie, femmina, signora.” I’d go for “signora.” “Maglie” sounds too much like “magpie.” “Femmina” sounds like a hygiene product.

More useful to writers of crime fiction might be a site called Who’s Alive And Who’s Dead ( One segment lists all of Playboy’s Playmates of the Month who have died.

There are a LOT of them, going back to Marilyn Monroe who made her first centerfold appearance in 1953. She died at age 36, from a drug overdose listed here as “accidental/suicide/murdered?” Will we ever know?

The list ends with Elisa Bridges, a 1994 centerfold, who died at age 26 after an overdose of “heroin and three others.” Between Marilyn and Elisa are quite a number of Playmates who died by drug overdose, cancer, murder or suicide. There must be a novel in there somewhere.

But back to Google and the pink bollworm. In going over drafts of my work-in-progress I stopped short at a scene of a farmer on a tractor, plowing down remnants of his cotton crop “to discourage the pink bollworm.” I wrote that scene maybe four or five years ago, just before I left California. Looking back at it now, I felt a moment of panic. Did I dream the “pink bollworm” stuff?

All Google gave me was listing after listing of restricted research papers on eradicating it with pesticides.

Hells, bells. For 50 years I watched cotton farmers plow down their fields every winter before planting a new crop, and somewhere I heard or read that it was to discourage the pink bollworm. I went to The Fresno Bee online and searched their archives. Plenty of articles on cotton and such, but they want $2.95 for each article you download. Fie on them.

Then I called the U.S. farm service bureau in Hanford, where I used to live, and asked the woman who answered. She knew the answer. Yes, the plowdown is to discourage the pink bollworm. Hanford takes it seriously. If a farmer messes around and doesn't get it done by January, his name might appear in the paper as being derelict in his duty.

All that sturm und drang for 3 sentences in my manuscript:
"I passed a field where ribbons of white terns trailed a farmer on a tractor. The terns wheeled and darted, picking up bugs and worms while the farmer turned under remnants of his cotton plants. It was a winter ritual, plowing down the old plants to discourage the pink bollworm."

On a different note, my favorite California cotton story comes from my trip to China in 1989. We picked up a topnotch tour guide in Beijing, and had wonderful local guides in other places. We had been told to take small gifts for our main guide and bus driver. For him, I had a baseball cap. For her I had a huge picture book on California.

In the middle of the book was a double-page photo of California. I don’t remember now whether it was an aerial photo or what, but it laid out the state as plain as day – the mountains on the east, the ocean on the west, and in between the long, golden San Joaquin Valley.

I put my finger on the spot we came from. Our guide gave me a thoughtful look and said, “I know that place. We buy cotton from there.”

1 comment:

Beth Terrell said...

Pat, that reference site alone is worth its weight in gold.

Many thanks!