Book Research

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

I just finished reading a brand new historical romance by a client of mine–it’s not the final draft–and sprinkled throughout the manuscript are little research notes for bits and pieces of history that she still needs to discover to put the finishing touches into the book. These details are not something that would stop the average reader from enjoying the story, but those who are well-versed in the time period will appreciate and desire these little historical snippets that my client is still working to fill in. My client’s notes got me thinking about the extremes authors go to to do book research.

I know that Robin Jones Gunn traveled all over the world to research for her Sisterchicks stories.

And my client, Karen Barnett, shared on her blog that she visited a Soda Fountain to taste all of the drinks served in the 1920′s for her book, Mistaken.

Michelle Ule was watching YouTube videos to refresh her sensory memory of typewriters yesterday and she asked her friends on Facebook to report in with their typewriter memories.

Liz Johnson, a client of mine writing military romance, will call military contacts to make sure she gets the facts straight.

A nonfiction client of mine, Allison Flexer, did extensive interviews for her upcoming release Truth, Lies and the Single Woman.

Authors of all genres need to focus on the details in one way or another and sometimes the details are difficult to track down.

What is the most memorable or most difficult research you’ve done for your writing?

Research is also one of those tricky things, where if you try to add too many fun facts or details into a book, you can lose your readers in the details. The readers either get lost and can no longer follow the plot well, or they feel like they are being taught something and they can’t enjoy the read. However, if you don’t include enough facts, the book won’t ring true.

Have you ever run into this–either in your reading or writing? How do you know when enough is enough when it comes to the details?

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45 Comments

  • Two interesting questions for the day!

    By far the hardest aspect of research I’ve dealt with is finding out things I would have preferred not to know about a culture for which I’d had a deep admiration and affinity.

    I’d felt called to write about this culture from the standpoint of a romantic myth – true in many respects, but incomplete. The nobility was mythologized, and an undercurrent of cruelty and worse was ignored.

    It doesn’t invalidate the culture by any means – it merely invalidated my childish view, and to some degree invalidated the premise of my story.

    No great loss, because the premise was based on sand.

    As for overwhelming a reader with detail, I have four words.

    “Tom Clancy’s later books.”

  • Oooh lets see, I once tracked down a British Assyriologist who wrote an article in the 1970′s about Nineveh. We exchanged a couple of letters and he agreed to peek at my manuscript, but then his wife became ill and it was too difficult for him (he was born the same year as my grandpa 1918 and was in his late 80s or early 90s at the time) but I did buy his memoir and enjoyed that very much. I know my heart was in my throat as I wrote to this very learned man and asked if he would look at my writing. It is hard to put yourself out there and ask an expert for help. But once in awhile it pays off.

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    I love YouTube! I found a lot of great footage of rescued otters for my book. It really helped to see them in action.

  • Lori Benton says:

    One of the more challenging aspects of writing historical fiction is capturing the mindset of the people of the times, even when that mindset doesn’t appeal to our current sensibilities, and writing it in such a way that it’s honest without being unsympathetic (when it comes to main characters). Layer onto that challenge characters of different cultures than mine, or different gender… this is where my most intensive research happens. Much of that research is intentional and focused novel reading (along with nonfiction research, I hunt down as many novels that deal with the type of character I’ve created as I can find), so it could be a whole lot worse!

    • You raise an excellent point, Mrs. Benton, that the values and even the thought processes of people have changed over time.

      Regional differences within a national culture are now very diluted, and these often play a major role in the stories of the past.

      I have found that oral histories serve me well, where they are available – providing that they have been faithfully transcribed, and catch the flavor and nuance of speech.

      Even better can be oral histories caught in audio or video form, in which eye movement, facial expression, and gesture can convey so very much, from approbation to utter contempt, when the blind interpretation of the transcribed words could indicate no strong emotion.

  • Thank you for this post, Mrs. Kent. Its content, and the comments already made, are quite interesting.

    I find that the most challenging part of my research can be the verification of Scriptural accuracy in the story’s theme. It is always tempting to write that which I ‘think’ Scripture says.

    But this is a blind path, because much of what I perceive has been influenced by societal interpretation of the Christian message – which is frequently secular, and wrong. I must return to the source.

  • Years back, in writing an article on human trafficking, I was led to Acts where Paul (Saul) was blinded. After reading this passage numerous times over the years, there was on little tidbit I had never noticed – Paul was set straight on Straight Street.

    God was so good to lead me to that while writing on such a horrid topic and allow me a reason to grin. In having to ask others to actually pray for the “offenders,” I was reminded that there is hope for all. I’ll never forget that moment.

    • Christine Dorman says:

      You’re right, Shellie. “There is hope for all.” I used to be quite judgmental in regards to people who did horrid deeds (such as raping children), but God turned me around and gave me the grace to understand that people who do acts of overt evil are perhaps the people who we most need to pray for. The only way to defeat evil is with love.

  • I am so fascinated by the research process of historical authors. Sarah Sundin and I had a lot of fun talking about this at the last ACFW conference. She’s so good at what she does!

    Since I write contemporary, I don’t have to worry about as many facts other than location. My research is more experience-focused. I like to have at least one expert friend to consult when I write about a character outside my expertise. I’m currently writing a cheerleader who loves clothes and beauty, which couldn’t be more out of my league. So I have: contacted a friend who has been extensively involved in the competitive cheerleading and power tumbling circuits, bought my first fashion magazine, and made a Pinterest board of outfits and beauty products from stores I think she would shop at.

    On that note, I’m also listening to Taylor Swift, which is very unlike me. But if there’s anything I can do to help get inside a character’s head, I’ll try it. :)

    • Taylor Swift is acceptable.

      I would, however, draw the line at Katy Perry. Some standards simply must be upheld.

      • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

        I got free tickets to a Katy Perry concert and attended without ever having listened to her music. What an eye-opening experience! I’d never been to a pop music concert before. Skimpy outfits and music without any depth.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    Au contraire, Laurie, I find I have to tons of research with contemporaries–which was surprising.

    When I wrote about Navy SEALs, I had to know details about the pipeline, how old they were, what they could and could not carry (no cell phones on missions, for example), down to the color of their clothing. I’m a Navy wife and was surprised at how much I didn’t really know.

    To give a place verisimilitude, I have to look at maps, read the local paper and if possible, visit. It’s surprising what the sun looks like going down in a different latitude and longitude. Who knew, for example, that the sun goes down in Hawai’i at the same time all year long, give or take a few minutes (about 6:05), if you haven’t felt that lovely twilight descend and then Night envelopes you with a surprisingly comfortable, rich blanket of dark.

    Yeah, you can write a contemporary without much research, but when I read a novel set in Poulsbo, WA and the hero has seldom seen a military person except his wife, I think, what rock does he live under? A submarine base is seven miles due west of where he lives. That makes me think less of the hero and makes me question what other points the author is missing.

    Research is the backbone, and sometimes it informs what you leave out. After all that research with the typewriter, I changed a few words and the issue was gone.

    Except, we’re all still wondering, left or right? :-)

    • Christine Dorman says:

      You’re absolutely right, Michelle. Research is important in contemporary novels as well as in historical fiction (I done a great deal of research for my fantasy novel as well). Laurie is doing a great thing by using a friend who is involved in competitive cheerleading as a source. I think that getting the facts (sometimes even a tiny detail) wrong in a contemporary novel is even more dangerous in a contemporary novel. Your example about Poulsbo, WA is a good example. Here is another that came up in my critique group. One member is writing a novel about a mother-daughter relationship. The mother has Alzheimer’s but hasn’t been diagnosed yet, and the caretaker daughter is having difficulty dealing with her mother’s erratic behavior. In the scene the writer shared this week, the daughter takes her mother to the “emergency room” of a psychiatric facility. She talks to and is bossed around by a “receptionist,” then her mother is roughly dumped in a wheelchair, strapped in and taken to a room for an intake interview. The daughter is told that she must wait outside the door of the room. The only person in the room with mom is a big, mean guard with a gun who warns mom that she’d better not get off the table. Finally, the daughter rushes into the room to save mom and drive her home. My first career was in nursing. Another member of the group has a PhD in nursing and was a psychiatric nurse for years. We both tried to tell this writer there were some issues with this scene regarding standard practices, but she refused to listen to us, insisting, “This really happened.” The Ph.D suggested that the writer find out what USUALLY happens. I told her that I accepted that this really happened, but that many readers would have difficulty in finding this scene credible which might make some readers stop reading.

    • Agreed, Michelle. I have been surprised by how much research I’ve done about legal details…and by education I’m a lawyer! Of all the things I ought not get wrong in a story….

    • I would group that under location and experience research for sure!

      I just meant that, for the settings I’ve written so far, I haven’t had to research all of the historical intricacies that don’t exist anymore today (or make sure the events of my plot don’t conflict with actual events of the past, for that matter!) I just have to make sure their frames of reference are consistent with their respective cultural landscapes. To me that seems less daunting than historical research!

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Rachel. Your post brought back a wonderful memory for me. :)

    My first novel is set in Brooklyn, NY (mid-1960s) and in Los Angeles, CA (early to mid-1970s). Both of my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn and my mom was a great research source for many things Brooklyn. The most memorable piece of research for me came when I decided to send my characters to Coney Island for a date. I’ve never been to Coney Island and Google Street View (a favorite tool of mine) is no help since the famous NY amusement site has changed (a lot!) since the 1960s. I asked my mom about how the place sounded, what it smelled like, what kind of rides were there. The best part came when I asked her about the food. My mom didn’t tend to wax eloquently about, well, anything. She was prone to practicality and understatement. However, when she described the french fries at Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand, she became poetic. Not only that, she had my mouth watering for these fries that apparently no longer exist. (Nathan’s is still there and, I’m sure, still sells fries, but not THOSE fries.) They were hot and fresh, crispy on the outside fluffy on the inside. She spent about five minutes describing these fries and had me wishing I could have experienced them. I had just wanted accurate details about Coney Island so I could decide what my characters would see, smell, and do, but my mom brought me to Coney Island. I tried to give the readers that same feeling–and I made sure that one of my characters experienced those french fries. Could the scene have been written without them? Absolutely. But I felt french fries that were so good that thirty years later my mom could describe them as vividly as if she’d just bit into one deserved a place in the story. :)

    • Jim Lupis says:

      Christine, your comment stirred many wonderful memories for me. I am a Brooklyn boy from the 60′s and Coney Island was a favorite hang-out of mine.

      Coney Island did have a special aroma to it, and your mom is right on about the fries – the hot dogs and knishes weren’t bad either! :)

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Thank you, Jim. I’m glad that my comment brought back good memories for you. What part of Brooklyn are you from? My mom lived near Prospect Park and my dad grew up in Bay Ridge.

        I didn’t realize until now, but I didn’t make it clear that I grew up a long way from Coney Island. My parents moved to Florida about two or three years before I was born, so I’m a southern girl.

      • Jim Lupis says:

        Christine, I lived in Bay Ridge for a time. 60th Street and 8th Avenue. Also, 65th St. and 17th Ave, and very close to Coney Island – Cropsey and 88th. :)

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      What a sweet memory! :) I wish I could taste those fries!

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Great topic for a post, Rachel. Research can be fun and exciting, and certainly a powerful learning experience. Having said all that…

    My new WIP takes place in 1933-1945 Nazi Germany, and my heart is breaking. As much as I thought I knew about the time period, it didn’t shield me from the pain. The deeper I research – the more heart wrenching it gets.

    The uplifting part is discovering all the incredible heroes, who reached beyond themselves to help and save their fellow man – not just a few, but many!

    • Christine Dorman says:

      Jim,

      The history of Nazi Germany is a difficult topic to study. The mass murder was horrendous in itself, but the things that so many people LIVED through…unimaginable brutality and just plain evil. Thank God that the Nazis were stopped–and they almost weren’t. They may have been evil, but they were organized and clever as well. It gives me chills to think what the world would be like if the Axis had won the war. God bless all the heroic people–both inside and outside the military–who worked to fight against this inhumane regime.

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      That is a very difficult time and place to research. There were so many heroes during that time and even the most humble, like Corrie Ten Boom, were used by God to make a huge difference–and their stories continue to touch lives today.

    • Mr. Lupis, you have touched on a very important subject – how the worst made manifest in this world can bring out the best in people.

      During the Partition, Hindus and Muslims killed one another with reckless abandon, but countless individuals sheltered and cared for their neighbors of a different faith.

      Many paid with their lives. Did they accept their martyrdom with a full heart?

      Perhaps, but that is beside the point. They chose to stand, where others walked away, and that in itself is acceptance enough.

  • as a I writer of historical fiction; but mostly as a passionate reader of historical fiction, I always make sure that I am granting myself — and the authors of the books I am reading— fair liberties. I love learning about new things about historical time periods and often historical fiction inspires me to find some books about the time period or personages in the non-fiction section…. but I don’t hold the fiction writer accountable for everything. I extent grace. For me, it’s peppering the novel with interesting historical details while capturing the essence of the time period. I am not going to rail a writer over the coals for a mistake or something I have learned was anachronistic when I finally do read the “real” story. Because it is so difficult—and i know how much so— I extend a lot of grace. That said, I can always tell when there is a succinct amount of verisimilitude and when the research has been deftly woven in. It’s a gift. Or, alternatively, if people are just blatantly stepping out of the narrative to explain something on account of being historical. If you write it, it’s best to make it as natural as possible. That’s far more important to me than someone forcing extraneous details and getting every. single. thing. perfect all of the time :)

  • Jennifer McGinnis says:

    I find the “enough detail is enough” to be even true for my completely made-up fantasy world. I know so much about that world, over 200K words writing about the political aspects, the geography (maps galore), the people, the small little customs, the economics, the history (soo much history), the details of each type of job people perform, the societal debates going on at the time, what people wore in great detail, and so on. But like you, some of the even funnest details don’t actually find a place to come naturally into the book. So it’s a good warning even for a well-built fantasy world. Thanks!

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      Fantasy is one of the most interesting to research because a lot of it is invention and world-building, but the world needs to ring true to the reader.

      I think it’s amazing how well many fantasy writers pull this off.

    • It would seem to me that internal consistency in creating a world of the imagination is one of the keys to a successful story.

      Would you say that this is true, and that this is the aim toward which the ‘unpublished’ material you write in support of your story attends?

  • Several research moments come to mind. In All My Belongings, I needed some nearly undetectable “instrument of death” that would leave a pronounced visible response in the body to arouse suspicion. (It’s a nice book. Really!) So I talked to the local nurse hotline, staffed that night by a friend who is also a writer. I also remember startling each time the doorbell rang for months after calling the police station to ask how much marijuana it would take for the offense to be a felony. Now, I just ask the felons I know. :) And for a radio broadcast about festering bitterness, I left a sliver in my finger until it…yes…festered to see what happened. How it felt. What kind of pain it caused. The sliver was extracted two seconds after the broadcast was written.

  • Wow! I got a mention in your blog post :) I used Survey Monkey to do a lot of the interviews for my book that Rachel mentioned. I found surveys to be a great way to capture quotes and stories. And though I write nonfiction, I enjoy reading historical fiction in my spare time, so I appreciate all of those details from the fiction writers. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

  • Trying to find the details on a mule-powered cotton gin. Not steam powered, mule powered. Took me DAYS of scouring the Internet to find all the various pieces and be able to stitch it together to figure out how the thing worked.

    Most mule-powered gins were destroyed by Yankee army units during their scorched earth operational phase, and there aren’t many surviving ones left. I eventually found a video on YouTube of a mule powered one that had been converted to steam and still works, so I was able to hear how noisy it is. Made my day when I found it.

    But all of that was easy compared to trying to figure out how a nobleman’s son in early 20th century Russia would have gone to school if he didn’t go abroad to a boarding school. I still haven’t found everything I need for that one.

  • Remember that two masted tall ship I mentioned earlier that I sailed on – to get a feel for what a sailor experienced in the early 1800′s – well I didn’t tell you I got sea sick and had to (as the kids say) hurl chunks over the side.
    Since I was a landlubber, the crew gave me some good natured ribbing and then offered me some wevil invested hardtack. Yuck.

  • Keli Gwyn says:

    I love, love, love research. If I’m not careful, I can get so carried away with it that hours zip by.

    The most memorable research I’ve done so far was to attend concerts by world-famous violinists Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell. The hero and heroine in my debut novel both play. I’d never even held a violin, so I had a lot to learn.

    I didn’t know any violinists, but I wanted to be able to describe my hero’s movements as he played–and sound like I knew what I was talking about. When I learned that these famous musicians were going to perform at my daughter’s university just an hour from where I live, I snapped up tickets pronto. I sat mesmerized in my eighth-row seat during Bell and Perlman’s performances, so close that I could watch their fingerings. What a high!

    That research paid off. When I wrote the concert scenes in my story, I was able to describe my hero’s movements. Those who’ve read the book and seen Joshua Bell play might notice a similarity between Bell’s graceful, flowing movements and those of my hero. ;-)

    Research isn’t always that thrilling, but I delight in it no matter what fact or detail I’m after. Off to do some more research for my WIP.

  • Oh, yeah–that soda fountain day was rigorous research, indeed. It’s important that we suffer for our art, right?

    As someone mentioned above, Youtube has been a huge help. I actually learned how to drive a Model T Ford (sort of) because of a Youtube tutorial. It corrected a lot of misconceptions for me and I was able to work those details into my novel, Mistaken. I recently learned that a car museum in Tacoma, Washington is offering weeklong classes on driving Ts. Imagine how much better those scenes would have read if I’d actually been behind the wheel at some point!

    Another favorite historical resource for me is Google Books. I’ve downloaded countless free copies of 1900s-era X-ray manuals, medical texts, pharmacy journals, automotive guides, etc. I didn’t know much about medicine before I started writing Out of the Ruins and Mistaken, but now I know how they treated cancer, diphtheria, asthma, and many other maladies at the turn of the century. It might not make for great party conversation, but it can really help scenes sparkle!

  • Sherry Kyle says:

    I went to the library in Carmel, CA to do my research for my upcoming historical romance. I was thrilled to discover that July 9th, 1910 was the first outdoor theatre production in Carmel. I had to include it in Watercolor Dreams, especially since July 9th is my anniversary! :) My husband and I went to Carmel for our honeymoon and have stayed there over the years. In fact, we just returned home an hour ago! I love it when art imitates life.

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Just wanted to say I think “Watercolor Dreams” is a wonderful title for a romance. I was in Carmel exactly once, and loved it. Eager to return someday.

  • It means so much to me as a reader when you can tell an author has done his research.

    I’ve spoken to historical societies and borrowed research materials from across the country for some of my research. For my first manuscript where a character had ovarian cancer, I contacted the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, and they put me in touch with a doctor who worked with me to make sure what I wrote was accurate. I hope in the end these steps will make a difference for my readers.

  • The hardest thing about my research was going to the grounds of a prison camp, with a descendant of one of the survivors. The prison camp terrain was beautiful in the light of 2012, and again in 2013. But in 1864, it was a place of despair and death. Much like any prison camp, any where. But to have my friend stand there, thinking of his grandfather as a 7 year old boy?
    Whoever said that fiction tells the truth was right. But research can be utterly heartbreaking.

  • Sarah Sundin says:

    Funny…Right before I read this, I was climbing through a 5-inch gun mount on the USS Massachusetts for research. I actually got to go IN the gun mount. INSIDE!! I’d read the manual (don’t ask) – but seeing it…well, it made my week. And it erased a few little highlight marks :)

  • Jenny Leo says:

    Even as a young girl I was thrilled by standing in the exact spot where something historical happened. I’d look through ancient wavy glass in a window and think about who else looked out that window, or gaze into a spotty old mirror and wondered who else gazed into that mirror 100 or 200 years ago. No one wants to go antiquing with me because I take forever to get through a shop, imagining who owned this, who held that, what their life was like, what might have happened to them. My heart actually aches, a physical ache. But that’s my favorite way to research–to see and touch and feel–and that’s where the stories come from.

  • I recently did some research that showed an important plot point couldn’t have happened in the book I’m working on, so now I’m re-thinking the plot and doing even more research. I’m so glad I checked the facts before making a big mistake.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    Like Keli, I love-love-love research! On one of my research trips to Alaska, my husband and I took a plane in to a grass strip landing on a Bering Sea island. We were slated to be met there by the people we were staying with, but they were late. We were standing there, just the two of us, on the “top” of the island, looking out at the Sea and getting a good chill from the Arctic wind. As we opened our luggage and got out survival gear so we could better handle the cold, my husband looked at me and said, “Why didn’t you set your novels in Hawai’i?”

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