Blogger: Rachel Kent
In my opinion, the best way to do research for a book is to have first-hand experience. Traveling to a location allows for a thorough knowledge of that place. And sharing the experiences that your characters go through is the best way to write accurately about them. It’s often not possible to actually take these research trips or to experience what your character is going through for many different reasons. In these circumstances, how do you do your research?
An author friend of mine has a quick deadline so she doesn’t have time to travel, but her story is set in Alaska. She’s never been to Alaska, but has been able to learn enough about her setting through interviewing her brother who has been there. He also has pictures for her to look at.
One of my clients is writing about the military even though she doesn’t have experience with military work. To do her research she has read books written by service men and women and has done some online research as well. The best way for her to do her research would be to visit a military base, but getting clearance for a visit like that is hard to do.
A few authors at our agency write stories about American history. There’s no way to go back in time to experience the locations or events that they are writing about. To find out about these events they read journals, letters, old newspaper clippings and historical documents. For more recent history interviews are possible research tools too.
What research have you had to do for your book? Did you run into any problems while researching? Ultimately, how did you find the information you needed?
I finally stumbled on a 19th century medical book for the home in an antique store! It’s been both a wonderful curiosity and a great treasure for my current WIP!
Other good sources for historical research are Google books for older out of print sources, and Ancestry.com. I’ve searched census records for name ideas. What fun! You can also get a feel for a community that way.
I love census records for name too!
I love research like that! 🙂
Researching names is so much fun! I love looking at the old lists.
My research was heavily aided by my local library, or “libarry” as my youngest says.
I had to do a huge amount of research simply because almost no one around these parts has a drop of working knowledge about Navajo history in 1890’s Arizona. I said “almost” because very good friend of mine is Native American and totally kicks butt with her cultural knowledge. She gave me the phone number if a tiny little hurricane named Helen Yazzie and Helen is an amazing historian in her own right.
I also poured over Navajo websites, which were great resources!
Ultimately? I hit the wall after I drained Google of their knowledge and then umm, was blessed to kind of go …elsewhere.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
You also, um, went to Arizona…and New Mexico and Oklahoma. Of course, it was in a different century, but I do cheer the fact that you took the time and expense to go to get a sense of the geography and people.
It’s so great that you have your friend as a resource. And I imagine that 1890’s Navajo history would be very difficult to research.
Because I am working on my first WIP, I choose locations that I have been too. Part of my story is contemporary and part right before World War II. This is a time period my grandparents are able to tell me about. Starting out I wanted to write what I know best.
I think we are lucky in this day in age to have connections with people and places all over the world. The library still holds the most research power for me.
What a great idea! Starting with what you know or can easily research is a great thing for a first book. That way you can focus in on the writing.
I usually ask people I know who have experienced it. Luckily, I write contemporary, so the historical research usually isn’t necessary.
For one of my future wips, which I want to set in the Nashville music scene, I’ve been watching the new TV show, Nashville. Not saying I love the plot or anything, but it gives me some feeling of being there, in it. I think we need to be careful of accuracy with stuff like this, but I’m just using it more for gathering sensory details I can use throughout the story, rather than technical details about how the music industry works, etc. That I will probably need to research a bit.
I wonder if you’ll be able to find a musician who will let you do an interview. 🙂 Sounds like it could be fun to research.
Ooo, great idea!
Your ideas are good, Rachel. 🙂 I write contemporary, so most of my research has been for things that happen or that my characters are interested in. Things like ballroom dancing, rock climbing and heart defects in children.
I took ballroom dance lessons earlier this year to know what my heroine would experience. I went to an indoor rock climbing place and interviewed an employee who is passionate about the activity. I want to try it, but I’m not sure my body will allow me to. 🙂 For the heart issue, I’ve done a fair amount of online research and talked with my doctor about it to gain greater insight.
Did you enjoy the ballroom dancing? I used to do ballroom dancing in junior high and high school. I really liked it but haven’t kept it up.
I did enjoy it, but it would have been more fun if my husband had been my partner. 🙂
I love research! 🙂 Yep, I’m a bit of a nerd…more specifically, I love to write and research for my historical fiction novels.
My current MS involves WWII and Nazi Germany. I was blessed to travel to Germany last November, which was a huge part of the inspiration for this novel.
Like you said though, I obviously cannot experience what it was like over there then (and I wouldn’t want to if I could!), but through reading memoirs, history books and letters, etc. I am able to gain a sense of time and place.
The Internet has definitely been a tool I can’t imagine not having while doing research. But even though I can Google search with the best of them, there are still some things that I cannot find and have to either leave out or make a guess how it was and not focus much on that information.
In my research, I do my absolute best to make my work as historically accurate as possible. I want readers to experience history through the storyline–to learn history while not realizing it. 🙂
Love your approach, Morgan, and I completely agree. Recently I read my boys a fiction book based on the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. We all learned so much!
I think when our emotions are involved in a story, it brings history to life in a special way. 🙂
That’s exactly how I like to learn my history. History classes are usually so boring–historical fiction is the best way for me to learn so I rely on the author to get me good information.
Mostly, I write about what I know and I can usually research what I don’t on-line or by interviewing friends and family. I’ve written a historical that was originally going to be set in the time of wood-fired cooking stoves (it’s more recent, now). Fortunately, there’s a lovely lady in my area who offers cooking classes that feature techniques like campfire cooking and cooking on a wood stove. I didn’t get to use the research (this time), but what fun!
How fun! Who would have thought that a local lady would teach campfire cooking classes?! How did you even find out about them? I wish we had something like that around here. I love camping and could use some hints on how to get the fire to cook food without burning the food.
You can probably find tips on Barbara’s site! I know she’s featured hearth cooking, and I bet it’s much the same. And if anyone is looking to research old-time cooking or music, she and her husband are priceless!
Thanks! I’ll check it out.
My WIP’s main character is an artist; I cannot finger paint. So…I took an art class. (And enlisted friends.) I researched artistic terminology, (thank you, Google), but the course was a fantastic, real-life classroom! My self-portrait scares young children.
“I cannot finger paint”?
I nearly spewed tea on the computer screen.
Honey, very few of us can finger paint, but we can all write characters who can!!
Although, I don’t want to brag too much, but I can draw stick people.
I’m so with you on the stick people. That’s why I don’t illustrate my own books. 🙂
I can draw stick people, but I guarantee the heads will be crooked, because I can’t draw a good circle either. 😉
Well. After a quick trip to the craft store for some new crayons…
I call it. "dancing like an Egyptian whilst laying down".
Don't hate me because I've just inspired millions.
Your napping Egyptian blows my stuff out of the Red Sea. Seriously, if Van Gough were my teacher he would lop of the other ear in frustration. I am pitiful.
Lol! Were you graded or was it a pass/fail kind of class?
Writing historical fiction has been rewarding and frustating. The research can be a killer, but in the end, it’s necessary. Our local library and Google books have been my lifeline to Colorado Springs and Florissant, CO in the 1870s.
For a book I was writing set during the time of Jesus, I found used copies of The Christ of the Gospels and Daily Life in the Time of Jesus to be helpful.
Those books about Jesus sound fascinating! Must have been interesting to research.
Like the other commenters, I use the Internet. But I also check out books from the library. If I have questions about a specific place, I ask my author loops to help out if possible. Google Earth is cool to “see” the terrain of a place. Also, I’m blessed to know people with many different occupations. They always share their knowledge. 🙂
Ooo! Google Earth! I never even thought about that as a tool. What a great idea.
The Internet has been a great source of information. I never have to leave my computer and go to my local library which does not have the information that I need for research. The information that I need is usually more available online.
Since part of my story takes place in Kashmir and Northern India, there is no chance that I will be visiting that area in the near future. I have talked to one person who visited near Kashmir but have yet to talk to anyone who has been to Kashmir. I have had discussions with an Indian about Kashmir.
Also, I have taken some online classes that have been very helpful for my research.
That would be a difficult trip. I’m always so thankful for the internet! I can’t imagine life without it now.
Might I suggest that the first place a writer should visit is a grammar and punctuation book and learn the English language. I’m so weary of reading books, both traditionally and self-published, that are riddled with errors. Not just books either. Just take a look at the revered NY Times. Sorry for the rant, but good research should begin at the foundation.
True! And if it’s too hard to do editors can be hired.
Because my novel is set 10 min. from home, it’s convenient to research the setting. However, I plan to have a few of the people who live in the town and are active in the community read it before submitting. In fact, I’m having lunch there today with a friend. Hey, it’s research. 🙂
I’ve never had a baby so I interviewed experts such as nurses, a paramedic (emergency birth scene in story), and of course new moms. My copy of What to Expect the First Year is becoming very dog-eared.
It’s been eons since I was a teen in a much different world than today. So I’ve been reading current YA novels to capture the dialogue and voice of the teen mom in my story. I also interviewed teen moms.
The librarian in me would be remiss not to remind you that most libraries have a wealth of research information available as e-sources. This information is accessible from home with your library card.
I could not live without my local librarian, Judy. You all deserve medals. 🙂
It’s great that you have found a way to research each aspect.
Libraries and librarians are both great research tools! Librarians are always so knowledgeable and if they don’t know something they can show you where to find the info.
Military spouse here.
I just want to say very few military bases require “clearance” to enter. Many are open to the public (they have museums and other attractions). It totally depends on the facility. Your client should call the base/post nearest to her and find out what the requirements are. The public relations office can help her connect with people.
Now, if there are no military facilities nearby and she can’t travel to one, that’s a different story. Just don’t confuse visiting a base with getting a security clearance.
I believe that to be incorrect. Most bases do indeed require clearance or blanket authorization such as retiree or member of armed forces serving at other location to visit. They most certainly are not “open to the public.”
And what Mike states here is what I’ve heard.
She’s writing about Navy SEALs so from what I understand it’s very hard to get clearance to talk to anyone.
As I said, it does depend on the particular base. But if the threatcon is Alpha, most bases really are open. Not every area of the base, of course. You usually stop in the visitor center at the main gate and get a pass.
SEALs and other Special Forces are a bit different, but you can still get a ton of information from the public relations office, and maybe even an interview.
Seriously, I’m not making this up. Call the base. Ask them. If your client can’t talk to a current Navy SEAL, she can maybe talk to a retired one, or another MOS that works with SEALS, like Marine ReCon or Navy EOD (my brother was EOD and he worked with SEALS all the time).
I believe you, Elissa. I’ll mention your suggestions to my client. 🙂
I always have a Google tab open on my browser. A few months ago, I stumbled over an antique book about early automobiles–written in 1902! The price tag was over $100, so I had to put it back. I went home and found the complete e-book on Googlebooks for FREE. Downloaded it as a PDF and sent it to my kindle. Though I’d love to own the paper copy, my checking account is very thankful for technology.
A few years ago I did a research trip to San Francisco for a novel I was writing. Last month, I was editing this WIP and couldn’t remember if a certain walking route went up-hill or down-hill. Since it’s difficult to figure that out on a road-map, I went to Google Maps and thanks to their street view feature, I “virtually” walked the character’s route.
I sound like an ad for Google. Don’t tell my husband. As a cartographer and database manager, he doesn’t approve of the way they steal data from government agencies. But for writing research, you can’t beat ’em.
I haven’t looked at the Google books much. I’ve heard there’s a wealth of free information on there.
I blogged a little while back about using Google Street View for setting in places I’ve never been – http://www.craigwturner.com/?p=130. I’ve found it to be an invaluable tool. Street View hopping is a hobby of mine.
Love it and would never have thought of doing that on my own.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
My adult novel is set in Brooklyn, N.Y. I am a Florida native without the funds to go on a research trip. Fortunately, a couple of resources have helped me. My parents were my greatest resource. Both were born in Brooklyn and lived there for over twenty-five years before moving to Florida. First, just listening to them talk helped me with dialogue, dialect and syntax. Secondly, my mom became my go-to person whenever I had a question. For example, I have a scene in the novel where a few characters go to Coney Island, so I asked my mom to tell me about the place. She did an incredible job at describing the experience of going on the Steeple Chase and the ferris wheel (it used to be one of the highest in the country). The best part, though, was her description of the french fries at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs stand. These french fries had to be special. She described them with so much senosry detail and enthusiasm! I used her description almost verbatim in the novel. Unfortunately both of my parents have passed on now, so I can’t consult them as I do revisions, but I have found the internet a great help. My parents moved from New York in about 1958. The novel is set in the 1960s, so I’ve checked some facts. Unfortunately, I can’t use anything about the Steeple Chase, as it was gone by the ’60s. Also I use Google Maps to get my details straight about neighborhoods. For example, I checked on the distance between my two main characters’ neighborhoods to see if one of the could ride a bicycle to his friend’s house. Also, I used the ground view to see if the character who lives in Bay Ridge could look out at the bay from a swing on his porch. While I was there, I checked out the styles of the houses in “his” neighborhood. I love being able to do a virtual walk-through of a neighborhood.
This virtual walk-through has helped me with my YA novel as well. Since it is a fantasy, I can’t go to the actual place, but since the story is heavily Celtic and particularly Irish, I have again used Google Map’s ground view to get a feel for a lonely country road in Ireland and to look at the buildings in a downtown area. Also, I have extensively used the internet to make sure that the flora and fauna I place in the story are consistent to Ireland. I’ve used both the internet and books to research Irish folklore and mythology and, again, my family has been a resource. My family has only been in the U.S. for two generations, so I’ve used both my family’s Irish culture and the stories that have been handed down in the family to help form the story. I grew up on stories of faeries, banshees and ghosts, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they–not vampires and werewolves–are the main characters in my story.
Thank you, Rachel, for the question.
No vampires or werewolves? Exciting! I see so many vampire and werewolf queries.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
I imagine you do! But they’re not allowed in my enchanted forest. 🙂
So many of my writings have come from my life, but recently I wrote about the Florida Everglades. I haven’t been there, so I depended a lot on the Internet for information about the area and its wildlife. I like to think it helped me to write about it intelligently.
If you ever get a chance to go you should! Very beautiful in a dangerous way. The swamp tours are fun.
I bet the internet has a lot to offer about the Everglades though.
Dale, my family and I visited the Everglades in February. We were only there one day, but you’re welcome to pick my brain if you’d like. 🙂
P. J. Casselman
My Angel Blood books take place in fifth century England. I’m not that old, so I had to research everything from food to indigenous animals present at that time. In order to do a blend of history and legend, I also needed to know both well enough to find common ground. I read several books, internet articles and spoke with some history professors.
My current WIP takes place in Boston. Though I lived there, it’s been a while. One great thing about Google maps is the ability to do street level looks. I drop the view to “street” and move up and down the blocks. A person could do it in Zurick, Paris or Moscow if they chose. What a great way to “be there.”
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
You’re not that old, P.J.? And here I thought you Merlin personally. Oh well, I’m disillusioned now.
Seriously, though, I totally agree about Google Earth. I will never have the money to visit the places I’d like to see, but Google Earth really does give me the feeling that I am there. One day, I visited a street near where my grandfather was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland and the county where my grandmother grew up in Ireland. I got chills being able to see their world.
Fifth century England would be a research challenge!
I’m amazed at how many of you use Google maps. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of that before.
As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve used a hint I read a while back: look at paintings from the period to see details of dress, furnishings, buildings, scenery. A few accurate details can go a long way to painting a picture.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
Great idea, Colleen! Thank you for passing it along.
Ah, paintings! Great idea.
Carole Lehr Johnson
Love the travel research! I am not always able to go to England–my favorite theme in my writing projects–but it really is the best way. I have been to the U.K. three times and have reservations for a fourth trip in 2013. There’s nothing like seeing it for yourself, and I thank God for allowing me to be able to do this. I won’t always be able to do so and will have to rely on all of the sources mentioned in the other replies. After finishing my first inspirational contemporary manuscript, I felt led to write historical fiction. Since research helps me also learn about the history of an era, I can really get into it more. As head of the Genealogy Department at my local library, I have found a wealth of information right at my fingertips. If you write historical fiction, you may want to check out your local genealogy room. Thanks for all the tips!
I think a lot of people aren’t aware that the libraries have genealogy departments. I only know of ours because we went on a school field trip there back in Jr. high. It’s actually in a separate annex building, not even inside of the library.
I’m just a little offended that no one has asked me to do their cover art? Hello?
I got creative when researching my book set in Yorkshire since a trip there wasn’t possible. Luckily I found lots of helpful sites on the Bronte Country and was able to email with a woman living in England. I spent a lovely afternoon in a used bookstore and came home loaded with travel guides and Bronte commentaries. I ordered books on the language and quickly decided I had to be very careful with the dialect!
But the most disconcerting experience I had was watching old episodes of All Creatures Great and Small. I vaguely remember my grandmother watching the show, and I knew the books were set in Yorkshire. One evening while my husband was gone for work, I put the kids to bed and pulled up the show on Netflix. Next thing I know, I’m sitting wide-eyed as the actor gives a cow a very close and personal exam. Now that’s dedication to craft! The acting craft, that is. I turned that episode off. Couldn’t take the graphic content! 😉
Jennifer Major @Jjumping
My sister and I were DEEPLY in love with Tristan.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
As was I. James wasn’t hard to look at either, and he was very sweet. I can’t read the novels now without picturing the actors.
Lol! I would have had to turn that off as well.
Rachel, I have the privilege of visiting the location of my story in February. I cannot express how excited I am (must resist the cheerleading move). Now begins the process of researching the museums and sites that I must see while there. I want to use my time wisely, which probably means I will be hanging out with the local librarian a great deal.
Modern day Key West is quite different than it was in the 1830’s, so rifling through the tourist traps to find more details for my WIP will be a wonderful adventure.
Have a wonderful trip! I went to Key West twenty years ago. I would love to go again some day.
It’s helpful to find someone in your subject area to read your manuscript for accuracy as well. I, too, have a Navy SEAL story and had a SEAL wife as a reader lined up.
Some of us are big sticklers on this issue. I read a novel the other night by a “big name” CBA writer that I enjoyed except he screwed up the military stuff.
He made assumptions about a romance that I doubt would happen even today. 2/3 of the way through the book, I came upon this little tale and thought, “he doesn’t know anything about military life.”
Ruined my enthusiasm for the book, completely.
Today, I’ve been in research contact with a woman with the American Steamship Society, learning facts about my story. I’d already written that chapter, but I’ve had to go back and revise. MY assumptions, logical though they were, didn’t turn out to be true.
But at least I caught it! 🙂
I don’t know enough about history or the military to even notice when something isn’t right and that is the danger of bad research. I take what is written as fact when it could have been invented. I shouldn’t assume, but I guess I trust authors a little too much.
I appreciate those of you who work hard to get the facts right! 🙂
Sharon K Mayhew
I’ve done quite a few interviews for my hf mg. It’s set in WWII, so luckily there are people around that lived in that period. I visited museums the last time I was in England and took loads of photos. I used the BBC, city and business websites. I discovered one of my blog friends actually lived in the town part of my story takes place, which is a great asset. Historical societies are a great place to find information too.
(I did several posts with lots of photos on Alaska in July and August. If your author friend would like to check them out or ask me questions that I might be able to answer.)
I’ll let her know! Thanks, Sharon.
Youtube rules! 🙂 When I have a specific place in mind that I know of, but haven’t actually been there, I google it like crazy and then search it on youtube. It’s always great when someone uploads a tour around it!
Another research tool I wouldn’t have thought of! Thanks for sharing.
I write historical fiction set in the Alaskan gold rush. I live in Alaska, so I’ve been able to travel to the settings, and websites and books help. But my favorite sources are photos from the time period. It’s amazing what kinds of details you can pick up from pictures.