Research - How to use it, but not let it use you (Melissa Robbins)

My husband calls me the Queen of Useless Knowledge. How did I acquire such a title? My bum kicking talent in Trivial Pursuit may be a reason, but how did I acquire the skill to pull facts out of my head for pie wedges? I've always been one of those kids that enjoyed learning new things. Growing up in Washington, D.C. certainly influenced that. My parents were a factor as well. If I didn't know something, my parents would say, “Look it up.” and point to the collection of encyclopedias on the shelf in our living room. If I had a report of some kind, my parents took me to the National Geographic section of our local used bookstore.

Being the Queen of Useless Knowledge comes in handy as a writer. Details are important. Readers want to be transported whether they go down the street, across the world, or back in time. Most of the time, those details take up two sentences and in a 75,000 words story, that doesn't seem worth it, but if you get those two sentences wrong, a reader might very well cast aside your book.

If you are like me, you hate the phrase, “Write what you know.” A fellow writer once told me and I wish I could remember her name, said, “It's not 'write what you know', but write what you want to know.” So where does one go to find information on a particular subject for your story? Sources I found particularly helpful are:

Non-fiction books – as a writer of mysteries set in World War Two, I have three books alone on American men who flew with the Royal Air Force. I have one shelf in my library dedicated to WW2.

Fiction books – take advantage of those previous authors who slaved over the research. Just be sure to verify their information with other sources. They are, after all, fiction writers, so the truth can be stretched a little.

Personal Letters and Interviews – To know what life was really like, look at personal letters or interview people who were there. Can't interview someone from 1865? Check out the National Archives. Did you know you can search their records online? This is also where the non-fiction books come in handy. In a lot of these books, the author already interviewed key players.

Movies – Can be good or bad sources. We are talking about Hollywood here. Battle of Britain starring Laurence Oliver is a pretty good source for that era, but Pearl Harbor has been bashed for its discrepancies by historians, critics, and the people who lived it.

Museums – A no brainer, but you may be surprised what you will find. Over spring break, I sweet-talked my family into visiting the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. While we were there, a volunteer asked me if I wanted to hear a story about female pilots. I said yes and discovered that the volunteer, Charlie was an American WW2 fighter pilot stationed in England. Should I mention now that the hero in my mystery is an American WW2 fighter pilot stationed in England? Score! Fortunately, Charlie was only too happy to share his stories and amazing photographs with me. You probably heard my exchange student and I sighing at the picture of Charlie in his uniform. He also gave me more sources about his former fighter squadron to look at online. When my family dragged me away two hours later, I had enough personal information to fill a book or two.

With that in mind, there is also the risk of putting too much of your research into your story. If your readers really wanted to know about a particular subject, they would have reached for a textbook. The trick is to weave your information into your story without the readers realizing they just learned something. How does a writer do that? If I want to mention a particular subject in my story, I put the characters and my reader smack dab in the middle of it. Children being evacuated was significant in WW2. My heroine experiences it by having her little cousin be part of it. I broke up the event in two parts in different chapters, so to not bog down the reader with facts. One short paragraph to describe the scene and I use dialogue sprinkled in to convey the rest. Sometimes I just use dialogue.

Research is great, but don't let it take you over and no matter how much fun it is to look at photographs of dashing Royal Air Force pilots, you do have a story to write.

Miscellaneous Madness (Roxann Delaney)

Happy Earth Day!

Some thoughts on this month's topic and a commercial, of sorts.

While research is very important to a writer, there comes a time when the writing must begin.  It's so easy to become buried in interesting information, whether it's about another time or something current.  It's so easy to immerse ourselves in the study of what we're preparing to write about, better known as research.  The word itself has a lofty sound.  After all, research is what science uses to help us live longer and make our lives better.  Research can also become a great procrastination tool.  It can legitimately--at least in our minds--become a reason not to write.  Or one more reason not to write, because we're writers, artists, creators, and we'll use any excuse we can find to keep from battling the demons that keep us from reaching our goals.

Demons?  Definitely.

In Do the Work, Stephen Pressfield expands the title with, "Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way."  We are our own demons.  Sometimes I think we create our own demons to fight the real demons.  In the end, we're the ones who lose.

But we can win!

In the book, Pressfield addresses research, and it's pretty clear he knows exactly what we can do with it.  Here's what he says:

You're allowed to read three books on your subject.  No more.
No underlining, no highlighting, no thinking or talking about the documents later.  Let the ideas percolate.
Let the conscious do its work.
Research can become Resistance.  We want to work, not prepare to work.

And now for the commercial.  Do the Work is a FREE ebook/digital/Kindle download at Amazon.  You don't need a Kindle or ereader of any kind.  All you need is a computer, and since you're reading this on a computer, you have no excuse not to get this book.  It's a quick read.  It's an encouraging read.  It's must read for anyone with a goal...and especially writers.

P.S.  I warned you that there'd be a little madness. ☺

Poking and Prying with a Purpose (Penny Rader)

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. – Zora Neale Hurston

I enjoy research; in fact research is so engaging that it would be easy to go on for years, and never write the novel at all. – Helen Dunmore

I’m one of those people who loves, loves, LOVES to do research. I played online…uh, I mean I researched online how to do research for fiction writing. Here’s a smattering of info I found about researching all sorts of fiction, including contemporary, historical, crime, sci-fi, along with snippets from the articles. This is just a small portion of what’s out there – I could so easily fill an entire month’s worth of posts.

10 Research Resources for Fiction Writers (Tina Hunter)
  • Google Scholar: This is a specialized search engine from Google that will spit out only get academic results (and therefore more reliable?) for your searches.
  • Scirus: A search engine just for scientific articles and publications.
  • I know there is wikipedia but you have to remember that ANYONE can edit a wiki, where as the encyclopedia is the place to go for fact checked data.
  • Library of Congress: Science Reference Services: Need I say more?
  • PubGene: A database of genes, biological terms and organisms.
  • GoPubMd: Science and medical search results can be found here.
  • Godchecker: A neat tool that can help you keep your gods and goddess’ straight.
  • Sci-Fi Search: A customized google search that will bring back results relevant to Science Fiction.
  • Sacred Text Archive: An archive of free books on religion, mythology, folklore and more.
  • Any of the SpaceRef Websites: SpaceRef has “21 news and reference web sites are designed to allow both the novice and specialist alike to explore outer space and Earth observation.”

10 Research Tips for Fiction Writers (Sheryl Clark)
  • no matter what information you find or where it is, record the source
  • don't rely on the internet for everything
  • even books can be wrong
  • interview people, if you can, and if it's relevant
  • collect anything and everything
  • go to the places you are writing about, or something similar
  • use the libraries all around you
  • don't think that if you're not writing historical fiction then you don't need to research
  • don't forget movies
  • you can also read published novels set in your era

Fiction Writing: Research is Just a Road Trip (Harry McLeod )
One of the 7 Deadly Fears of Writing is the fear of research. Either you love researching or you hate it, but a realistic novel can’t avoid it. The details you add to your novel are what make the story credible and help suspend disbelief. …
Put yourself in your character’s shoes while you read the web pages, examine the pictures, talk to a local or visit a new city. Observe the people who live there. Wander the streets and see the setting through your character’s eyes.
And when you write, write what your character sees – not what you see.

Law and Fiction: Getting the Facts Straight (Columns by Leslie Budewitz)
Here are a few of the topics covered in her columns:
  • Federal and State Court Terminology
  • Overview of a Trial
  • Spousal Privilege
  • Search Warrants
  • Criminal Sentencing
  • Lawyers and New Technology
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Stolen Evidence

Historical Research for Fiction Writers (Catherine Lundoff)
  • Learn to love the learning process that comes with it. Think of yourself as a detective or an archaeologist sifting through clues and analyzing data.
  • Use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for both perspective and immediacy.
  • Double-check everything. Mistakes will reflect on your work even if it is the fault of your source.
  • Hand in hand with double-checking comes evaluating your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up.
  • Use archaeological records, art, music and alternative resources to round out your research.

Research a Contemporary Novel? (Sandra Leesmith)
  • Research setting, careers, social conditions, and events to deepen plot and characters.
  • Find people with experience in career or situations you are portraying. Interview them and/or have them proof your wip.
  • Visit sites similar to your settings.
  • Use the Internet, university and library.
  • Authenticate your information.

Research for Fiction Writing (Apryl Duncan)
Beginning your research can feel overwhelming. Start with these basics:
  • Character Names
  • City
  • Careers
  • Language

Research Method for Crime Fiction Writing (Rachel Shirley)
Books can be found on all matters of crime issues, including:
  • The workings of the forensics procedures
  • Psychology of the criminal mind
  • Books about real life serial killers
  • Demographics of crime, such as incidents of burglary crime, theft crime, murder crime and youth crime.
  • Historical crime
  • Motives for committing a crime
  • Studies into how crime affects families and children
  • Counseling services for victims and their families (not forgetting the criminal)

note from Penny: I clicked on one of the research links and found this on the U.S. Department of Justice blog: Celebrating National Crime Victims’ Rights Week . There’s also a Careers link. All sorts of info available for creating characters and plots.

Road Trip Research (Glynna Kaye)
(A few examples of questions she writes in a 5x7 inch notebook):
  • What’s it smell like?
  • What businesses line the streets?
  • What endangers the area besides snowstorms and fire?
  • What’s on people’s porches and decks? In yards?
  • What’s the “feel” of the area?
  • What am I seeing/feeling in person that I DIDN’T expect to see/feel?
  • What am I NOT seeing/feeling in person that I DID expect to see/feel?

…consider doing a few of these on your research road trip:
  • Tour businesses.
  • Attend fairs and festivals.
  • Get out of the car and walk.
  • Periodically jot down 1-word/1-line impressions.
  • Stop by the Chamber of Commerce for maps, guide books, real estate guides.
  • Turn on the radio and TV to find out what locals are hearing & watching.
  • Open up the yellow pages in your hotel room; use your camera’s macro lens to take close-ups of particularly interesting ads.
  • Pick up illustrated flora & fauna guide books of the area.
Do you have favorite research sources or methods? How do you organize your research so you can find it when you need it? Please share!

When to Quit

Yup, I know it is hard to quit once you get started doing research. After all, it sounds so important. Writerly even. But, you have to know when to quit and actually begin the process of writing. Yup, remember writing? The reason you're doing the research?

To be clear about the goal of research, unless of course, your researching is a hobby, like knitting, you need to remember WHY you're researching.

I once had a rainy day opportunity to do an in depth interview with a used book store owner. (Translation: It was a rainy day and neither one of us wanted to do anything but talk.) She is a fan of my writing, so I thought that asking some questions might glean some usable information as well as while away some time being the focus of someone's attention. Ah, yea me. (sigh)

Oh, back to the story...I asked her what in particular she liked about The Proving Zone: Tory's Story. She said it was the little bits sprinkled through it of real things. She said quite often authors overdo the facts and the story gets boring. But a few, sprinkled around, stand out. (Kind of a less-is-more thing.) When I asked for specifics, I was surprised. Evidently, she had pretty well memorized the book and remembered details I didn't remember putting in until she expanded a bit. For her, it was the survival details. Since the book is survival adventure romance, the description of how to get water in the desert and how to get drinkable water out of cactus pulp was interesting. That deserts get cold after dark, she also found interesting. (She never mentioned the small flesh-eating/carrion lizards, but then they might not be everyone's cup of tea!)

She didn't like repeats. When I asked her what she meant, she said, that if you have to start the campfire by looking for wood and then tinder, she could follow that every time a person fixed a fire that the same applied. The author didn't need to go through describing the process every time. I asked her if her customers felt the same. Affirmative.

It was very interesting to talk to a person who owns a used book store because people who buy used books tend to read more of what they really like. The books stay on the shelf so much longer or certain books are asked for more often. Since the excitement of advertising or best-selling books are not an issue in used books, readers tend to please their interests more. They shop longer.

Used books also introduce readers to new-to-them authors at a price the risk is less. A used book store also is a treasure trove for readers just discovering an author. By the title traffic in her store, the used book store owner had her finger on the pulse point of which authors wrote more satisfying stories.

Yikes! Satisfying stories? Yes. Satisfying stories get talked about and as the information spreads, those books cycle off the shelves and back again slowly or never to return. A used book store owner knows that books that never return probably aren't being burned but are being kept! Books that are on a fast spin through aren't as good because the reader brought them back for credit on their next used book purchase.

So, when do you quit doing research? When you have the story in your head well enough to begin, and before you feel the need to over do it with all the wonderfulness you have discovered. Our readers might like the worlds we make, but they like the stories that happen in them more.

Let the story out....

Promotional Research

Okay, you have written your book and, hopefully, sold it somewhere. Now for the serious work of promoting that book...or all of your published works. Promotion is not for the weak of spirit.

There are so many facets to promotion, but I'm just going to list some links in a few categories on the topic. I have used many of these places for various reasons. And I know there are many more to choose from. I hope that some of these may help you when you reach this point in your writing career.

For Cover Ideas:

123 RF Royalty Free Stock Photos
iStockphoto Royalty Free Stock Photos
Romance Novel Covers

For Promotional Items for Authors:
Cafe Press
Earthly Charms
Gifts for Writers
Goddess Fish Promotions
Print Place

For Discussion About Promotion:
Marketing for Romance Writers
Promo Only
Promotion Loop Schedule
Romance Author Promo Call Blog
Romance Novel Events
Romance Promo

And, of course, shamelessly promote your newest release every chance you get.

Coming May 16 from Black Velvet Seductions: Their Lady Gloriana


Curiosity is why I like to do research. But it ends when the itch is scratched and suddenly I'm on to the next subject.

Necessity is why I have to do research. Like this week. The Farm Bureau says farmers have until November, 2011 to finish filing their SPCC plans. After a day and a half, I found out I already did that a few years ago. It might need updating, but basically I have to research changes if any. Geese. Another jump start to my heart and a nothing ending.

But last week it was a day and a half on the Clark transmission test pressures and could I find out if there is any interior port valves involved in this model?

The week before that; research on the best way to make sure paperwork on a workman's comp claim is best facilitated. That time only a day was lost.

Then, I write. What do I write? Futuristic. What research is necessary? None. I get to make it all up. Then the OOOOPs! factor happens. I'm going to write more than one set in the same place. Dang it! I didn't make notes. Now I have to research myself and past work to make sure the current work is...well...current and correct.

So, when it comes to research I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love to investigate and get to the bottom of things and then transition that knowledge into usable stuff, but I hate the time it takes to redo research because some yohooo (which sometimes is myself) didn't get done what they needed to with it the first time or is calling for a redo.

Is there a soul who really likes rework?

On the other hand, my family threatens to put on my tombstone 'Repository of Unnecessary Information'.

Happy hunting....

Contemporary Research (Roxann)

Some might wonder why a writer would need to research current information for a book set in the here and now, but it can be just as important as information in an historical novel.  Luckily most of the hunting can be done online.  Some authors go directly to the source, such as a fireman or arson investigator for a suspense novel involving a character who's setting fires.  (I have a friend who did this and was rewarded with learning small details she might not have discovered.)  Medical information is often needed if a character is a doctor or nurse or other health provider, or if a character is a patient or has an accident or illness.  Make your character come to life by knowing as much about his or her life as you can learn.

Settings are another topic that contemporary writers frequently research.  If a story takes place in an area--city or countryside--that's familiar, there's very little to learn.  But if a story takes place in an area that's several thousand miles away, it's smart to do as much research as possible, discovering everything from landscape, population, activities, transportation, and even the weather.

A short list of my research topics includes:
  • Rodeo and everything related, including real rodeo locations and dates, types of equipment used and for what events, etc.
  • Driving time from one place to another throughout the U.S.
  • Casinos and casino security
  • CASA volunteers and child advocacy
  • Cherokee names and traditions, and history of reservations
  • ACL (knee) surgery, physical therapy types and uses
  • Qualifications for joining the military, Marine Corps Special Ops
  • Cruise dates and places
  • Education length and specifics for a law degree, medical degree, etc.
Why do we spend so much time on research?  Readers of contemporary novels expect accuracy, and some will quickly point out when something isn't right.  Some research is as simple as asking a friend about their own experience, or as complicated as searching for photos of an area or place during a specific season for accurate descriptions.  Some research is broad (career), while other research may be for the answer to a single, simple answer (brands of motorcycles).  The more I research, the more comfortable I become with the topic, but when all is said and done, only about 5% is used in the storytelling.

We live in a wonder period of time when researching is much easier than it was in the past.  With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse, we can learn almost everything about anything.  Computers have made researching easier, but it all comes down to knowing how to look for what you need.  If you aren't proficient at using search engines, work on it.  Knowing what words or phrases to use will help make your researching go more smoothly.

The only problem I find with doing research is the ability to STOP!  It can definitely become addictive. Research all you want and even more than you need.  You'll have fun and learn at the same time!

Research-- Love it or hate it? J Vincent

As a writer of historical fiction books research is a guaranteed part of my writing life. In fact it is frequently necessary for me to stifle the urge to continue researching a topic. Research is like a treasure hunt. There are clues to ferret out, hints to follow, and occasionally a true treasure lode. What could be more exciting? Plainly then, I fall into the “love it” camp.

What do I research? My stories are set anywhere from 1760 to 1820. Some would say that this spread of years saw little change but think a moment, The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the spread of the British Empire, the Louisiana Purchase occurred during this time spread— I could go on and on. The fashion plate below gives examples of ladies’ dress from 1760 to 1860. While the detail in such a small photo isn’t great there is enough to see the problem in describing dress without research.

What do I research? Almost everything. First I choose a year or spread of years. My Honour series is set during the Napoleonic war in Spain and Portugal which means1808-1814. For the history of that part of the Napoleonic wars I have Charles Oman’s seven volumes on the war plus many other books by men who actually took part in the war. These cover anything from British army or cavalry units to battle strategy to weapons to uniforms and everything in between including the French point of view. Next I decided which segment of the British and/or French army to use by checking which were involved in battles for a particular year. From there I select which part of Portugal or Spain will be occupied and research terrain, weather, flora and fauna.

Google and other search engines play a large part in my research. They can help find information or the source for the needed information. There is always a jolt of pleasure when I find that “needle in the haystack” I was seeking.

I take online classes in topics to increase my knowledge on my period. Early this month I participated in The British Royal Navy 1770-1815 offered online by the Beau Monde Acadame. You don’t have to be a member of the Beau Monde or any other group to participate in the class. I take classes from a variety of groups.

I also collect links to information such as the weather or calendars for the 1800’s or fashion. The amount of information online is amazing—with the usual caveat of always having more than one source for a particular piece of information. I was surprised to learn that Georgette Heyer, the queen of Regency for many, invented several “Heyerisms” which others used believing her an impeccable source. Naturally I’m drawing a blank on those at the moment. One link is for an Etymological Dictionary which is useful for finding out if a word existed in 1810. Take “chit” which in regency speak is a young girl/woman This dictionary brought back three meanings, the most relevant being chit (2) "small child," 1620s, originally "young of a beast" (late 14c.); unrelated to chit (1); perhaps connected to kitten.

Joanna Waugh’s site with Resources for Readers and Writers of Regency fiction. She has a tone of good research links.

Find the weather information fascinating! Want to know if you have a full moon on a given night? Use this link from the US Navy Time Service Department if you need to know sunrise or sunset for a given day in a given city at any given time—past to present. It has a page for US cities and another for foreign cities.
Sun and Moon Data for One Day The following information is provided for London Friday, 2 March 1811
Begin civil twilight 05:45 Sunrise 06:06
Sunset 18:13 End civil twilight 18:33

Moonset 15:30 on preceding day
Moonrise 04:01
Moon transit 10:14
Moonset 16:27
Moonrise 04:57 on following day
Phase of the Moon on 22 March: waning crescent with 6% of Moon's visible disk illuminated. New Moon 24 March 1811 at 14:18 Universal Time.

How do I research? Good old fashioned research skills with high tech searches added in for facility. The danger is enjoying research work tooooooo much and not getting back to writing!

A Quick Note (Rox Delaney)

Reese is busy with family visiting for a couple of weeks, so she's been excused from blogging this month. I'm going to miss her usual humor, but family is much more important.

Our blog turned two years old on Friday!  For all the WARA members who have participated during that time, pat yourselves on the back and have some chocolate!  And thanks to all of our visitors for stopping in over the past two years, too. You've made our blog even more special. ☺

Not only is this month the blog birthday, but it's also WARA's anniversary.  We'll be celebrating it at our next meeting on April 10, so there's a lot for us to be thankful for this month.  Here's hoping April is a great month for everyone! 

The value of friends

I almost forgot to blog today. Yesterday was my cousin's funeral. I had to hurry home afterwards because my hubby needed an MRI of his brain. Long story short. It was a lovely funeral and the MRI had to be postponed. All of this got me thinking about my friends.

My husband is my best friend. He's been that for as long as I've known him, even during those times when I wanted to part his hair with a frying pan. My daugher, too, has become a dear friend after some rocky years as a teenager.

My cousin Kay was a childhood friend. That's not a picture of us, but I wish I had one like it. We drifted apart over our married lives, but when we reconnected during her illness, it was as if those years were only a long weekend and we were laughing and giggling like girls again. How funny that we can pick up a friendship right where we put it down. It's one of the magical things about having friends. I know when I meet Kay in heaven it will be exactly the same. All giggles and joy and none of the sorrow that touches us here.

My WARA friends mean the world to me, too. Reese and I joined at the same time. I won't say how many years ago that was, but I value her friendship today as I did in the begining. Roxann was there to mentor me at the start and I can't thank her enough. Starla, too, shared her wisdom with a newbie in the early years. All these people, and many more, (you know who you are), have been friends to me and my support both in and outside of my career. I want to thank all of you for that.

So tell me about your friends. What's your best friend's name? How did you meet? What's the best way to say thanks for being my friend.