Taming the Research Beast

By Joanne Rock

Admit it.  Sometimes the thought of researching your next story makes you cringe.  Even authors who look forward to the research process as time off from the daily grind of page production can experience frustrations at a task that requires time, patience and a well-connected librarian.  Too many of us have run into the head-scratching confusion of zipping online for a quick answer only to unearth contradictory information.  Soon hours disappear in a cyber labyrinth as you follow one dead-end lead after another.

Today’s authors can hardly afford that kind of down time when we’re often expected to write lots—quickly.  Faster research becomes a necessity.  And what about the times a surprise opportunity comes down the pike?  Knowing you can research swiftly—and well—enables you to say yes to those extra projects.

I happen to love research.  In theory.  If I’ve set aside a few days or even weeks for thorough investigations, time spent in the library or knee-deep in source material feels like diving deep into a creative well, a refreshing experience sure to send me back to reality with new story ideas.  But most of my research isn’t accomplished in that kind of ideal artistic retreat.  The more likely scenario is me tearing my hair out during chapter six because I don’t know some core facts for my story and cursing all the while my Muse huffs indignantly at the hold-up.

What can you do to keep research streamlined and effective, even semi-pleasurable?  See what a few veterans in the field had to say about their approach to taming the research beast and you just might overhaul your own approach to this compulsory component of every writer’s career.

 Know What You Need

Your first safeguard against getting lost in a research mire is narrow your search into manageable bites.  Historical author Kate Bridges (The Commander, Harlequin Historicals) says she divides her material into two groups– plot-hinging research and incidental research. “Incidental research often evolves as the novel progresses. I may shift my timeline, and no longer need the fall colors for the Rockies, but the spring. And perhaps a planned Regency dinner doesn’t happen—you might turn it into a formal ball and it’s now important to know who would have been allowed to dance with whom. I’ve learned through experience, and a lot of wasted effort, not to invest too much time in incidental research up front.”

Writing fantasy, Deborah Hale has found her research time is better spent focusing on what she calls “first principles” rather than particulars.  “Rather than knowing the wheres and whens of a particular historical war, I need to know generalities about war, such as what are the most frequent root causes, elements of strategy, etc.  When I was writing The Destined Queen (Luna, August 2005) I had to figure out how a small force might defeat a much larger occupying army.  Fortunately my husband has read a lot of military history and was able to point me in the direction of sources like SunTsu’s Art of Warfare.”

Every romance sub genre requires certain bodies of specialized knowledge.  Many authors keep extensive personal libraries of reference material pertinent to their writing niche in order to ease the information quest.  But if a trip to the library beckons, try minimizing your time spent wandering around the stacks by ordering resources online.  Some libraries will assemble the requested material ahead of time and email you when the books are ready.  Although, Dawn Atkins (Don’t Tempt Me, Harlequin Blaze, May 2006) notes, even with a timesaving plan in place, her research for a book on a sex resort for committed couples who’ve lost the spark brought a few unique challenges.  “Checking out library books this time was a tad embarrassing– Sexual Ecstasy, The Sex-Starved Marriage and I’m Not in the Mood, which required an explanation to my husband.”

Reining in the Information Explosion

Perhaps the most cumbersome part of research is not sitting in the library or doing online reading so much as making sense of the information overload yielded by these investigations.  How do authors organize their research into useful—retrievable—files during the writing process?

Cheryl St. John (“Almost a Bride” in Wed Under Western Skies anthology, May 2006) uses a three-ring binder system.  “I use a binder holding the current research info, pictures of my story people, character grids, my brainstorming notes, the synopsis, a family tree if needed, maps, floor plans of settings, and my list of twenty-five things that could happen.”

Inspirational author Innis Grace (The Stained Glass Window, Five Star) takes this approach a step further.  “I invested in a small, inexpensive book binding machine.  Then I have my own book to refer to not only on one novel, but for those in the future should the timeline overlap.”

Author Lyn Stone (Straight Through The Heart, March 2006) finds research organization crucial in making the jump between her contemporaries and historicals, personalizing notes with her own commentary layered throughout to make the material all the more relevant.  “I love maps. I draw the routes right on them, mark the settings, tear out or print off photos of the places and tack them up.”

Notes can take more prominently visual forms, however.  When Colleen Collins wrote a recent novel (The Perfect Girlfriend, May 2006, Mills & Boon), she opted to have her research permanently displayed.  “Before I wrote anything, I ripped out a ton of photos that reminded me of my main characters and glued them on two big pieces of cardboard (one for the hero, one for the heroine).  Then I picked words that described each character and wrote these on each cardboard as well.  As I started writing, I propped up the cardboards and would glance at them for inspiration.”

What if the thought of all that organization makes you break out in hives?

Vicki Lewis Thompson (Talk Nerdy to Me, February 2006, St. Martin’s Press) has an alternative.  “I hate research.  But I love bookstores, so when necessary I take myself off to my local B&N, indulge in some frothy coffee drink, and buy out the magazine section.  I’m a visual learner, and there are magazines on so many subjects.  If it’s a setting I need, many of the states have a magazine devoted to that state.  Some cities do, too.  That’s how I take the pain out of research.”

 You’ve Got Questions. They’ve Got Answers.

Sometimes answers are hard to find in a book or magazine, or even in the wealth of information available online.  What do savvy authors do when they don’t have time to wade through pages of technical information for the material they need?  Romantic suspense author Catherine Mann (Blaze Of Glory, July 2006, HQN) goes directly to the source.  “Regardless of what you’re researching, it’s helpful to have face to face time chatting with an expert.  Professionals in any field of study often string words together about the subject in a different fashion, and replicating some of those patterns for your character can add a flavor of authenticity beyond the inclusion of dry facts.”

Kathleen O’Reilly (Looking for Mr. Goodbunny, July 2006, Downtown Press) agrees.  “I have emailed airline mechanics, astrophysicists (and got a very nice article in a Department of Energy publication), diamond cutters, and life coaches.  I wrote about an undercover cop and read Donnie Brasco for research.”  Although, Dawn Atkins cautions, be careful how you frame your questions.  “I also find that you get the most efficient results with experts by asking them if something you want to happen could happen. This is better than asking them how it usually goes. They tend to get bogged down in the details and minutiae of their world and the interview drags on and on.”

Where do authors find those kinds of real life contacts?  Cindi Myers (The Birdman’s Daughter, April 2006, Next) has an idea.  “I have contacted experts through websites, specialized bulletin boards and Profnet (www.profnet.com) Profnet allows you to post a request for help in locating a specific type of expert. You post a brief message about who you are and what you’re looking for and the request goes out to thousands of PR firms, universities, professional organizations, etc. With luck you get replies back in your mailbox of people who think they can help you. Then you can call or email and interview them. Because they’ve volunteered, they’re usually very cooperative.”

Fantasy author Laura Resnick, who writes for Tor and Luna (Disappearing Nightly, December 2005), finds she often needs that kind of personal contact for expert advice.  “When I started writing traditional heroic fantasy (a.k.a. sword-and-sorcery), where I do a lot of exotic weapons, it took time to find information about how characters who used such weapons on a daily basis would care for them, travel with them, and fight with them. I discovered many sources treat such objects as historical artifacts or collectors’ items rather than as daily tools. I find it helpful to seek out specialized societies, hobbyists, demonstrations, dealers, and martial arts group for opportunities to touch weapons, talk to people about how they’re used and how to care for one as a daily tool, etc. Taking classes, seminars, even private lessons has been really useful.”

Some authors find their expert sources closer to home.  Carolyn Davidson (Redemption, January 2006, HQN) gathers ideas from family.  “My mother and grandmother both told stories by the hour and demonstrated cooking and preserving in an old fashioned manner.  I learned to cook at age 12 on a wood-burning cook stove, sticking my hand in the oven to test for the proper temperature for baking bread and coffee cake, and pumped water into a sink from a red pitcher pump to do dishes and wash up my assorted nieces and nephews, who lived with my eldest sister and her husband on a farm.”  That kind of first hand experience lends authenticity to books set in the nineteenth century.

Even with the best of strategies, problems are bound to crop up.  Victoria Bylin (Midnight Marriage, January 2006, Harlequin Historicals) hit a research wall in writing one of her books.  “When I wrote Of Men And Angels, I ran into a glitch.  The book started with a stagecoach accident and was set on a peach farm.  Halfway into the ms, I realized that the railroad had arrived in Grand Junction prior to the beginning of the peach business.  I fixed the problem by knocking down a bridge and having the stagecoach make an emergency mail run.”

Jill Monroe’s (Share The Darkness, April 2006, Harlequin Blaze) research glitch was more rooted in Real Life obstacles.  “I keep a notebook for written notes, but I usually transcribe these into a word document as soon as possible since I’ve lost days looking for a misplaced notebook.  It’s easier to back up my computer files, which I do every Thursday.”

And sometimes there are simply no good answers available, as Diane Perkins discovered.  “In writing my October 2005 release, The Marriage Bargain (Warner), I could not find a description of the inside of a mausoleum anywhere. I even ordered a booklet about English mausoleums from England, but it only showed the outside.”

Patricia Frances Rowell has run into similar walls.  “Often I find that, no matter how many sources I find for a subject, they all say the same thing–and not what I want to know.  For example, how did Napoleon get off of Elba?  We all know he did and what happened next, but I never did find out how he pulled it off.”

In cases like these, writers agree the best solution is to offer up a plausible scenario that works within the context of the story.  Remember Dawn Atkins’ question for the experts?  “Could this scenario work?  Could it happen this way?”  Offering readers believable answers ensures they’ll remain grounded in the story.

The Big Payoffs

Whether research is a pleasure or a pain, writers remain committed to the process to produce the best books possible.  Readers hunger for depth and complexity in their stories that can often only be obtained by writers reading outside their usual realm, interviewing experts and hunting down answers.

Sometimes, though, we are rewarded with happy surprises in the research process.  Helen Kirkman (Destiny, March 2006, HQN) recalls a time when her search for information paid off unexpected dividends.  “I get an overview of my setting before I start.  The plot idea for my latest Viking romance Destiny sparked from a fleeting reference to an exiled Saxon prince.  The story character arose from a single sentence that encapsulated all that was known about a real man.  The details about what he was doing (fortress building) and about the heroine (a coin maker’s daughter) were researched as I wrote.”

Therein lies the payoff that makes research all the more worthwhile—the big ideas that inspire a whole new book.

Tips & Tricks

Before you delve into your next book, see what you can learn from other authors’ research processes:

  1. “If you are using the Internet for research, you need to consult twice as many  sources as you would if you were using books.”
    –Julie Leto, Dirty Little Secrets, Downtown Press
  2. “Keep a vocabulary list that contains words specific to a character’s profession or personality.”
    –Kathleen O’Reilly
  3. “One great idea to use on the Internet to get a feel for landscape and geography of the area is Webshots (www.webshots.com).  If you’re lucky you can get a virtual tour of the area you’re writing about online.”
    –Charlene Sands, Heiress Beware, June 2006, Silhouette Desire
  4. Invest in a set of old encyclopedias—they’re great for looking up odd bits of information like what kinds of trees were native to Norfolk, England in the middle ages or what materials were ladies fans made from during the Regency period.”
    — Deborah Hale
  5. “I belong to the Folio Society, a ‘book club’ for high-quality classics and history-related books.  Every year I buy several books from them.  I have ‘The Diary of a Country Parson,’ ‘Memoirs of a Georgian Rake,’ Byng’s ‘Rides Around ‘Britain,’ which is a great source for how long it took to get from place to place by carriage or horseback, the kinds of food and accommodations at inns, prices, weather, etc.”
    –Deborah Hale
  6. “Psychology books and articles help with the profiles. Abnormal psych text is my most often used– gotta get those villains pegged!”
    –Lyn Stone
  7. “I find the internet handy if you want to confirm a date, or something fairly simple.  It’s also good for finding names for characters.”
    –Margaret Moore, Hers To Command February 2006, HQN Books

Most Wanted Information
What research needs crop up most often? Here’s a list of story elements most likely to send authors on an information hunt:

Character professions
Character names
Historical events
Social codes, cultural values
Characterization (body language, psychology)

About Joanne Rock:

Joanne Rock is so committed to thorough research that she took a Caribbean cruise to ensure she had her facts straight for her cruise liner setting in The Pleasure Trip (February 2006, Signature Select Spotlight).  Although a few margaritas may have been consumed in pursuit of an authentic experience, all other activities were strictly necessary for the best possible book.