Does the word send you into spasms of frustration, dread or anxiety?
Or conjure up images of formulas that you could never remember for the test?
Or does the adventure of learning fire you up, get your juices flowing fast and hard?
When I asked Suzanne for suggestions, she came up with this one. How do I research topics for my books, then she asked, would that work?
You bet it would! There are several reasons I say that.
- Our best stories are derived from our own experience. So we write about what we know, constellations of people and situations which fit somewhere in our backgrounds and experience.
- Almost always though, we need to ’round out’ what we know. Whether it’s looking at the polar opposite of an institution or character so that we can approach the essence of what we are writing about rather than our perhaps prejudicial memories. Or merely needing to sympathize as well as criticize with a character, our writing requires investigation, study…research.
- If our novel includes places or cities we’ve never been or situations we’ve never encountered then we must find experts, make inquiries or do virtual tours.
A well-researched novel is apparent almost from the first page. We know this because of the detail, description, the prose which transports the reader to a place she has never seen and characters she can see sitting next to her. Or evident because of the wholeness of the plot- where the story starts out making all cops seem evil , suddenly elements are introduced through characters and dialogue to make cops seem like everyone else. Human.
Research is the boon, not bane, of writers in the twenty-first century not just for these reasons but because we live and write, now. I’ve been writing and publishing for decades. In what now feels like the dark ages, I recall spending entire weekends and vacations in libraries. I worked full-time and my only writing time was when I wasn’t working. The internet did not exist! Therefore, my sole access to the texts I needed were either to purchase, borrow or find them at the library. Trust me, merely typing in your search word is far preferable to that!
My first novel fit my background perfectly because it featured a Cardiologist in the Texas Medical Center where I’d worked for many years. But there are several elements in the story that I did not have at the tips of my fingers. Here are just a few:
- Investigational drugs- specifically my imaginary modification of an age-old cardiac drug.
- The life of an inmate in prison, specifically, Huntsville Prison in Texas
- The believability of a doctor being indicted for murder in the course of her treatment of a patient- does it really happen?
- Addiction and alcoholism
Before making the switch from non-fiction to fiction, I had an idea of the capacity of the internet because I wrote lots of posts for a blog I used to do for our online marketing customers. Therefore I was constantly researching subjects like sales, motivation, tips for handling angry customers and email marketing. But after I had begun the first novel, I became wholly aware of this miraculous and powerful tool called the internet. I had tremendous amounts of research to do and and just decided to dig in. And I started with the most complex of my list of subjects that I needed to understand.
Early on a Monday morning, I tentatively typed in ‘Digitalis-molecular structure’. Within nanoseconds, the search page filled with links to the molecular structure of the centuries old treatment for cardiac failure! My husband heard my holler of sheer joy all the way up in his upstairs office. Here I was, fifty miles from the nearest city, researching fairly complex subjects for my book with no need to leave my home office. The advantages of writing amidst all these tools at our fingertips cannot be overestimated.
“The advantages of writing amidst all these tools at our fingertips cannot be overestimated.”
Prison. I had visited a prisoner one time in the waiting room of a Federal prison in Connecticut. But that was nowhere enough. I needed to see and feel what life would be like for a woman in prison. For a year, I wrote to Wardens, former cops, friends in Texas and here in Nevada trying to inveigle my way into a prison. By the nth time, when my potential visit fell through because the Warden found out I was a writer, I gave up. And decided to search to see if I could find online information about life in prison. Voila, I found and bought an online book by an inmate at Huntsville, three hundred pages of what a cell looked like, the daily routines and also found an orientation booklet to the Huntsville prisons.
“I had visited a prisoner one time… But that was nowhere enough. I needed to see and feel what life would be like for a woman in prison.”
A former colleague in Houston gave me the name of an associate District Attorney. While in Houston for my research, this man, very generously, spent a Friday morning with me explaining the details of murder. And the very best part? He gave me the name of a case where a Texas physician had been indicted and convicted of intentional murder. I found the court reporter and paid her for the transcripts of the case. Although this was expensive, it was far less costly than sitting in a courtroom as a spectator in a murder trial. The ADA also introduced me to a Houston homicide detective who gave me a tour of his department, showing me exactly where a murder suspect would be held and spoke with me about the methods he would use with an unusual suspect, like a doctor. Suzanne asked if I make lists of questions for experts I’m working with during the research for a book. Only rarely. Because what I aim to do is to be able to visualize the scene or event so clearly that I take you there when you read my book.
“..[My] aim … is to be able to visualize the scene or event so clearly that I take you there when you read my book.”
But I had a long list of questions for the University of Texas Medical School’s basic science researcher with whom I spent close to a week, shadowing her technician while she worked with her animal test subjects, taking lengthy pages of notes.
Addiction and alcoholism were integral parts of the story and I knew next to nothing about either. So I bought and read more than fifteen books by various experts on the treatment of drug and alcohol addictions.
The best part? When the experts like the story! Then you know youe’ve nailed it.
Research Areas to get you started…
- Internet — though it has a plethora of information, be sure to use reputable sources and DOUBLE check your findings.
- Library — still one of the best sources for research. You can do a lot via phone and in some cases they will email you scans of “restricted” materials. Books, court cases, research materials, old newspapers — online and off.
- Local — Chamber of Commerce, law enforcement, lawyers, bakers, grocery clerks, etc… you have a lot of information right in your own community.
- Colleges, Universities — professors, administrative personnel, library, etc.
- Colleagues, friend, associates, even other authors may be able to connect you with people helpful in your research.