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How do you research?

Every book requires at least some research. Unless you are a CPA who likes to collect stamps and ride motorcycles and your book is about a biker CPA who just happens to collect stamps in her spare time, your book will require research.

Where to begin?

Well, it depends.

Is the information you are lacking more general – maybe it’s the location of your story? Are you writing a story that takes place in a small town, yet you have always lived in a large city? Depending upon your budget and resources, a long weekend trip to a small town nearby might just get you started. If cash is tight, head to the library and ask the librarian to help you pick out a few great novels that take place in small towns. Travel shows can shed a great deal of knowledge. As can travel magazines and travel books. Every town has a map of it somewhere.

Or are you wanting to use a more significant detail in your writing, but it is outside of your knowledge? Say your heroine is a sharp shooting ex-marine, if you have never discharged a weapon before, I’d highly recommend several visits to a gun range. When it comes to certain details that are inherent to your story, a good writer needs to be able to present the information in a manner that is utterly believable to their audience. Hands on experience can add that authenticity. Take a photography class to get into the head of your photojournalist. If your hero adopts a dog and you are a cat person, borrow a friend’s pooch for a couple days.

It’s the details that count. They can make or break a story. And when it comes to your baby, you want it to shine.

How do you research?

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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in research, writing, writing craft

 

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Research through Travel

In our modern age, it’s possible to research what we need for our stories online. You can even access original documents online, so why would we want to go to the expense and time to travel somewhere for research? Don’t get me wrong: I love travel. But it is expensive and we can’t always get time off work or whatever to do it.

On a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I discovered just how important actually being in a location is to invoking that place.

Sure, there is a lot of intellectual stuff you can get online. But there is also a lot of intangible stuff that you can’t understand without the experience.

Let’s say, for example, that I want to write a novel set in 1700s South Carolina. (Hmm, not a bad idea.) I can research online just how big a plantation was, how many slaves they had, the size of the windows, the crops they grew, and the style of the gardens.

What I can’t get a feel for without going there are the real telling details that bring the setting and the culture to life. Like the smell of the tidal, saltwater rivers. Or the sound an alligator makes slicing through the water. Or just how deep the ditch is that kept the livestock from going down too close to the river’s edge. How many steps did it take to get from the closest slave cabin to the main house? How many seats were in the privy?

Privy at Drayton Hall plantation. Seats seven and has a fireplace. Now that's luxury.

I can read about water transportation. But I cannot get a sense from reading how long the stroll from the river to the main house is. How much more I can know from walking it myself. The smell of jasmine, the feel of crumbled oyster shells under my feet, and the colors of the china are things I can only really grasp for myself.

I had the good fortune while in Charleston to get a back room view of the Charleston Museum—the oldest museum in the country. The curator of textiles and clothing showed us many gowns and shoes and other oddities like smoking hats and designer dresses from the 1800s. We saw firsthand a filmy, net-like muslin dress from the Regency era. Quite risqué really. And hardly warm enough for wintertime. What does that tell me about the people who wore it? What can my imagination do with that information?

I’m a visual person, so to see something in person has far more impact on me than if I merely read it online.

Plus, it’s a whole lot more fun to travel. I think both methods have their place. And now, I think I might just plot out my book for 18th century South Carolina. Because I know just how far down the river you can see from Boone Hall plantation. And I know the layout of the kitchen house at the Heyward home in Charleston. I know how that portrait of George Washington came to be in the City Council chambers.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2011 in research, travel

 

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