Researching A Novel: All Those Things I Had to Learn
In two months A Family of Strangers will grace your favorite bookstore.
Next week my good friend Kylie Logan/Casey Daniels will tell you a bit about the fun of preparing for her book launch in May. I’m not launching yet, but I thought you might enjoy some of the “behind-the-scenes” action that took place while I was writing my book.
Researching a novel? Yes, it’s necessary. Every novel requires research, something many readers assume happens mostly in non-fiction. But no matter how well acquainted a novelist is with her subject and setting, she/he will still be required to check facts or even dig for new ones.
Recently I looked through some of the old folders in my ancient file cabinet and had to laugh. Before the internet–yes, there was a time, Virginia, when Google didn’t exist–I had folders filled with real estate magazines, restaurant menus, those cute little diner placemats with ads for local businesses, tourist brochures. It’s certainly past time to clean them out, because let’s face it, these days the facts I need are at my fingertips. Most of the time now I don’t have to make phone calls, page through magazines, spend hours at the library or make endless useless trips to tourist attractions. I just turn on my computer, and off I go.
For this book I had lots of different online folders, all with websites bookmarked so I could return for information. Some of my subjects:
- Cell phone technology
- Crime podcasts
- Internet cold crime
- Navy and Subs
- Police Dogs
- True crime resources
- Criminal justice and the Innocent Project
- Real estate development
- Wall safes
- Policing in Florida
- Remailing services.
Most of the sites I bookmarked contained information that was new to me. For instance I knew very little about cell phone monitoring, what is legal and acceptable and what is not. Is that a major part of the story? I’ll give you a hint. Only four websites are bookmarked in that folder. On the other hand “medical” and “characters” each had more than forty.
Even though my story is set in a fictional city on Florida’s southwest Gulf coast, and even though I live in a real southwest Gulf coast city and grew up in another, I wasn’t a bit surprised I still had lots of learn. Don’t forget, too, that “setting” doesn’t necessarily begin and end with geography. Buildings are setting. Housing projects are setting. Schools are setting.
Oh, and so are biker bars, one of the more fun locations I researched. Purely online, of course, although there happens to be one just down the road. I’m sad to say I missed my excuse to try it out.
I researched a lot of subjects in depth that never showed up in the story. Hypoglycemia. Criminal profiling. Forensic audio and video analysis. Sometimes research convinces me I don’t want to incorporate that element into a story line. Either the subject turns out to be basically irrelevant, or it’s far too complicated and distracting. Probably 75% of the websites I investigated weren’t helpful. The hundreds I bookmarked were the ones with potential.
What were some of the more fun sites I visited? I loved this police K-9 demonstration and watched it more than once. How about Carly Simon singing Older Sister? Are you in the market for a new running outfit? Who knew so many cute possibilities existed. It’s enough to make me dust off my running shoes–which are, let’s face it, very, very dusty.
Was all my research on the internet? No, I read close to a dozen books, and now in case I ever need to, I can probably hide my identity and live a life off the grid. Sometimes we stumble into research worthy sources. I happened to hear a radio interview with Elizabeth Greenwood, author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud and so I read the book. If you have ever wanted to simply disappear and start a new life somewhere else, you ought to read it, too. You may reconsider.
Of course research also requires getting away from my desk. Next week I’m heading off to Tarpon Springs to decide if I want to use that fascinating city in my next book. I was about eight the last time I was there on a school field trip and I still remember the sponge diving demonstration. I’m assuming the city has changed just a bit. I’d like to see for myself–and have a great Greek meal while I’m there.
For A Family of Strangers my longest expedition was to Orlando where I spent an entire day at a boarding and training facility run by a former K9 cop. After these exceptionally kind and helpful dog enthusiasts answered a host of questions, gave me a tour, and promised to answer more questions by phone if I needed them, I finally left for home. Unfortunately, as things turned out, I was in Orlando a day longer than required. The interstate was so badly backed-up that I threw up my hands and went out to dinner. On the way back to the interstate I nearly paid admission to Disney World because of a wrong turn. More hours later I checked into a local motel for the night when it was clear the traffic still wasn’t moving. Research ain’t for sissies.
Researching a novel is a big part of the fun, and I love it. If I didn’t, I’m not sure I could tell a story with any depth or conviction. I know a lot about many fascinating subjects that don’t touch my personal life in any way. I can spend hours day dreaming and following threads until a book begins to take shape. I can file away anything I find interesting and pull it out years later after it’s had time to season and ferment. The idea behind A Family of Strangers is one such. The idea for my new proposal is another.
Do you spend lots of time on the internet wandering from site to site as the mood strikes you? Maybe you’re doing research for a novel, too. You just never know.
loved your commentary of researching for a book. Very cute– especially the part about Disney.
I think half the fun of reading (and writing) a book is the research put into it. Research makes it more authentic, not to mention fun and educational. Keep up the great work, Em! You’re an awesome author!