I’ve seen the way some authors’ eyes nearly roll up into their heads at the word, “research.” After all, that’s just dry, boring stuff. We’re always told to “write what we know.” If we have to research a topic, we aren’t writing what we know.
I used to write what I knew. My first novel was about an accountant, which is what I trained for. Except everybody thinks accountants are boring. So I went looking for an exciting accountant, and I found one in a forensics accountant. No, they don’t count dead bodies — forensics accountants uncover hidden assets for estates, divorces, and the IRS.
My character, Carly Turnquist, uncovers dead bodies — or at least, she gets involved in mysteries and murders, has her life threatened a couple of times, finds some missing money, and saves her daughter from doom. All in the first book.
The funny thing was, even while I was writing what I knew — accounting — there were things I didn’t know. Like the details about numbered companies. How to distinguish if someone died from a plunge over a cliff or a knock on the head. How to suffocate someone by plugging up a chimney. How the banking system works in a small town.
When I started writing historical suspense, I needed to do a lot more research. So I found some locations, some topics, and some characters that caught my attention and wove them into a novel. My first historical suspense included a woman running from her husband, a Pinkerton agent who was working for said husband, a bank manager who embezzled from his bank, and a boarding house lady who I envisioned as looking like Miss Marple. The year was 1882, and the location was Indian Rocks in Florida. Since then, I’ve written about the Pony Express, about a rancher woman in 1940s Colorado, about wagon trains in the 1860s, and about photographers in 1912.
How did I come up with these details? My dad was a Pinkerton agent at one time. I worked in the banking industry and had some idea how a manager could finagle a naïve woman on the run into doing his dirty work for him by cooking the books. I have a friend who had a condo in Indian Rocks and the idea of a story set there before tourism took hold caught my attention. The boarding house lady? I love Agatha Christie’s work. For ranching in Colorado, I called the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association to answer a question about ear tags. For wagon trains, I visited the setting in Echo Canyon, Utah, and for photographers in 1912, I took the lazy way out—I went direct to the internet.
My current release is about a woman looking for love, a boy looking for family, and the man who found both. It’s loosely based on my father’s life and set in Newfoundland. I spent a lot of time interviewing my sources, checking old census records, looking at old newspapers, and reading source documents such as diaries and store cash books to get the details straight.
Research doesn’t need to be boring, dry, or dusty if you select a topic you really enjoy. Work together different parts of stories from different regions, and see what you come up with. Take some liberties with locations and eras. Craft a character based on someone who really lived during that time, but mix up the details with other characters. And even if you’re writing a contemporary story, don’t be afraid to toss in a few details that you don’t know all the ins and outs about. And then do some research.
Curious to see how well Donna researches? Leave a comment below for your chance to win a copy of Pony Express Romance Collection, Mail-Order Brides Collection, or Bouquet of Brides Collection (U.S. only). A winner will be picked next week!
Donna lives in Denver with her husband Patrick, who is her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name and contemporary suspense under her alter ego, Leeann Betts. Donna is a ghostwriter and editor of fiction and non-fiction, and judges a number of writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and online at: www.HiStoryThruTheAges.wordpress.com and www.HiStoryThruTheAges.com. Her books are available at Amazon.com in digital and print.