The Essential and Fun Task of Research

Take the time to research your book. It's essential and should be fun.
Photo by Jim Barrett

A few years ago, I started the novel that became As the Crow Flies. Two basic things I knew were that much of the novel would be set in a fictional town I had created in my previous book, and that part would be set in Edinburgh in the late 1990s. I also knew that my protagonist was a photographer, and then quickly realized that one character was writing his PhD dissertation on swan migration, and that another character (who was British) was the second son of a viscount.

I had lived through the nineties, so not much research required there, but I had been to Edinburgh only twice in my life, in the late seventies and the late eighties. I can take a decent picture but know little about photography. I like birds, but other than having watched Winged Migration, I don’t know much about migration. I knew viscounts were low on the heraldic totem pole (which is why I chose that rank), but knew virtually nothing about how an aristocratic family lives in present-day England.

This book was going to take a lot of research.

As I was starting with the Edinburgh research, I met a writer friend for tea. “Research takes so much time,” I said. “It’s taking time away from writing.”

My friend, Pat McDermott, who has written numerous novels set in Ireland that also require a great deal of research, raised her eyebrows. “But research is the fun part. And it’s essential. You can’t write your book without it.”

Bolstered by her support, I threw myself into the research. Pat was right. Once I stopped telling myself, You should be writing, it was fun. And God bless the Internet and Google. (Words I also mutter when I’m working as an editor and need to fact-check a writer’s manuscript. Did you know that the fatality rate from the bite of a black widow spider is less than 1 percent? I told that particular writer that a black widow spider was not the best choice for a murder weapon.) I spent quite a few weekend mornings checking out apartments to lease in Edinburgh (because my characters needed to live someplace), restaurants (because they needed to eat), where an art gallery might be located (a character worked in one), and how long it would take to fly from LA to Edinburgh via London.

I found places where the Icelandic whooper swan tends to winter over, such as Solway Firth and Inch Island in Ireland. I also learned how long swans live, whether in the wild or in a protected area. I took books out of the library about English estates, and absolutely fell in love with Chatsworth House, the grand estate of the Duke of Devonshire. I visited websites of some of the estates that have tours and did research on the National Trust, so that I could give my viscount’s family an ancestral home that was open to the public.

(I should add that I also asked a writer friend, Jenny, who is from England, to vet the parts of the book set in the UK and the dialogue of all my British characters. Invaluable help.)

Having finished that book, I recall all my research fondly; and I almost wish I had set my current book in a foreign locale so I could check out apartments I would never be able to afford, and imagine walking down the streets that I could actually see on Google maps. Although this new book does not require that sort of research, I do need to do some, since my characters have a few different occupations that I don’t know much about. So I have been talking to people. Julie helped with blogging for money. Meagan sat for coffee with me and explained the arduous path to becoming a concert pianist (so arduous, in fact, that I scaled back that ambition and made the character a professor of music). Margaret visited antique and craft stores with me so I could mentally stock a character’s store; and Rob showed me around a friend’s amazing carpentry workshop so I could picture the character who is a carpenter working there. Rob also got a lunch out of me so he could explain what goes into building a house.

Probably the most interesting piece of research for this book, which wasn’t even really research, was an op-ed in the New York Times several months ago about a man, dying of cancer, who wanted to build his own coffin. That was not only the inspiration for my carpenter character, but it also provided a twist that I hadn’t even known the book needed. (And yes, I am going to have to research how to build a coffin.)

I miss Edinburgh, but I am having fun with all I’m learning now. Pat was right: research is fun. And that helps to make the writing fun.

(To check out Pat and her books, you can find her here: http://www.patmcdermott.net/)

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4 thoughts on “The Essential and Fun Task of Research”

  1. Bett, Great article, especially because I am deep into research regarding my grandmother’s family. I have read several books on the fate of Irish women who left for the US when they were in their mid-teens and the hardships they encountered…partly relieved through support from sisters and friends. In the ‘journey’ of research (many trips to the Mormon Church in Exeter where there are good resources for tracing ancestors and obscure but good texts from the Harvard library system where my son has access) has been rewarding. Bob

  2. So glad you’ve caught the research bug, Bett. Research is a wonderfully inspiring writing tool. So are the folks to whom we turn for their expertise, like your friends, Jenny, Julie, Meagan, Margaret, and Rob. I’ve met experts online who have generously helped me with history, folklore, archaeology, ancient coins, music stores, tourism, and trees in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, among other things, and I just returned from a meeting with the writers’ group that provides invaluable feedback. Writing a book is hard work, labor of love that it is. I could never do it alone. I hope your research finds lots of fabulous twists and turns for your current work-in-progress. Good luck with it, enjoy the writing, and thanks so much for the shout out.

  3. I like your article on research. We are in the age of information and it is amazing what we can pull out of the virtual world in a matter of seconds. I don’t know how many times I’ve spent crazy hours surfing Wickapedia only to use a tiny percentage of my notes on my actual writing. I don’t consider this a waste because developing a base knowledge of whatever I’m writing about only makes the writing more authentic even if the information doesn’t get directly transferred to the page. The challenge we have as authors is using this research to create the illusion that we have a godlike perspective on the subjects we write about, rather than merely regurgitating facts that have been researched. Thanks for the thought provoking blog. PS. I thought I was the one who bought lunch.

  4. But beware of loving your research too much. There is that deadly tendency of during lapses of conversation at dinner parties to blurt out: Did you folks ever wonder why there is a North Church and a South Church a couple blocks from each other? Well in 1559 there was a meeting in Ireland…. This compulsion is exaggerated when an editor has ripped that section from your MSS.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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