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/)