Thursday, April 20, 2006

Research Can Be Fun

Some friends and acquaintances have said that it must be nice writing fiction because I don’t have to do the research nonfiction requires. They have no idea.

For example, the setting requires research, maybe a visit. I have to acquaint myself with the geography, the scenery and the architecture--sometimes the colloquialisms and accent. Even when I choose a familiar setting, such as Maine, where I live, I have questions during the process of writing the book.

Recently, I’ve moved my stories onto a larger stage. In Breaking All the Rules, the hero and heroine go from Washington to New York City to a private Caribbean island. I had a lot of fun with creating the proper mood and details to make those places come alive. My August release, Deadly Memories, takes place in Italy, a country I haven't visited in many years. To research that setting, I sampled Italian wine and food (yum!), borrowed guide books and maps from my sister-in-law, and read books set in Italy. If you haven't read the mystery author Donna Leon, do pick up her books. Her detective is a Venice commissario, or police investigator. Not only are the mysteries intriguing, but you are immersed in Venetian culture and ambience.

I keep folders for the various topics needed for a given book, not just for the settings. Breaking All the Rules required folders on New York City, arms dealing, stolen uranium, luxury yachts, Caribbean plants and geology, and high-tech surveillance devices. For Deadly Memories I needed information on amnesia, the Italian language and slang, weapons-grade uranium, Etruscan tombs, and of course food and wine.

The Internet has made researching anything so easy that it's tempting not to do first-hand fact finding, like interviews and on-site visits. But there's nothing like being there to acquaint yourself with a place and people. In my next project, my museum-director heroine and adventurer hero must return a cursed Mayan figure to its temple in Central America. I've always been fascinated with the Maya, so it seemed logical to take a trip. My husband and I visited the Riviera Maya, with guided tours to two ancient ruin sites, Chichen Itzá and Cobá, as well as to a primitive village in the jungle of the Yucatan. Websites and books couldn't have given me the smells, sounds, and tastes of the region, nor the acquaintance of the smiling, friendly Mayan people. Think I was jazzed to write that book when I return? You bet!

Research is necessary for authenticity, but can be a trap. A writer must be careful not to make the book a dump for all she’s learned. The story is the characters and the plot, not the research. But you’d be amazed at the trivia I’ve accumulated!

Susan Vaughan


Ann Roth said...

Susan-- Your latest books sound like great fun. Love that you visited the Mayan ruins for research. That's the way to do it--research, so you can write it off.

You can research using the libraries, the 'net, and talking with friends and experts, but if you can visit the place where your story takes place, you can add those tiny details that make the setting come alive.

For me, sometimes a place I never intended to use in a novel ends up as the setting. I once spent a week on a dude ranch with my parents, brothers, sisters, their pouses and kids. Just for fun, you understand, and it was a blast. I ended up setting part of a story there. A few years ago my husband and I drove down the coast and spent the Fourth of July in Bandon, Oregon. Again, just for fun. That was such a memorable visit that I decided to write a three-book series in a fictional town just like Bandon. That first book is out in June. I never thought I'd do one book, let alone three, set on the Oregon coast.

I like your caveat, too-- a person could research a subject to death and either never write the story or dump too much of the research into it.

Nancy Herkness said...

Research is one of the great pleasures of writing, IMO. My novels require plenty of factual information and I have a blast ferreting it all out.

My favorite research trip was prompted by my second book, SHOWER OF STARS. The hero is a meteorite hunter, someone who travels the world finding and trading rocks from space. So I needed to learn a lot about them. I took the Metroliner (so-o-o much nicer than flying!) down to Washington, DC, and spent two blissful days in the Smithsonian Institute's meteorite exhibit, reading every single label. I had no spouse and no children with me so I could take my time, take endless notes, and just bask in the wonderful mysterious atmosphere of these artifacts from other worlds. I'm savoring the memories even as I type these words.

As you say, research can be a trap too but I think its greatest danger is as an enabling mechanism for what is really procrastination. "Oh, I just need to do a little more research," the writer says, having not written a word of her book in two months. That's really scary!

I just have to remind myself occasionally that research isn't writing the book.

Colleen Thompson said...

One of my favorite things about being a novelist is that it gives you permission to ask perfect strangers about any topic that niggles your curiosity. But I don't limit myself to talking to people. I love digging in archives (preferably with those cool, little white gloves to protect the brittle, old paper from the hands' oils), explosing microfiche, unearthing musty, old books ... Can you tell I used to write historicals?

These days, I rely on the Internet for a lot of research, but the library's still a magical place for me. I did have to teach myself, however, that you can't research forever. At some point, you actually do have to jump in with both feet and write.