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 My first yet-unpublished novel was about an accountant, which is what I trained for.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 is 1882, and the location is Indian Rocks in Florida.
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. And the boarding house lady? I love Agatha Christie’s work.
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.
My current work in process is about a woman from the present and a man from the past who meet. I’ve had to do some research on both characters in order to get the details straight. The internet is my initial tool. Then I use books, newspaper archives, diaries, and museums.
What are you working on now? What kind of research have you had to do? Has this article prompted any new story ideas for you?