Friday, June 12, 2009

Research with Cheryl St. John

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews throughout the blogging universe to promote The Preacher’s Wife, and I’m often asked about research. There are definitely plenty of things a writer needs to know before she starts to write her book. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum; they have occupations and homes and families and histories and nationalities and all number of things we need to know to make them three-dimensional and bring realism to the story.

The story I last finished, Her Colorado Man, is set just outside a town I’ve used in a previous story. Once I’ve done all this work, it only makes sense to get some mileage out of it. Colorado is a common setting for me. I own picture books, reference books and maps as well as books on plants and animals. I had another reason for the location, other than its convenience, however: I made my heroine part of a large German family who own a brewery, so I had to select a location to support the operation. The cold-water streams that flow from the mountains were perfect.

And then I had to know enough about brewing beer to decide which method they used and why, and which year would be workable. I chose a year when bottling was first being introduced and also a year that there was a huge Exposition in Denver. So my actual location and the brewery are fabricated, but everything about the people and production and operation and the time period are factual. Keeping facts as close to real as possible makes the reader believe.

I also had to know something about my hero who comes to this town from Alaska, where he’s been delivering mail between tent towns and postal stations. That research was probably the most difficult, because all the facts easily found about Juneau and the Yukon pertain to the gold rush, which didn’t happen until after my time period. So that part of my education took more searching.

So besides looking up breweries, their operation and types of brewing methods before I started, I searched for information on sled dogs, Alaskan temperatures, modes of travel and traditional Bavarian foods. I ended up with a binder full of facts and pictures. Sometimes I have to make an additional folder on one subject, like say liveries or beer making. In my opinion, you can’t ever know too much about your location or your topic or the cultures of your people.

Confession: I’m a paper person. I’ve learned to use PBWiki, personal online storage, but even though I have that ability and I’ve bookmarker the online information, I still want to be able to flip through my binder and put my finger on that list of names I was going to use. I need to see the paragraph about the competitive advantages of lager brewing over ale. That’s just me. If you are a writer, maybe you’ve got a smarter way to store your research, and if so, I applaud you. The important thing is that your method works for you, and you’re not losing writing time searching for something you’ve lost.

Now just because I have all that info doesn’t mean I will ever need to or that I ever should use it all. A writer knows far more about her subjects than she should ever use in a story. But she needs to know it, because if she didn’t, she’d make mistakes. I have many writer friends who love the research part so much that it takes on a life of its own. Once they start, they can’t stop.

Here’s how to know when to quit researching: If your study is cutting into your production, you’re researching too much. If you get caught up in the fact-finding and aren’t tallying a page count, you’re doing too much research. If you’re not putting words on pages, you’re avoiding writing. Give your study a rest and write the story. You can learn the rest of the details as you need them. I learn enough to get started and then I begin. When I get to something I don’t know, I simply google the subject. If I’m on a roll and need to know something, I leave an asterisk and come back to it after the muse is burned out for the day.

So, yes there is a lot a writer needs to know, but the wise writer knows when to call a halt get down to business.
Cheryl St. John is a THREE TIME....let me repeat that THREE TIME Rita nominee. She's the author of thirty books and her latest, The Preacher's Wife, is releasing this month.
To learn more visit her brand new, cool and shiny website
And her fun, interesting and always worth checking blog


  1. Thanks for the great information. I adore researching! Your book sounds fascinating, by the way.

  2. Hi Cheryl,

    How often do you start researching a topic and find that little something extra that you know will excite your readers?

    I brought chocolate mint coffee and chocolate frosted cake donuts.


  3. Welcome to Seekerville, Cheryl! It's great to have a fellow LIH writer talking about research, one of my favorite things to do. Thirty published books prove you know how to balance research with writing. I'm awed by your three Rita finals!

    I've got The Preacher's Wife on my TBR stack--right under Seeker books. The cover is terrific.

    I'm off to critique. Catch you later.


  4. Welcome to Seekerville, Cheryl, it's great to have you here! And, boy, I sure take my hat off to you. I am a historical romance writer, too, only for me, research is like pulling teeth. But, definitely a necessary evil in the historical genre, so I've learned to cope. But you actually made it sound almost fun, which I something I envy.

    Like you, I keep a file -- a word document called "Historical Research" where I slap everything I need. But I have to admit, one thing about research that does give me a thrill is when certain dates or events in history actually coincide with something similar in my story!! Like in my first book about an Irish-Catholic family in pre-WWI Boston, I was awed to see that the day that the U.S. declared war on Germany actually fell on a Good Friday, so I was able to tie those two dark events together as something emotionally overpowering. LOVE when that happens, don't you??


  5. Thank you for sharing your research related knowledge. Your research storage system certainly works well for you, judging by your success.

    Best wishes to you on all your days and ventures in the future.

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  7. Everyone is up earlier than I am today, and I already have a munchkin asking me to take him to garage sales. I turned him onto the adventure, so I certainly can't blame him--and gee, who am I to argue?

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, Jill.

    Rose, the donuts are yummy and just the start I needed for my busy day. I often find things that fascinate me, so I know the readers will like it. Then the challenge is writing it in like a natural part of the story.

    Janet, I'm in great company on your tbr pile--whoo hoo!

    Julie, Her Colorado Man takes place the year of a real exposition in Denver, and I worked around that. Details were nearly impossible to find, so I used facts from other expositions and made up the rest. It's a real hodgepodge of truth and fact, but I'll bet no one can tell--that's the goal anyway.

    Hi Shaddy! Have a great writing day!

  8. Thank you, Cheryl, for the high-powered encouragement to 'stick to our guns' in research and in writing. I love knowing I'm getting real facts along with the blend of romance and creativity.

    When you're digging into factual details, do you find internet and book sources sufficient, or do you depend on personal interviews as well?

    I confess, I write modern day romances and there's a wealth of information available on the internet but not always the nitty-gritty details that my plot needs.

    At what point do you say 'it's as real-to-life as it can be' and allow fiction to be fiction? Any further thoughts? Thanks so much!

  9. I'm guilty of over-researching and putting off the writing. I'm often also in danger of writing history books instead of historical romances. I want to throw in all the fascinating bits that's I've found. It's a challenge to incorporate the right amount of information while not distracting from the story.

    Thank you, Cheryl, for this fun blog post.

  10. Good morning, Cheryl.
    So, Cheryl's the master, readers. Whatever she says, you should try and obey because she's really got it figured out with the research.

    Also with the garage sales, maybe that could be another post, Cheryl. :)

  11. Hi Cheryl, Thanks for joining us in Seekerville. I'm like Erica. I love the research more than the writing. I find it fun even in contemporary writing. There is so much out there.

    I like your system for storing the research. I'm like you. Once its in the computer file, I forget its there. But the hands on file brings ideas and reminds you of details. It works for you because I love your stories.

    Thanks Rose for the mint coffee. Yummmmm

  12. I never enjoyed researching - just interpreted "write what you know" as using what I already knew. But I've started researching now, and it's sort of okay, as long as I write it quick before it falls out of my head.

  13. Cheryl - Nice to see you this morning (still morning out here in CA!)

    I'm a HUGE research buff, as we've discussed before. After All or Nothing - I stepped away from my history of the American West with my latest, in order to write a contemporary inspy adventure! and darned if I didn't wind my way back into historical research. (main char. is an archaeologist, after all!)

    At any rate, I love your writing - and how you season your stories with the spice of your research. It adds such depth to your characters.

    A must read, to be sure!

    Have a lovely weekend.


  14. By the way, Julie - I loved your comment about your history file! it's amazing how those little snippets we save can piece together and become a story!

    Hmm... maybe I can find some good history books at the yard sales tomorrow...


  15. Hi Cheryl:

    I have a ‘teaching minor’ in history, and have read history books all my life, so I am always very alter to the historical facts given in fiction. One thing I’ve noticed in romances, as far back as Jane Austen, is the lack of national and world news.

    It seems characters in romances rarely talk about the news at the dinner table. A war could be going on, the country could be in an economic ‘panic’, the President could have died, and you would not know it from the story.

    In a historical romance I would at least like to know who the President is and, if the story takes place during an election year, I’d like to know who is running for office. I would most want to know this information in stories that take place between 1812 and 1898 where the historical facts are little known. If there is a war going on, I think it should at least be mentioned in passing.

    Do you have an opinion on this?


  16. I like to read the blogs all authors write, seem their life is so fantistic but I am sure it is very hard work, I would love to win one of these great books,


  17. Good day, Cheryl! I'm always late to the party : )

    A research party even! I love research. History Channel is my favorite : )

    You are so right about creating a well-rounded character. If folks only knew how much effort we put into writing a believable book, they wouldn't say, *oh, is that all you do?*

    Thanks for the pointers, Cheryl. Always good to glean new info.

  18. Ayrian - I do a lot of research online, but it sure never hurts to get the ppinion of someone in the know. Johns Hopkins has a board and a doctor will answer questions-who knew? of course I have a lot of made-up ailments and istser swith diseases. *g*

    And I have detectives who will answer phone wuestions - you have to make friends and contacts like this, you know - you can't just call up any old person at the police station and ask how to mask evidence. So attend programs and functions and get business cards.

    Contemporary research is often more sticky, because somewhere out there in reader land, someone has the job or situation you're writing about - and you can bet if you make a mistake, they will let you know.

    I actually try to use as many fictional locations as I can for that reason. I once had a reader write to tell me there wasn't an airport where I said there was one.

    It's fiction, people. LOL

  19. Hi Erica and Mary!

    Sandra, you have to be every bit as particular with contemporary facts.

    Hello Sheila!

    Ashley, thanks for the kind words about my stories. That means a lot.

  20. YARD SALES! Where do you live? I'll be over!

  21. Vince, I see more politics in Regency romances than American historicals. Of course there are many that take place around the Civil War or the Indian Wars, but I think some writers are hesitant to come down hard one one side of the fence.

    I mention a past presedent in my upcoming December book - and I have mentioned presidents before. I guess it all depends on the topic and theme of the book.

    Interesting suggestions!

  22. Hey, Edna and Audra! Thanks for stopping in.

  23. Hi Cheryl,
    Like you, I really enjoy the research part of building a story. That's where I get ideas to make the story richer (at least in my opinion!) But you are so right--it is easy to get lost in the interesting facts I unearth. Congratulations on your new book! I'd say thirty is quite a milestone!

  24. Cheryl--I really appreciate the additional insights on modern-day research. Getting personal knowledge will probably provide a lot more reassurance that I'm weaving in those details right. Now to track down those business cards you mentioned! Thanks again!

  25. Welcome to Seekerville Cheryl. I found your release at my local Wal-Mart!!

  26. Excellent post, Cheryl. I love the research that goes into historical novels and you've given me great ideas to increase the task.

    I'm reading The Preacher's Wife now and really enjoying it.

  27. Thanks, Kathryn. This is book #32.

    You're most welcome, Ayrian.

    Hello, my friend, Tina! Always a pleasure to see you. Thanks for picking up my book.

    Anita, so glad to know you're enjoying the story.

    you guys were great today! Off to bed now.

  28. Cheryl, sorry, I was late to the party.

    dratted gainful employment!!!

    Thanks for coming by Seekerville. Your advice is well taken, and congrats on a wonderful ongoing career.

    You rock.


  29. Hi Cheryl,
    Thanks for the great information. I find it so easy to get wrapped up in interesting research and forget that I have characters waiting to finish a story. Who says history can't be interesting, right?
    Welcome to Seekerville.

  30. This is why I wrote contemporaries! :)

    Of course, I still have to do some reasearch on jobs and locations. but I don't have to worry about historical details (which readers tend to be picky about!).

    Thanks for joining us in Seekerville, Cheryl! I'm sorry I'm a couple of days late. I appreciate the post. It reminded me to check on flowers that bloom in the N.GA mountains in June for the proposal I'm working on! :)