Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Research a contemporary novel?

Good morning Seekers and friends,
Pour yourself a cup of aromatic chocolate velvet coffee or some blueberry herbal tea and lets talk researching the contemporary novel.

Research? A contemporary? Wouldn't you simply write what you know from experience? Don't we already know the styles for clothing, the types of transportation, the currant issues? Why do you need to research?

Good questions. (of course they are since I wrote them myself LOL)

But on to the point. Contemporary novels benefit from research. It is as important for a contemporary as for a historical novel to have your facts and information on target. Researching for any novel gives you the additional advantage of extra material to strengthen, develop and embellish your plot.

For example, in my first novel published, the hero was a storm-chaser. (Remember I was published in the eighties and after losing all three editors I went back and finished teaching--a God thing, but if you are serious about a writing career don't ever do that. When you come back you're on unpubbed island and starting over-sigh). Back to the topic. I did a lot of research on storm-chasers and it gave me so much information to create plot twists and deepen the character.

In another novel, Love's Miracles, the hero was a VietNam veteran so I had to do a lot of research on the war and how it affected veterans. I was in Tahoe area that summer and at the local RWA meetings I met up with a psychiatrist from the Veteran Hospital in Reno. She was invaluable in giving me crucial information. On top of that, I fortunately decided to find a marine to read the male pov and he informed me that I had a lot of terminology wrong and also I had the hero jet crashing "behind enemy lines" which turned out to be a WWII expression and definitely not a VietNam War term. So I was able to change those errors. The book won several awards and I'm positive it was because of the authenticity of the research.

Another time research proved crucial was in my novel Dream Song. The heroine was part Navajo and had returned to the reservation seeking her roots. I had been training teachers on the reservation that summer so felt I had done enough research, but when had a friend of the Navajo nation read the book, she found some subtle problems. For example, I had a "what I thought" romantic scene where the heroine was waiting for the hero and her hair was flowing in the breeze. Sounds romantic doesn't it? Well, my friend informed me that the traditional young women always keep their hair pinned up unless they are mourning. That fact certainly killed the romance.

You can see how it helps to find people in the career you are portraying. A friend of mine who writes suspense, goes on ridealongs with the local police department. I went to several women's bicycle races and actually participated when writing my wip where the heroine is a bicycle racer.

Other ways I've found to authenticate and research novels is to actually go on site. For example, I have a wip set on a steamboat cruise up the Mississippi. Wasn't that fun to research? I actually went on the cruise and interviewed all the crew. Now if that wasn't a "Peyton Place" experience? (I know, I'm really dating myself with the reference to Peyton Place.)

My aunt and uncle have a cabin on a remote island in Puget Sound where I have had the privilege to visit. The area is so unique, I set one of my wip's on a similar island. An editor turned that wip down because she said the setting was too unrealistic and insisted there were no such things as refrigerators that worked on propane. Yikes. I guess I did my research too well on that one.

Research is my favorite part of starting a novel. I'v been accused by family and friends of being a perpetual student. In fact, I just completed a course at Mesa Community College on developing a website. In that class I learned more info about our latest source of research information and that is the Internet.

Do you remember the days when we used to go to the library to do our research? Dating myself again, but I still do love to go to the library. But you don't need to go anymore. So much information is available at our fingertips through the Internet.

There are some precautions. Not everything on the Internet is authentic, true or real. Many sources of information have no checks like traditional publishing has. Newspapers, encyclopedias, most things published could be relied upon to be authentic and truth. Too many legal actions can be taken against a publisher who publishes false information. There are no such checks and balances on the information available on the Internet. Anyone can publish anything.

For example, I learned in class is that wikipedia is not a reliable source. Anyone can add to, change or take out information. So there is no check like publishers do to insure authenticity of the sources of info.

Another example: I was teaching my class how to research animals on the Internet and we looked up dolphins. Up comes plenty of terrific info on dolphin animals, but also the Miami Dolphins, and then one pops up claiming that dolphins were the race ruling the universe. Oh my.

My instructor informed us that if the site ends in .org or .edu it has a better chance of being authentic. Although some .edu addies include students inputting information that could be false. Most universities provide public access to their libraries via the Internet. If you have a university close by, call and ask for a tour. I arranged for all my local writing groups to tour Arizona State University's library. They provide a terrific tour and even serve lunch. It is part of their way to show they serve the community. So check it out. On this tour, they showed us how to access the library resources on the Internet available to the public and also how to interchange with other universities. It is a worthwhile trip.

The best thing to do when looking up info on the Internet is to check the sources of info, the authenticity of the source, references to the source, etc. In other words don't take for granted that something you read on the Internet is authentic.

One thing that helps is to narrow the search. If you google a topic, you could end up with thousands of sites. But if you do a directory search, it narrows the search and the sites are usually more reliable. To do a directory search, go to the google search page and click on advanced search. On Yahoo click on search. A page comes up with only the search window. Next to the word search you'll see options. Click on options and then click on advanced search. If you fill out the criteria in advanced search, you will narrow your results considerably.

How many times have you received information forwarded? Often it sounds real, but is it? I'm talking about things that purport political, religious and social views? Don't just take it for granted that it is true even if it comes from a trusted friend. Often they received it and are simply forwarding it along? There are sites to authenticate this information. One I use is:

Let's review.
1. Research setting, careers, social conditions, and events to deepen plot and characters.
2. Find people with experience in career or situations you are portraying. Interview them and/or have them proof your wip
3. Visit sites similar to your settings
4. Use the Internet, university and library
5. Authenticate your information

Whew. This has made me hungry. How about some island fare? We're traveling along the Washington coast so I'm in the mood for steamed clams, oysters plucked off the low tide rocks and grilled over hot coals and how about some fresh crab? I won't even go into how that is prepared or you would never eat another bite of crab. Some fresh salt air and hot french bread smothered in garlic butter will hit the spot.

Oh and since I did just finish my website class, I do have my new site for my children's books up and running. Now mind you, I haven't taken the artistic part yet. That is for next semester. But I'm so impressed that I know html now that I simply have to brag. Check it out. Children's Books by Sandy.

And speaking of not taking the artistic class yet, I really wanted to get some great pictures to go with my post.  We have so many creative and artistic Seekers. Don't you agree?  I tried, but got so frustrated and worried about copyright that I finally ditched the plan and put photos from our summer travels.  The two ocean shots are here in Ocean City, Washington where we are camped.  Can you guess the rest?  Whoever guesses all of the famous sites will win a surprise announced at 8:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time tonight. (Hint-all but one are national parks)

Thanks for visiting us today and have fun doing that research.


Glynna Kaye said...

Good moring, Sandra! I can vouch that you do your research well. When I recently read one of your romance manuscripts, you know how many times I kept saying "This sounds so authentic. How do you KNOW all this stuff?" The setting, the terminology, all the "insider stuff." Great!

My upcoming release features an ex-Navy hero. Now all I knew about the Navy came from once touring a battleship as well as the fact my Grandpa was in the Navy--circa 1919! I had all these "timing" things in the story that needed to work out, but didn't have a clue as to what is REAL today. So I got hold of a MUCH more recent ex-Navy friend--and bombarded him with questions. Poor guy--but he answered them all and then some! I felt much more confident proceeding when I had a better understanding of my hero's background.

Great job on the website, Sandra!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks Glynna,
One of the things I love about writing is learning new things and meeting interesting people.

We're holding down the fort so to speak as most of the Seekers are headed for RWA in Washington DC. Now there is a city with a plethora of research material.

Julie Lessman said...

Wow, Sandra, great tips whether you are researching a contemporary novel or a historical! And, gosh, you make research sound almost fun ... almost.

I actually hate the research part, which is not a good thing for a historical writer, but I am learning to appreciate it. Your article this morning certainly goes a long way in helping me to like it a bit more -- thank you!


Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks Julie, For someone who doesn't like research your historicals are awesome and cover a time period not commonly covered yet. So you definitely did your research. Did you travel to Ireland? That would be great fun.

Be sure and read Julie's Daughters of Boston series, A Passion Most Pure, A Passion Redeemed and A Passion Denied and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Ruth Logan Herne said...


What a great post. You're right, research and accuracy is clutch for a good book. And I LOVE research. Bothering people. Asking for help. Talking.

Yeah, mostly talking, LOL!!!


Chatting it up with experts and/or locals is so fun. I spent Saturday researching a great mountain area for an upcoming series, and had a ball meeting people, probing, getting a 'feel' of the place.

And I knew when I first saw the North Country (setting for Winter's End, due out from Steeple Hill in March '10, notice how craftily I stuck that plug in???)that there were stories abounding. No one can put that many diverse dynamics together in one linked area and NOT have stories. It's geometrically and aerodynamically impossible.

I have no idea what that means.


I'm loving the coastal food. Oh, yum. But, Sandra, ol' buddy, ol' pal, you neglected to really push the most important aspect of our romance author research...

The element that brings readers in, time and again...

The shared dynamic that has women turning page after page, always wanting more...

Girlfriend. What were you thinking?????


Of course I'm talking about new updated recipes. Things like Rodeo Stew...

Grinning in WNY

Mary Connealy said...

Hi, Sandra. I am officially home at last.
Never to leave again. Mostly.

I probably trust Wikipedia too much but only for the broad strokes. It's a great jumping off spot and it gives me new rabbit trails to chase.

One of my favorite recent research jobs was to find out about western artists. Wiki gave me lots of names I'd never heard of then I could research them both on wiki and elsewhere.

I also own a really old set of encyclopedias. Since I write historicals that's an amazingly good reference. I mean sure I'm in trouble if I want to research what happened to Michael Jackson (I don't...and chances are I'll never need that for a book)
but the details of the Civil War haven't changed so I go there for basics that I can trust.

Myra Johnson said...

I confess, I am intimidated by research! I plan to come back later and study this post in much greater detail, Sandra! I keep hoping now that I have "real" books coming out, I won't feel so awkward about asking for information when I need it.

Pepper Basham said...

Thanks for the post, Sandra. You gave me even more 'research' to add to my pile of things to do for my WIP. Going on site is FUN!!! My favorite kind of research and, for me, it usually helps me add a few extra moments or characters because of the people I met/saw in that particular spot.

Julie, did you go to Ireland when you were researching your series? If you did, how can you say that part of research isn't fun? ;-)

When I went to Derbyshire & London, UK, (my first plane, train, metro experience), I had an absolute blast AND got plenty of great ideas to add to my WIP - plus realized a little better how to write a British accent.

Having a friend in the UK helps too :-)

Sandra, the tips for finding more 'accurate' information was great too, thanks.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Okay Ruthy, I will confess. I mean what are we romance writers interested in? The hero and heroine of course and don't you know we, as romance authors, have the perfect excuse to stare at those hunks out there and those gorgeous women. When dh catches me looking, I just say "research honey" I need ideas for my next hero. LOL He smiles, "okay dear as long as you look only"

But it is really fun to interview those possible hero/heroine characters and find out about their jobs. In the process we find out interesting facts about them that will work their way into our stories. Things that make them real.

So yes, Myra, go out there and interview. It is really fun and you'd be surprised how much people like to talk about themselves. LOL

Sandra Leesmith said...

Mary, Welcome home. I can imagine you're ready for a break from all the glamour of being a finalist for the Christy Awards. Imagine the research you can use with all those people dynamics going on at the banquet and event. Those personality cross historical lines.

Yes, wikipedia can be useful in leading you to other sources. Aren't the old references a kick? I have a set from 1914.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Pepper, Wow, how fun your trip sounds. Truly, on site research is the best.

And another perk is you can write most of the trip expenses off on your taxes if you're doing legitimate research. At least the cost of the airfare or whatever transportation you use. Also the cost of museum entrance fees, etc. Whatever applies to your wip

Ann said...

Good points in your column!

At the newspaper, I learned the hard way that I still had to check things out, even if I knew that I knew that I knew something.

I know I need to update, too.

I would like to finish a story I started years ago set at a therapeutic riding stable. At one time I was the herd manager for such a place and was a certified instructor.

However, it has been more than 10 years since I've been involved.

If I wanted to resurrect that story, I would have to see how much of what I really, really knew -- has changed. I was involved at that stable for 10 years before Baby #3 made life too complicated and from the first to the tenth year procedures changed, so imagine how much the field changed in my absence!

Sandra Leesmith said...

HI Ann, Yes, do the research because the subject sounds fascinating. There probably are some changes, but with your experience, you'll be able to really portray authentic details that will intrigue us.

There are only so many plots for romance, so what makes them different? Often the characters and the settings, but bringing in new and exciting occupations for our heroes/heroines adds a giant plus.

lynnrush said...

Morning! Great post. Wow, didn't know that about wikipedia..... Interesting.

Thanks for this!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Lynn, As Mary pointed out, wikipedia has its assets. Just be careful and authenticate information that you use from it.

Lee Smith said...

I confess that research is one of my least favorite parts of the writing process. I come up with an idea, charcters, parts of the plot... I am furiously writing in an attempt to capture it before my swiss cheese brain lets something fall through the holes... And then I have to do research to see if my great idea really works, or how to make it work.

I did have some fun with my research this past week as I used the internet to print off pictures of items used in my wip. Since part of my story has critical action taking place in a small jet, I found an article which had all the specs, pictures of the interior & exterior, and a floor plan in pdf. What a find! I printed it off and have it for a visual reference while writing. I have also done that with other buildings and towns I know are in going to be in the area of my fictional site.

I don't think I'll ever quite develop the love of research you have, but maybe I won't dread it so much.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Lee,

Great idea and use of the Internet. It really helps to have those visuals so you can have your characters moving around the jet with authentic realism.

Even better, go to your nearest airport and ask if someone can show you the inside of one of those jets. Try sitting in it.

All you have to do is introduce yourself and tell them you are doing research for your novel and could they........

You would be surprised how willing people are to show off what they do and talk about their possessions.

Erica Vetsch said...

What an informative post, and what a rollercoaster you've been through as a writer!

Thank you also for the review at the end of the post. Very helpful.

Ayrian Stone said...

Sandra--Thanks for challenging us and encouraging us to go for authentic!

I've long given up writing what I know. Which means: research! My research has to come via internet much of the time. But I've also discovered that the internet isn't as detailed as I sometimes need.

I'm so thankful to be part of ACFW with its 'experts list'. A retired colonel recently answered my email on international kidnapping. Straightened my assumptions into facts! (And now I'm eager to read his newly released novel.) Thanks, Mike Angley!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Erica, Glad you found the review helpful.

Ayrian, thanks for reminding us of the expert list on the ACFW site. We are so fortunate to have a wealth of resources available to us these days.

Tina M. Russo said...

Great post Sandra. And I love the pictures. Although I am CLUELESS as to where they are taken.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Tina, you are the expert at visual enhancement. Folks, Tina tried to give me pointers and honestly Tina, I tried, but I just got too frustrated. sigh

Thanks for enjoying the photos. Aren't the pups cute? Anyway, think of where I am and where I've been and they will be obvious.

Julie Lessman said...

Hey, Sandra and Pepper, are you kidding??? If I HAD traveled to Ireland, I definitely would have considered the research fun, trust me! But alas, I was not that lucky, but hopefully someday ...

And Pepper, I am jealous you got to go to the UK -- you lucky dog! The UK and Ireland are the two places I reallllly want to visit.

Thanks for the plug for the books, Sandra -- you're the best, sweetie.


robynl said...

I guessed and I did research so I had help with some:
2)Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
3) Grand Teton range in Wyoming.
4)Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California
5) Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming,
(guess because it's the only geyser I know of)
6)Fern Canyon in Redwood National Park (guessed)

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hey Robyn, Good job on the research. You've only missed one. So I won't tell in case someone else guesses.

btw- That's our motorhome parked with the view of the mountains. Won't tell which ones.

Do you travel Robyn? You get great ideas just from traveling around this magnificent country.

Julie, I can just picture you traveling to Ireland. Hey maybe we can head a trip of Seekers to the Emerald Isle.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Guys, I bought a lifelong Questia membership a few years ago.

Great research tool. I get up to date info from the best minds around, with a constant stream of research to back things up. They carry news, magazines, research papers, etc. so it's a cool at my fingertips tool.


Pepper Basham said...

Okay Julie,
The ONLY reason I got to go is because my little bro bought me the ticket as a birthday present since I've wanted to travel to England ever since I drew my first breath (well close, anyway)...AND he felt sorry for me because I'd never been on a plane. So why not make the first flight count, right? ;-)
Ireland/Scotland are the next two places I want to go...after England AGAIN, but that may have to wait until...whenever.
Did you spend a lot of time in Boston for research?

Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks for the tip Ruthy. Can you tell us how to subscribe? Do you have a URL for Questia? Give us a little more info about what it is. Thanks again.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Seekers, DH and pups are taking me out for a romp on the beach. It stays light so late this far north. Love it. Anyway, it might be a little past eight before I get back, but I'll check for winners.

Leigh said...

Great tips, Sandra -- it's always good to learn new ways of research.

When I started writing fiction I never considered historicals because the prospect of all that research terrified me. Then an idea whacked me over the head, stole my heart, and ... it's a historical. The research has really become one of my favorite parts.

Yes, the Good Lord does have a sense of humor. :-)

Interesting comment from DiAnn Mills when I talked with her at a conference this spring -- she said it's easier for her to research historicals than contemporaries. She has so much techie stuff in her contemporaries that it's hard to stay up to date and keep it believable/accurate. Who would've thought?!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Leigh, Yes, the Lord does have a sense of humor. It is interesting about the technical aspects of today's world. Things do change fast.

In fact, I have a wip I wrote five years ago and when the full was requested, I read it over and had to laugh at the technological stuff already out of date. For example we have wifi now in almost every tourist facility. My poor hero was waiting patiently for his Internet to boot up via his cell phone. Made me laugh.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Robyn, you are the winner. You did have all but one of the sites.

First photo, Me and the pups on Ocean City Beach, Washington

Photo 2 DH and pups at Eagle Falls overlooking Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe, California

Photo 3 Our motorhome parked in view of Grand Tetons in Grand Teton National Park

Photo 4 View from Glacier Point overlooking Vernal and Nevada Falls in Yosemite National Park. (Good job Robyn-you even knew it was Glacier Point)

Photo 5 You're right. Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park

Photo 6 Great guess Robyn because it could easily be the Redwood Forest with all the ferns. It is rain forest in Olympic National Park. I hoped my location which is about 30 miles from that park would have been a clue.

Photo 7 Another shot on Ocean City beach in Washington. This beach is at the south end of the Olympic Peninsula.

I have a selection of books you can choose from. I'll email you. Congrats and thanks for playing along with me.

Maybe next time I post, I'll have clip art figured out. LOL

Sheila Deeth said...

My kids always reckoned I used them for research.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Shiela, That is toooo funny. I bet they give you tons of great ideas. At least you'll have the gamut of emotions. LOL

Sandra Leesmith said...

Well folks, Its past my bedtime

Thanks for joining us today.

Best wishes to all at the RWA conference. Have fun networking and meeting editors and agents.

And lets enjoy that research.

Crystal Laine Miller said...

This is such good advice! I can vouch that Sandy is a good writer/storyteller and she has covered so many interesting stories. I loved the one on the island in Puget Sound...

I'm printing this off to absorb more fully for later.