Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Write What You Don’t Know by Melanie Dobson

Melanie Dickerson here, and my guest is none other than the other Melanie D, Melanie Dobson! That's right, there are two Melanie D's in Christian fiction. Melanie and I also share an agent, Natasha Kern, which is how we ended up getting to meet in person, sitting together at an ACFW banquet. Melanie Dobson was just as sweet and delightful to talk to as I could have imagined her to be. And we did get a picture together, but alas, my photos are woefully unorganized and I couldn't find it in order to post it today. You'll have to imagine the two of us together, smiling and having fun. 😊

And now, without further stalling, here's Melanie Dobson.

When I first started writing fiction, I was often told to “write what I know,” but I quickly realized that I don’t know that much, at least not enough to sustain a career as a novelist. After the release of my first novel, I wanted to learn much more, so I developed a research process that works for me, using the five resources below to build my contemporary and historical story worlds:

Surf the Web
The ideas for my novels come from many different sources, but I always partner with Google in the beginning to explore dozens of possibilities. When I wrote Chateau of Secrets, for example, I wondered if there were any Jewish men in Hitler’s army. I discovered online that there may have been 100,000 Jewish men who served in the Wehrmacht, and this startling fact became central to my plot.

In the past twenty years, I’ve read countless interviews, watched dozens of how-to videos, tested my main characters on sites like 16personalities.com, and connected with experts on a variety of topics. I’ve explored potential settings around the world through Google Earth VR and used social media to research the contemporary portions of my time-slip stories.

For my latest novel, Hidden Among the Stars, I searched online until I found the history of the Austrian lake castle that inspired my story and then contacted a violin maker in Salzburg who helped me create a character passionate about her violin.

The Internet is fantastic for connecting people and to verify a number of facts (on reputable sites, of course), but online research is just the beginning. To dig deeper, I have to go offline.

Explore Museums and Living History
When I’m writing historical fiction, I’ve discovered that museums along with living history farms, exhibits, and towns like Williamsburg or Roscoe Village are gold mines. Each place offers an educational window to the past, and at these towns and exhibits, I’ve learned how to run a printing press, escape through a mine, load a rifle, break into an ancient coffin, pan for gold, and drive an Amish buggy. Things that would have been difficult to learn through written references or a video.

The tour guides at living history landmarks and museums seem to have accumulated more information than a textbook. The hands-on experience and the opportunity to email guides later with more questions is invaluable. 

Invade the Library
Top secret—that’s what was stamped across the folder in England’s National Archives. To research Catching the Wind, I spent a day scouring recently released spy files outside London to learn about British citizens who had spied for Nazi Germany. The information I found in these files shaped my entire book.

Clothing catalogs, research papers, personal letters, magazines, and diaries—reference materials like these can be found in archives or a library. For historical research, these references provide basic information about attire and food during a specific era as well as more abstract concepts like how people approached life and what world events shaped their thinking.

For each new novel, I work closely with my local reference librarian to find the exact resources I need, and she helps me find answers to any lingering questions—like how British spies developed and hid microphotographs during the war.

Interview Experts and Locals
Many people love to talk about their childhoods or hobbies or area of expertise, and if I tell them I write fiction, they’ll often give me much more information than I need for the book. Or at least, more than I think I’ll need…

Several months ago, I had the privilege of meeting with a Dutch Jewish gentleman who had been hidden away as a child during World War II. I befriended his sister online after reading a local news article, and she and her brother graciously opened up their world to me over coffee, sharing many personal stories about their own journey and their mother’s struggles and determination living in a concentration camp. Encounters like this one provide me with an enormous amount of information to build my story.

Because I write both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed detectives, artists, Quaker friends, World War II heroes, and families of men and women who were part of the French resistance. I’ve spent hours listening to personal accounts about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and living in an England manor in the 1950s. Each person, each memory, redirects my plot and adds another layer of authenticity to a fictional story.  

Visit the Location
When I researched Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana, I spent several days climbing secret staircases and exploring other hidden places in homes that had once been stations along the Underground Railroad. I drove through the surrounding forest at night, and when I stepped out into the darkness, the owls hooted and the cloud cover masked the stars. My heart raced, and I felt terribly alone—a glimpse of what a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs.

When writers evoke the senses on paper, describing what the characters smell, hear, or taste, we invite readers to step directly into our story world. It can be challenging for me to describe the sensory information from a distant location, so I always visit my main settings, meeting the people and learning their stories even as I explore old towns and castles and gardens, scribbling down all the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes along the way.

With each of my novels, more than twenty of them now, I spend about a month slowly compiling the pieces needed to engage readers, typing all the information into folders on Scrivener. Because research has become my favorite part of writing, I have to deliberately set aside my mounds of background work after a month to begin putting my own words on paper. With the details now rooted in my mind, I’ll become completely lost in a story, and for the next three or four months, I’m writing about all that I’ve learned.

So now it's your turn, Seekervillagers! Tell us in the comments some things you learned from reading a novel that you didn't know before. Has there been a novel that got you interested in a new hobby or sent you to Google or Wikipedia to find out more? One lucky commenter will win a copy of Melanie Dobson's Hidden Among the Stars.

From the award-winning author of Catching the Wind, which Publishers Weeklycalled “unforgettable” and a “must-read,” comes another gripping time-slip novel about hidden treasure, a castle, and ordinary people who resisted evil in their own extraordinary way.
The year is 1938, and as Hitler’s troops sweep into Vienna, Austrian Max Dornbach promises to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions from the Nazis, smuggling them to his family’s summer estate near the picturesque village of Hallstatt. He enlists the help of Annika Knopf, his childhood friend and the caretaker’s daughter, who is eager to help the man she’s loved her entire life. But when Max also brings Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman, to hide at the castle, it complicates Annika’s feelings and puts their entire plan—even their very lives—in jeopardy. Especially when the Nazis come to scour the estate and find both Luzia and the treasure gone.

Eighty years later, Callie Randall is mostly content with her quiet life, running a bookstore with her sister and reaching out into the world through her blog. Then she finds a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that connects her to Annika’s story . . . and maybe to the long-buried story of a dear friend. As she digs into the past, Callie must risk venturing outside the safe world she’s built for a chance at answers, adventure, and maybe even new love.
Get your copy of Hidden Among the Stars here.


Writing fiction is Melanie Dobson’s excuse to explore abandoned houses, travel to unique places, and spend hours reading old books and journals. The award-winning author of almost twenty books, Melanie enjoys stitching together both time-slip and historical novels including Hidden Among the Stars, Chateau of Secrets, and Catching the Wind. More information about Melanie’s journey is available at http://www.melaniedobson.com/.


  1. There have been quite a few books set against WWII that I learned a lot from. Liz Tolsma's books taught me a lot and yes I did go check things out on the internet.

    Melanie's new book looks wonderful and I would love to win a copy.

    Cindy Woolard
    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  2. Good morning, Melanie (and Melanie!)

    I've been a fan of time slip stories ever since I read Chateau of Secrets. Before reading it, I had a hard time imagining how it would work, but your story was seamless and I couldn't put it down!

    I also love research. I immerse myself in my character's worlds before writing and as I write, and I have to make myself put the research aside to start writing the book. There are so many things you can learn by following rabbit trails, and those are the kinds of details that add depth to the story, aren't they?

    And to answer your question, I can't begin to say how much I've learned through reading - both historical and contemporary fiction. When we homeschooled, we used a literature-based history curriculum, and quality historical fiction was our starting point for any era of history.

    Thank you for being here today, and I'm looking forward to reading Hidden Among the Stars!

    1. Thanks so much for your note, Jan! Yes, I often learn by following those rabbit trails as well. I never enjoyed history in school, but when I started to learn the stories...

  3. It's invasion of the Melanies day here at Seekerville. How lucky can we be?

    Welcome, Melanie, and thank you for this interesting post. Research is often the bane of my existence. Yet, even in writing contemporary romance, it's inevitable. And sometimes, it's an historical event or character that ends up giving a contemporary story more depth.

    Thanks for joining us today.

    1. The invasion of the Melanies... I like that! Yes, research is inevitable, no matter the genre. :)

  4. Welcome Melanie, Actually both Melanies. I have learned many things by reading and also much by my research. For instance did you know it is legal to own a still in NC. It is just illegal to shell the moonshine.

    of course living in the Appalachian mountains I see all kinds of signs about moonshine for sale. My brother even got moonshine jelly for a Christmas gift one year.

    I discovered this for a story I am writing about an ER chief of staff and a nurse which is set in the area where I live. I got to thinking about what would happen if a still blew up and the person operating would be brought into the ER. So I googled it figured it would be illegal to own a sill.

    Still suffering from the Vertigo and having to leave for the dentist in a couple of minutes. Not the greatest of days but the Lord is so good.

    Hope everyone in the path of Florence stays safe.

    1. Praying for you, Wilani. Hope the dentist goes well. I spent two hours there myself this morning. Not my favorite place.

  5. Hello to the Melanies! Great post. I love to do research, so I like to read the tips. The book sounds good. Please put me in the drawing.

    I know I have learned many things I didn't know from reading fiction. Nothing comes to mind at the moment.

  6. On another topic, I don't know how many of you have seen the video of the grandmother reading The Wonky Donkey to her grandson. It is so funny. The book was out of print, but because the video had gone viral, everybody is looking for it. We have had lots of people call the book store where I work asking about it, and now my boss has learned it is being republished and will be available the beginning of October. I can't stop thinking about the author who had a book out of print and all of a sudden this great fortune has dropped in his lap and there is a huge demand for the book.

    1. Yes! I was thinking about the author as well, Sandy, and what a blessing this would be. How wonderful!

    2. I just went and watched it and am now laughing/crying too. :) That is hilarious. A good way to start the day...

  7. Hi Melanie:

    In everything I read I most like learning about things I thought were true but were not! Enlighten me and save me from future embarrassment.

    Next show me interesting factoids that are fun to know and which make me feel smarter for having read your book.

    Also make historical events play some part in your novel’s plot. It does not have to be big but because it happened I’ve learned something and feel the story has more authenticity which I really enjoy in historical fiction.

    As for research there are books and articles about general misconceptions folks have. Compare the one below from the Wall Street Journal:


    I must say that you are a Melanie too far...as I've not yet read one of your book. What would you say is your book that makes the best use of its historical setting?

    Thanks for your post today.


    1. Hi Vince. I always try to immerse myself and the story completely in the setting. Chateau of Secrets in France was one that I particularly enjoyed researching because we were able to spend time at the chateau and grounds that inspired the story.

  8. Hi Melanie & Melanie! What a wonderful post. I am not an author, but I do love accompanying Ruth Logan Herne on her research trips & sharing my two cents about what she should write. ;)

    Recently I read Mary Connealy's The Accidental Guardian and definitely learned more about wagon trains and the dangers they faced.

  9. Hi, Melanie! One of the reasons that I love reading Dick Francis mysteries is how deeply he dove into researching different occupations. I learned about photography, airplanes, painting, horse transport, meteorology, and so much more from reading his stories.

  10. Hi Melanie, I enjoyed learning about your preparation for a new book. Reference was one of my favorite duties at the library and I still love to research a new topic. I recently served on the launch team for Across the Blue and I loved finding more information on early flight and women journalists in the early 1900s. I look forward to reading Hidden Among the Stars.

  11. Melanie, welcome! Such an interesting post! You have an amazing array of resources. I'm impressed with how you've reached out and received help on the research! So many generous people.

    I just love your book cover! It's gorgeous. And the story sounds amazing.

    1. Thanks, Missy! I love the cover too!! So grateful for the art team at Tyndale for designing it...

  12. Wonderful post, Melanie and Melanie. I enjoyed hearing how you approach a new story and the manner in which you conduct your research. So fascinating. Especially when you must travel to distant places to get a more complete sense of your story world. I love exploring living museums too. The staff are so well informed and they are a novelist's best friend. Can't recall at the moment something I've learned from reading a novel but certain I have become better informed. Your latest looks like a fantastic read. I would also love to win a copy.
    patjeannedavis AT comcast DOT net

  13. Fantastic post, Melanie! I've learned lots of things in novels.

  14. I love when authors do extensive research for a book. cheetahthecat1986ATgmailDOTcom

  15. Thanks so much for hosting me today, name twin. :) I loved our dinner together at ACFW. I have pictures somewhere too!

    1. You're welcome, Melanie! So sorry I forgot to join in the fun yesterday! ACK! I meant to hang around. Not sure how I forgot. It was on my calendar. But you rocked it! Way to go!!!

  16. What a neat post, Melanie! You almost make me want to research.
    I definitely learn things when reading novels. The most recent one I can think of was everything I learned about the struggle the channel islands went through during WWII. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has me fascinated with its history.

  17. What a great post! I have also heard "write what you know" and I don't know much! The information you shared is invaluable. I've been reading "Love Waits" which is Book 5 of the Davenport Series by Judah Knight (great books if you haven't read them!) I've learned so much history and diving - it's fascinating!