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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hands On Research

“Write what you know.”

That’s one of the first bits of advice most new writers hear. But unless you’re an adrenaline addict, that adage makes for a very boring story. Not many breakout novels revolve around a sink full of dirty dishes, youth soccer games, and PTA meetings.

Little Monk Soccer Match In Seoul

So we must do research. And if you really want to slip on your characters’ shoes, you’ll want to try hands on research. Writing unique characters means stepping outside our comfort zones and attempting things we would never do in real life.

I’m a hermit by nature, so signing up for RWA was an adventure in itself. But since I’ve joined my local chapter, I’ve visited a firing range and shot a gun for the first time.

Nathan Fillion, best known for his role in the cult TV series Firefly and his current lead role in the ABC series Castle , signs autographs after a TV appearance
Channeling Rick Castle, several chapter sisters have gone on ride-alongs with local police officers. Others visited a strip club and interviewed a pole dancer. A staple of our annual retreat is the nightly ‘research workshop ’ where members test fancy drinks so they can write bar scenes with authority.

And then there was that Reno trip to research casinos…but they told me not to talk about that…

Nothing inspires writers more than exploring the location of a new book. Writing a novel without visiting the setting is like submitting a love scene without first testing the choreography with a live subject.
St. Louis Hyatt Regency Arch

At CBC-RWA, when someone says ‘Gee, I’d like to set this novel in St. Louis, but I’ve never been there,’ she’s greeted with chants of “Road trip! Road Trip!” Our historical romance critique group plans trips to England and Scotland two years in advance.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to act out research, especially if you write thrillers. Debating the best way to poison a man while dining in a fine restaurant will you some odd looks from the surrounding tables.

Once, I sat with some writers in a hotel lobby, discussing a fictive terrorist plot to bring down a national landmark. After explaining in great detail how the antagonist would wreak maximum destruction, I noticed an anxious man nearby eavesdropping. Speaking louder, I immediately began tossing about writer’s words: characters, scene, etc. to make it perfectly clear that this was fiction we were plotting. I suppose I should be glad that he did not notify the authorities. But the terrified look on his face stayed with me and convinced me not to write the book even though I'd spent hours developing that story. I guess that was researching my audience, hands on.

So how about you? What’s the weirdest thing you have even done to research a novel? Has your hands on research ever got you into trouble? I would love to hear your stories.


  1. Hands on research is wonderful when one can do it. Alas, not all have the resources to visit England or to take a class in fencing.
    The most controversial part of your advice is that of trying out love scenes. Many romance authors have long bemoaned the fact that people think they must have done everything their characters do in the bedroom. Several novels where the heroine is an author have this misunderstandng as part of the plot. Usually the fictional author has to emphasize the fact she is writing fiction and that she need not have engaged in the fictional sexual acts any more than Agatha Christie need have murdered anyone to write a mystery.

  2. Hmm... lessee... I don't thing I've done anything "strange". I've had a good friend and gun collector take me to the firing range for research (and then practically had to beg him to let me clean the gun so I could have that experience as well)... I've walked the city and spent hours in museums plotting scenes to take place there... Nothing really unusual, I don't think. Perhaps the most memorable/long lasting was years back when I wrote a character who was a hockey fan, so I went to a game just to experience it. I've been a hardcore hockey fan ever since!

  3. Thanks, Jen! It would never occur to me to write a character that was a fan of a sport I didn't know. But I can see how it would make the character more interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great post! I usually research in libraries and online, so it was thrilling to go to a firing range to learn how to shoot a gun -- because it was the same exact experience my heroine had in the book. It would not have been the same without that hands-on research, and it was fun too!

    Now I'm trying to figure out what else I need to research. (I think I've researched the "fancy drink" ones enough -- I'll have to pick something else! LOL)

  5. I am pretty sure I haven't done anything weird, but those who travel with me may think differently. You are so right about hands on reasearch. I used to spend hours on websites and with my nose in a history book. Then, I got the opportunity to chaparone a trip to Paris. None of my stories ever took place in France - just England or the Colonies. I fell in love with the city, the history, the architecture . . . It was a huge influence on my next project. I went back a second time and this time I was more prepared and took over 400 photos and had my dictaphone with me constantly to take notes or record the travel guide. Next spring I get to go back and I can't wait.

  6. Great post, Clarissa!

    I don't think I've ever done anything weird. But my hubby and I did take a 10 day research trip to London a few years ago. It was amazing. We were up by 7am every morning so we could fit in all the major historical landmarks. At 6 every night, when all the museums closed, we started our historical pub crawls and kept a journal of the pubs, their history, and the ales we tasted. We took about 700 photos and around 6 hours of video footage, then we made an hour and fifteen minute movie and made all our friends watch it. LOL!

    The best thing we did that helped so much in the research department was we took "London Walks." The company has a whole slew of guided walks ranging from Shakespeare to Harry Potter, and they last 2-3 hours. You can learn so much in that time, and it's fantastic! (I think they have a Paris division, too.)

    Fun post! I feel like I just got to relive my trip :)

  7. I think my weird research ends up happening naturally, and then it makes it into books later on -- from everyday stuff like teaching someone to crochet to once-in-a-lifetime adventures like "That Time an Ancient God Got Mad at Me" and "Meeting the Man Who Invented Paisley." I hoard my weird, then hope it'll come in handy.

  8. Great idea, Jessica. I think I do a bit of weird-hoarding myself. Thanks for posting.

  9. I tend to view most experiences from the point of view of "Could ths be a scene in my WIP?" I do some online research as well but it amazes me how many day to day experiences I can use or tweak a little to fit what I am writing. A few weeks ago my husband burned our field of weeds and I took frantic mental notes for a scene with fire.

  10. Meredith, thanks for commenting. I agree,day to day experiences are a great source for research. If only I could always remember to observe like a writer, capturing every detail.

  11. Great post, Clarissa. I love the way your group researches. For me, I know I'm on some Homeland Security watch list somewhere since I recently scoured the Internet for Al Qaeda names, weapons of mass destruction, etc.
    But the best story I have is this one.
    A good friend wanted to read one of my manuscripts, so she took it on a road trip with her hubby. He was bored while she read so he asked her to read it out loud. When she got to the sex part, he looked at her and said, "I think we need to pull off the highway for a minute." Think what would have happened if I was an erotica author??
    Since then, he keeps asking her "Do you think Liz knows all that stuff she writes about?" And he looks at me now in a completely different way even though I keep telling him I wrote that 400 page novel about Colombia and have never been there. LOL
    Anyway, this was fun reading.

  12. I haven't had the opportunity to travel extensively yet but I'm looking forward to doing more travel eventually. I took my first road trip last year to New Mexico and had a blast. I can't wait to schedule another, and another. It's addictive really. lol.

    I do think as a writer of historical westerns it gave my writing a sense of realism it wouldn't have otherwise.

    And as far as the trying out sex scenes before we write them lol, hubby is more than happy to help in that department. I don't see anything wrong with trying what we write in the bedroom, sex is no longer a derogatory word imho.

    Now I'm not up for murder but I'll try out love scenes any day of the week. =)

  13. I walked Belgravia in London and took pictures of No. 10 Lyall Street, which is my character's house in THE YARD MAN. Did tons of London research while I was there for the entire Yard Men series. Also visited the Isle of Sky, Scotland, where an upcoming Mainstream w/romantic elements project is set. I also have WIP's set in Spain and India. Can't wait to do that road trip research!

  14. Nothing unusual for me, but I love watching all of the BBC historical movies I can get my hands on. Of course, they are not completely accurate, but it helps me do a little world building. Traveling is also huge for me - seeing the streets of London, Oxford, and Bath is an experience unlike any a research book can offer.

    Great Post! Oh, and I haven't written any sex scenes, but I sure tried out a few kissing scenes on the hubby. It's super helpful to not only have a visual, but to pay attention to all five senses to write a more well-rounded scene :)

  15. Oddly enough, my hands-on research is seldom directly related to anything I'm writing. For example, I've never written a Medieval, but I've been fitted for a kyrtle.

    But then I come by it honestly--I can still remember the day I came home from grade school to find my mother distilling ethanol from a fermented pan of kitchen scraps using some copper piping and a burner on the stove. Ah, memories.

  16. I loved this post. I don't have a chance to travel often. I wish I could go to Scotland since part of my current story is set there, but for now, I content myself with research. I laughed at your story about the terrorist plot. My critique partner and I go to breakfast or lunch once every week or two and we always get carried away with plotting, which we both love the most about writing, and we'll have some really bizarre conversations working out plot problems with vampires and demons and murder. We try to keep our voices down but sometimes we forget.

  17. Oh, how I love that writing lets me get into so many places in the name of research! I've had some fun moments, such as the time I was driving around San Francisco looking for the "right" house and a lady invited me in to look at her house, but asked me first if I had a gun O_O

    Then there was the ride-along in a fire truck--just moments after the deputy chief assured me they hardly ever had a fire in their town, the call came in for a fire and there we were, flying through the streets at 80mph, hanging on for dear life. What a blast!

  18. When I need specific information, I usually go online or to the library. But I do draw on the experiences I've already had, so if an opportunity comes up to try something new, I usually with try it even if I'm not writing a book about that topic. I was the only mom on a field trip with first graders to slide down the fire pole. Why not??? When would I ever get that opportunity again? I can't believe the other moms passed it up. Too bad I didn't get to ride in the truck like Gabrielle. :)

  19. Great post! I'm going to the location of one of my MS's this fall so that I can do some rewrites. I will actually be able to work on a scene in the real coffeehouse from that scene...crazy!

  20. Thank you all for the great stories. You've certainly given me some ideas of things I'd like to try someday. Now if I can just come up with a traveling fireman-pole dancer-demon plot, I'll know what to do.

  21. LOL, Clarissa! "Traveling fireman-poledancer-demon..." You have some wild vacations from the sounds of it. ;)

  22. All I know is that since I started writing my historical romance (late Victorian period), I somehow managed to buy a whole shelf of books on manners, photos, articles of the period. And my friends have sent me books when they run across them. So it's getting OUT OF CONTROL!

    I'm setting part of my book in my neighborhood in NYC, so that's the easy part, but the early part of it is in the countryside of England, and I've never really been there. Hmmmm. road trip perhaps?

    Another great post Gail!