Research: How deep do you go?

Hi, SeERs! It’s another Mae Day on Story Empire 🙂

I know research has been discussed multiple times, including some brilliant posts by my colleagues at SE, but  I hope you’ll indulge me with my take on the subject.

Digging deep into research is something all writers face. No matter your story arc or characters, sooner or later you’re bound to run into a subject that requires deeper knowledge. As an example, it’s hard to write a believable airline pilot or land developer, if you don’t know how they operate. We all know the internet is a great resource, but you can only go so far in tracking down information. Ideally, if you’re researching a profession, speaking to someone in that career is going to net the best return. Pretty much a no brainer.

What about settings? It’s hard to visit Sedona, Arizona for your romantic suspense set among red rock country, when you live in Vermont. Harder still, to hop on a plane and fly to Scotland for your time-travel, or Romania for your paranormal. Once again, talking to someone who has visited these places is a great asset—a gold mine if you can connect with someone who has lived there. Short of that, there’s nothing wrong with the internet, libraries, and bookstores.

wooden board with large question mark and cards reading Who? What? Why? Where? How/

If you’re fortunate enough to live within a reasonable distance, consider visiting the location you’ve chosen for your book. I generally fictionalize towns in my novels based upon areas I know. River towns, lake towns, and coastal settings show up frequently because I know those best. There is, however, great reward in setting your book in an actual locale.

My Point Pleasant novels are set in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a location about six hours from where I live. I wove a great deal of history and local folklore into the three books that comprise the series. By the time I started writing the first novel, A Thousand Yesteryears, I had devoured multiple books and documentaries about the Mothman and the historic collapse of the Silver Bridge. I’d scoured the internet and had pages upon pages of notes. Something was still missing.

That’s when I convinced my husband a long weekend trip was in order. We made two of those over two years as the series grew. By the time A Cold Tomorrow and A Desolate Hour released, I felt I knew the town and its surroundings well, but had I done them justice?

Multiple reviewers who grew up in the area commented that I had captured the small town feel, history, economics, and folklore well. I couldn’t ask for better. It’s a bit scary playing with an actual setting. A huge relief when local residents give it a thumbs-up.

During one visit to Point Pleasant, a resident told me she could spot visitors immediately by the way they pronounced “Gallipolis”—the town joined to Point Pleasant by the Silver Bridge. If you’re curious, it’s pronounced “galla-police.” I experienced a little thrill that I had said it correctly. Then again, after two years of research, it was drilled into my head!

Cusp of Night, the first book in my new Hode’s Hill series is set in a fictional river town (loosely based upon one I know well). The story utilizes past and present timelines, with the past built around the Spiritualism movement of the late nineteenth century. I couldn’t very well talk to a practicing medium of the 1800s and—since the book addresses tricks used in fraud séances—I certainly didn’t want to approach anyone practicing today! Once again, the internet and bookstores became my friends. I still managed to gain authenticity through the extensive research I did. I could talk for hours about the practices of sham mediums, magicians, and carnival performers of the time. Maybe there is danger when you find your research utterly fascinating. I didn’t use half of what I learned, but all that knowledge made me feel confident when it came time to tackle the writing.

Where do you draw the line with research? How much time do you invest? Have you ever visited an actual location solely for the purpose of novel research? If so, did you find it helped with your writing? I’d love to hear some of your go to practices and sources for research.

Ready, set, go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

72 thoughts on “Research: How deep do you go?

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 1: Ideation | Story Empire

  2. My settings always take place where I live or lived. I do that because I have a connection. An emotional bond and if I can feel it I can write. When it comes to profession, I’m careful. It’s something I have done or knew someone who did. Again, connection comes in to play. But I have a feeling someday I will touch on a profession I know nothing about. When that happens there will be no internet search. I will track down people who did it and I will talk to them face to face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the best way to handle a profession you’re not familiar with, Bryan. And I think for the most part, people are naturally helpful when offering information and insight.

      I like that you use settings you’re familiar with. I do the same, although I fictionalize them rather than using actual towns. That way I get to play with the geography a bit too. It does indeed help to write “what you know.”

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Mae. I love to do research. I’ve visited every place I’ve written about except North Dakota
    I really poured myself into learning about it. Someday I’ll get there and see where my grandma was born, but writing about was kind of like visiting:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Denise, I think it’s so cool that you’ve visited almost all of the places you’ve written about. I can also understand why you’d pour a ton of research into a setting where your grandmother was born. I’ve always wanted to visit North Dakota. There’s so much history there that I find fascinating. I do hope you get to visit one day. (And hopefully, I will, too!). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like to use fictional towns in my books since most are “small” towns. In my first series, Driscoll Lake was loosely based on my home town. Several locals who have read the series recognize that fact. My new series is set in a fictional town in New Mexico. Although I’ve visited that state several times, it’s been a while. Plus I never visited for research purposes. Therefore, I’m relying on the internet and books to help me through. I wrote a short story several years ago with a fictional town. Although I never named the state, a woman in my critique group said to me “this sounds like northern New Mexico near Santa Fe.” I knew I’d nailed it. Hope that’s enough to carry me through the new books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Way to go, Joan! If you have a location in mind, and a reader recognizes that, you have indeed “nailed it.”

      I love to use small town settings too, and I fictionalize 99% of them. It’s so much easier for me, plus I get to “play” with certain things and manipulate them the way I want . I always have some idea of a small town I know well or have visited in my mind when I’m doing that. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also great to utilize a few sparse facts as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great purpose for a trip–to visit your setting. I remember for one of my books, I posited that a group had their office in the basement of the NSA. I had an opportunity to visit the NSA (on a friends and family sort of trip) and got to go into the basement, see if that location worked. I’ll tell you, that added so much to the trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a great trip, Jacqui. It’s so exciting when we (as authors) get to visit actual locations and add that measure of authenticity to our research. I’m sure that visit to the NSA stands out in your memory as being extra special. What a great opportunity to enhance your book!


  6. I like hearing about your hands-on research, Mae. Though I do a ton of research on the internet (how to treat an arrow wound, decomposition rates, or how much does a year-old pig weigh) I actually like in-person research whenever I can manage it. The best trips were to Mesa Verde’s rock dwellings for The Bone Wall, and a trip on a tall ship for the Dragon Soul series. The ship was a blast. While the other passengers were drinking rum, I was walking around with my camera, pestering the crew no end. Ha ha. I got to help shoot off a cannon! Fun post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Diana, that tall ship trip sounds likes so much fun!
      The internet is awesome for research (I love it) but there is something extra special about visiting actual locales and points of interest. I think most people are also very helpful when they find out you’re doing research for a novel. They love talking about their areas of expertise and contributing!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this post, Mae. My answer is the lawyer’s standard answer, it depends. I’ve been to a lot of places, but not specifically for a book. I recall what I can, then rely on Google Maps. I can’t sail on Lanternfish, so I did mountains of research to make things sound authentic. I can’t revisit the seventies, so I had to rely upon memory for a lot of that tale. The Hat stories are set in the Midwest, but I’ve only used the small towns in reference when they are visited. We can go way down the rabbit hole, and I found myself doing that with Yak Guy. Some of it was so interesting it kept me from actual writing. That’s how I came up with the Research Sirens I have on my blog sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I forgot about your Research Sirens. They are so perfectly named!

      Google Maps is an awesome resource. I forgot about mentioning that but have used it a time or two. It’s interesting that we have to research time periods we actually live through. My Point Pleasant series was set in the 80s, but I had to research a ton of information while I was writing, much like you with the 70s.Thank God for the internet. I remember the days of going to the library and hauling out reference books at a table. I still go to the library these days, but my research structure is a lot different.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You make a good point above, Mae. For a good percentage of readers, you can get away with embellishing the facts, but it’s for the few who know the settings that we as writers need to spend due diligence and make sure of our facts. Case in point: My new release, My Girl, has a short scene involving a calf and a shadowy form my protagonist takes for a wolf. I assumed wolves were all over North America, but a reader wrote to me with the shocking news there have been no wolves in Texas for many years! Who knew? lol

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh wow! I am so glad I came across this post… I know how important research is to you, Mae and you take it the extra mile… You most certainly did for your Point Pleasant Series which remains a steady favourite of mine. I did research for Miedo one and two even though they are memoirs, they still required research for both authenticities of facts about places and events, and to make sure I wasn’t remembering something falsely with it being so many years ago despite my own experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post! I’ve never visited a place for research, but I do think it’s an excellent thing to do if you can. My stories have all taken place in fictional places, or places where I’ve been vague about where the setting is, but I’ve still done research about the types of settings to try and get them as realistic as possible.

    P.S. I hope you don’t mind me putting this here, Mae, but… Did you get my eMail with the furkid Friday questions in?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I spend a lot of time doing research, Mae. The sort of historical fiction am have been writing [While the Bombs Fell and Through the Nethergate and my current WIP] require a great degree of accuracy. The historical timeline must be correct and the places, clothing and feel of the time also. The research is time consuming but a lot of fun. I have never visited a place just to put it in a book. I do use places I have visited in my books though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your work always has a strong authentic feel to it because of historical research and accuracy, Robbie. I can tell you like doing it. I really enjoy books that touch on historical time periods or events, especially when the author has invested the time to do them right.
      My trip to Point Pleasant was fun, and I’ve been considering other locations for future books. I’ve also used places I’ve visited in my novels (or fictionalized versions of them). It always makes me feel more confident as a writer, when I know my setting or subject well.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the reblog, Charles. I can see where you’d have less research for fantasy worlds, but I bet there is still a measure involved. When I wrote fantasy I remember researching types of weaponry, fortress structures and clothing styles (from the Middle Ages). I found all of that interesting, then had fun creating the magical elements. I’ve yet to brave dystopian. I’m intimidated by the research in that genre, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome. I didn’t do a lot of in-depth research. Partly because I didn’t always do Middle Ages type things. I already knew a lot about medieval weaponry out of earlier curiosity too. Dystopia did take a lot of research. Challenge depends on how much of the previous world remains and how serious you’re going to be.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: Research: How deep do you go? – Guam Christian Blog

  13. I had an interesting conversation Sunday at lunch with a young lady from Indiana that is on a missions thing with our church for a couple of years. I started a conversation with an observation about a recent movie “Hobbs and Shaw” it was about Hobbs going home to Samoa and essentially taking a war there. Anybody who has spent any time in the Pacific would know that most of the islands aside from Hawaii and Australia wouldn’t have the kind of land for those scenes; they were filmed in Hawaii. The conversation went on to scenes in Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, and even Indiana where a local would know how bogus it was. So yes, lots of research is warranted unless you want to look inept at least to readers in the area of your stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. And wow, do movies cut corners so many times. I know they can’t always film on location, but sometimes just the concept (as you pointed out with Hobbs and Shaw) isn’t feasible. I think a lot of times filmmakers, sometimes authors, count on their viewers/readers not knowing the subject material. A friend and I love everything a certain NYT author puts out, but recently one of the books included information about certain reptiles in Florida. Turns out my friend is somewhat of an expert and the information was completely inaccurate. She liked the overall plot but said that part of it kind of ruined the book for her. Since I know nothing about reptiles in Florida I was oblivious and enjoyed the tale immensely. What a difference!

      Liked by 3 people

  14. Great post on research, Mae. I’m a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to actually visiting the places … some yes, most no. My first book was set in both Dover and Holland. I visited Dover (within reasonable distance at the time of writing) but didn’t leave the UK. All of the Dutch stuff had to be done via online searches. One reader reviewed that the book had a foreign feel to it, which couldn’t have pleased me more. Likewise, when writing The Glade, I have been to the Forest of Dean and a certain small village, but only the once. In addition, I relied heavily upon the internet. For a bus station scene in a city, one forum of complaints was a gold mine … it led me to a great description of sights, sounds, smells to bring that scene to life.
    Your point about not putting all your research into the finished book is an excellent one. I hate it when an author info-dumps. That’s the fastest way to switch me off, lol.
    Reblogged on:

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the reblog, Harmony! It’s definitely not feasible to visit all of the areas we write about in our books, but a mixed bag is a good thing. I use the internet a lot. I also purchase books from Amazon or hit the library when there’s a subject I really want to delve into. That’s when I read with a highlighter, and have a notebook handy to scribble thoughts.

      I’m glad you agree about not using all the research we glean when we’re doing prep work. I’ve read a few books where information seemed forced and showy…kind of an info dump, as you said, rather than natural. For me, when I know a subject well, it gives me the confidence to write about it with a measure of authority. I don’t need to use everything I’ve learned, but I do enjoy talking about it. As an example, the research I did for my Point Pleasant series has enabled me to be a guest speaker at a few events in the past. Those were a lot of fun!

      Liked by 1 person

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