Saturday, May 8, 2010

Research for Fiction

My latest manuscript, which I recently sent to my agent, is a contemporary middle-grade novel. There was no world building involved, no fantasy elements or things I had to conjure out of thin air. So you'd think I'd be able to just sit down and write it, right? Well, not exactly.

There are animals involved (of course.) And the animals scenes are the easiest ones for me to write, because I've been around animals all my life and they just come naturally. Scenes with dogs, cats, horses usually roll right off the keyboard without much effort, and are some of my favorite things to write.

But when the plot involves something I'm not entirely acquainted with, I want the facts to be correct. It's all well and good to say you are writing fiction, and can make anything up. But for me as a writer it's important to be not only plausible, but also to have the scenes be as truthful as possible, especially in a contemporary tale.

So I consulted some experts in the field this time. People who could answer my questions - such as could this really happen? Where and how might this take place?

Most of the time, this is a lot of fun, because when you explain that you are a children's author, and show them proof (a bookmark, a published book) they think it's totally cool and open up to you about everything.

But not always. I talked to a clerk at a fast food/gas station combo that doubles as a Greyhound bus stop in a small town. He was extremely paranoid about answering any of my questions, but even that was helpful information ;-)

I consulted with a probation officer in the state of California about crimes and sentences and phone calls from jail.

I talked to several wonderful young men and women in military recruiting offices, who filled me in on general details from the Army, Navy, and Air Force programs, and who seemed very appreciative that I wanted to get things right.

And I had a long conversation with a very generous Fire Chief about possible consequences of boys playing with fire and getting into trouble.

I loved doing this research, and I took lots of notes. Afterwords, when I sat down to actually write the scenes, I felt informed and satisfied that my words rang true, because even though the plot line involved things outside my area of expertise, at least now I had the facts. And it also gave me confidence to tackle subjects a little out of my comfort zone in the future, because there are always experts in every field.

Have you done research for your writing? Did you enjoy it? Tell us about it.


Susan said...

I need to research haying and ranching practices from 50 years ago for the book I'm working on. It's not a glamorous time, so not a lot has been written about it that I can find. I'm asking old-timers around here to remember. Most of them are pretty good at telling me what I need to know.

Vonna said...

When I was a kid, I expected, even in fiction, that the book I was reading would tell me the truth. I loved discovering things that I didn't know, and finding them through my favorite hobby, reading fiction, made it even more fun. When the author skipped the work necessary to make the details accurate, I felt cheated. So now I research everything. Just like reading when I was a kid, discovering new things while writing is still one of my favorite things.

Linda Benson said...

Susan - I'm so glad to hear you're working on another book. Great! And yes, old-timers love to talk about what they know - and they generally know a lot.

Vonna - I have always loved to discover and learn new things from reading, too, which is probably why I feel it's important to pass that stuff on, and to be as accurate as possible.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Loretta Nyhan said...

I'm so intrigued by your research topics! Can't wait to read the book.

For my current WIP, I had to research Tarot cards, work visas, and Irish dancing.

Irish dancing was the most difficult to get right. Now, all of my cousins danced as kids and I grew up around it, so I should be the expert, right? Um, what I knew was just a small fraction of what I needed to know in order to present my world as realistically as possible. I grilled my cousin and actually made her write out all the dance steps to the Chicago Reel. I'm sure she's thinking up some way to get me back!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Linda--Thanks for stopping by my blog and reading about Stripes. Reading everyone's encouraging words is helping (although I'm still quite weepy).

Nice post. I love research. Right now I'm reading one of Winston Churchill's books. I've interviewed several people and been all over the BBC website.