Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Research Road

Any writer worth her or his salt will do research. You might think that there really isn't much to research in a world we're all familiar with, but you might also be wrong. What would you do in the name of research? How far would you go?

I've done all sorts of things from the Great Acorn Hunt to a brief exhilerating ride in a two-seater ultralight plane. Wheeee! Now that was a rush. I've researched planes--kicked a few tires and watched them fuel them, helped to roof a house (and replace the siding on the same house) in the winter, changed a toilet, replaced a muffler in an ice storm, and rode along with a student driver for a tractor-trailer lesson. I've played a hammered dulcimer and a bowed psaltery and a lap harp and a harmonica. Did I say I played well? No, but the experience of holding the odd hammers in my hands and striking the vibrating strings while they hummed under my hands is one I won't forget.

Some facts can be easily checked over the internet. Others can really only be experienced by doing. Actually changing a tire in the rain is very different from reading about it. Only by doing it "for real" do you find out how slippery the rubber tire and jack get when wet. Until you've tried to loosen lug nuts while dressed in heels and stockings, you don't really have a decent perspective on the difficulties.

Actual experience cannot be beat for that ring of authenticity in your writing. I lived through the turbulent sixties. I have a video tape with the "highlights" of the sixties. When I sat down to watch it with my kids it was hard to articulate just how paltry the tape was compared to the real deal. There was little comprehension when we talked about the events on the tape. It was as remote to them as if I was talking about the Medieval Ages.

Walking through the wilderness is different from reading about it. Living survival is a much more terrifying experience than most people can imagine. Standing on a mountain top you've climbed with that first rush of accomplishment zinging through you is exhilerating in ways that are difficult to explain. Encountering your first rattlesnake or scorpion or gila monster releases all those childhood memories of the boogy man in the dark. Tumbling out of control down a raging river marks you forever with the respect for out of control flash floods.

Some of my research was involuntary--to say the least--but if I refuse to share my past experiences then I have failed. Do I need to go to the moon to write about it? No, but I can use my experiences with unexpected accomplishments to convey how I would feel it I reached the moon.

I embarked on a time-travel novel set in 500 BC America. It has been a worthy experiment for me. Almost every page has required me to step back and look at the story line. Nothing is simple. How to purify water? How to build a shelter? How to harvest food in the wild? How to defend against hostile animals and people?

Even a contemporary setting has a stage set. Where does the action take place? What kind of building? What kind of car? In a shopping mall? All of those require fact checking. I once critiqued a story for a friend several years ago. She set the story in a city in the south. And in one sequence she had her characters shopping at a grocery story that is popular in the northeast. That chain has no stores in the south. When I pointed out this error she declared that I was too picky... that no one would notice. Well, I suspect that readers from the south would notice pretty quickly!

The next time you read a book, notice the details. Because none of them were free.


Don't forget to stop by Amarinda's blog at to check out the covers and excerpts she has posted. And thn pop over to Kelly's blog at for her Sunday Quote.


  1. Life experience is everything. Grinding down acorns is just insane. Sorry mate someone had to say it

  2. That's why I sometimes I have a problem with 'don't get it right; get it written', because I always want to chck my facts as I go along! Before we had internet, I had several friends who knew to expect a phone call out of nowhere, asking about certain details, just to be sure I had it right.

    Good blog, Anny. Yes, readers notice details. I wish I'd sone just a smidge more myself before I submitted my 1st one; The space shuttle Challenger explodes twice. Oops!

  3. Annie, you have enough experience and "research" to fill many lives and books. No wonder you wrote so many.

    I took a class on car maintenace to learn to be independent, but after trying once, only once, to change a tire, I learned that the best way was to call AAA, call my husband, call my son, sit and wait while listening to a soothing music. It get done faster and better.

    As for the rest of my research, I set my stories only in countries and places I have visited and know well.


  4. That's why they say to 'write what you know'.

    Mona, I'm still trying to figure out questions to ask about my chem major. She's the subject of book #10, and I'm only on #8. Still haven't figured out her abilities yet...I'll be emailing you soon:)

  5. Like in a recent scene for the newly contracted Marriage Plot, I have the heroine cutting our hero's hair. Just to be sure, had to find out when scissors were invented, what they looked like etc. You just don't think about it unless you have to implement them. Nice Blog as usual. And I'm with AJ, you won't find me processing acorns. I'd go to the store to buy it perhaps and MAYBE work through a recipe, but not on my own.