Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Researching The Contemporary Novel

Question: What kinds of research do you do for your contemporary novels?

Research is part of every novel. Clearly historical, complex thrillers and mysteries, and medical novels need much research, but as an author of contemporary fiction, I do a tremendous amount of research as well while using a variety of techniques.

Setting is one place I research. I prefer to visit the location, because I like to include real streets and real places if possible. Sometimes I give them fictional names, but I leave enough elements in place for the reader who lives in the area to know a store or restaurant. If I can’t visit an area, I interview people who live there. I contact the Chamber of Commerce for brochures and information about the community. I use travel books that provide details that I've gathered from travel agents or borrow them from the library. I also use the Internet to learn about the flora and fauna, birds, weather, business/employment opportunities, special community events, the local newspaper’s name, and anything else that comes to mind.

I'm not shy about calling strangers to ask for information. I've called stores in various locations to learn if they sell clothes for teenagers. I've called specific hospitals to learn if they have double rooms or only single or to find out if the birthing rooms have the mothers and babies together for the full day. I've called cities to learn where there Fourth of July parade begins and ends.

I've found people excited to share information and I try to include the names of those who've helped me in the acknowledgements of the book and I also send them a complimentary autographed copy when the book is released.

When I give my characters a specific career, I speak with people who are employed in those positions. I want to know the lingo, the idiosyncrasies of the job, names of the tools or equipment they use, hours they work, peculiarities about their positions, and anything else that will help me make the novel realistic and to avoid errors. For example, if you've been to a hospital in the last few year, you'll know that the staff works twelve hour shifts in many cases and then have extra days off. Often careers align to certain personality types so learn all you can about the attributes of the person you interview to give them to your character. Engineers want clear, precise details and facts. They want to see timelines and therefore tend to chart and graph their lives.

When characters are involved in interests or you need details beyond your experience, it is necessary to research this information. In my first two Loving Series novels, many scenes included sailboats and sailing. I had only sailed once, so I read books about sailing. On the Internet, I researched real life experiences written by people who sail, and I interviewed individuals who are knowledgeable in sailing. I even asked these people to critique the chapters that included scenes on a sailboat to make sure I used the proper lingo.

When I wrote a medical suspense story, I contacted two doctors—one an ER physician and the other a surgeon—to provide me with the facts and jargon of doctors. I also had three nurses provide me with nursing information—what things are called, kinds of medication used, and a host of other questions.

In some of my suspense novels, I interviewed detectives and police officers to learn about phone taping, crime investigations, procedures, and any other information I needed to make the novel accurate and real.

Interviewing and experience are two of the best forms of research, but the Internet can also provide information as well as books written for writers on the topics you need. You'll be wise when using the Internet or books to make sure you find the same information at least three times to assume it's accurate. Where ever you travel, keep good notes, take photographs and collect brochures. You never know when you’ll be able to use the information in a novel.


Camille Cannon (Eide) said...

I want as few errors as possible. There are some things I am having a hard time finding the info I need, though. One is how to check the phrases and idioms used by my Scottish characters. I'm not even talking dialect here; I'm keeping that very light. I just don't want to give them phrases and idioms in dialogue that I don't even realize are things we only use in the US.
I have added what few phrases I can find and that helps add color to their dialogue, but that doesn't keep me from giving them wrong phrases. I wonder if when my draft is done if I should find a Scottish author who would be willing to trade critiques or something.

I also have my blind granny taking off in the ancient farm truck. It takes my hero some hard running to catch up with her, but when he does, he gets a hold of the driver door (on the right side, of course, since they're in Scotland), reaches in and yanks the key - or whatever it would take to kill the engine.

So I need to find out what kind of truck you might find in Scotland that's about 50 years old now and whether or not you could stop the thing by pulling out the key.

Where would you look for something like that?

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Camille - Even in this country phrases and "lingo" change so quickly it's difficult to keep up. I think your idea of have someone who's lived in Scotland read the book -- or at least some of the phrases you've used and see if it works. You can purchase phrases books for different countries, I believe, but again what's in a book and how we really talk varies.

Since cars have been similiar in most countires -- and many cars used to come from the U.S. in other countries, I would say that cars and trucks from the 50s would definitely be stopped by turning off the key.

Do you belong to any writers groups? ACFW, which I'm a cofounder, has 1500 members and usually when a question is tossed out many people provide answers to help the writers with research and the organization has an archive filled with writing resources. If you have a writer's group, I would ask there too.

I've been to Scotland but that's been in recent times and even then I can't remember their word useage. The problem is -- as in England -- an elevator is a lift, a truck is a lorry, the hood is a bonnet (I think), and so on. The language is different so it's not easy to set a story there.

Another thing you might do is read some novels set in those countries and take notes of the phrasiology and particular use of certain words that are used differently. That would help in your research as well.

I hope I've given you some ideas.


Camille Cannon (Eide) said...

I do belong to ACFW and am grateful for the people there so willing to help with little details. It's nice to have such a large, helpful network.

I guess I'm afraid of using 'hearsay' information instead of resources that you could actually site if needed. But it's fiction, so it's a matter of plausibility.

I've been looking for novels written by contemporary Scot authors. They're not easy to find! And I didn't know about the lorry!!
That's important.

Oh, there's nothing like choosing a difficult setting for my first novel. Even set in current times, I guess it's harder than I thought. (Since you've been there recently, did you see bagpipers greeting travelers at the airport?)

Thank you, Gail!! This is a huge help.

Tiffany Stuart said...

Having a writers giveaway at The Writing Road blog. Hope you will stop in during the month of January. Post a comment to be included.