Thursday, March 12, 2015

How Research Can Strengthen Any Story

One of the reasons I love writing contemporary romance so much is that I don't have to worry so much about period-specific clothes, customs, sayings, etc. because I'm already living in the time of the story. I really enjoy reading historicals, but the idea of all that research in my own writing makes me a nervous wreck! What if I get one detail wrong and mess up the credibility of the whole thing?

But does that mean contemporary writers are off the hook when it comes to research? Not even a litte. We just do a different kind of research. We still need to know all about our settings, how the characters would really speak to one another in their home environments, and cultural normals, which can vary from one city of a city to the other, let alone from one side of the country to the next!

Doing strong research can benefit any story, and though I know it's easy to shrug off the research stage (especially as a contemporary writer or as a historical writer already familiar with a particular time in history), doing so can be detrimental. Just think of all the editing you'll have in store for you when you realize, for instance, only half of Florida uses the phrase "y'all" and drinks sweet tea! :)

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to go on a short trip to Charleston with my husband for our babymoon. We chose Charleston because it was the perfect pace for my seven-month-pregnant-self and because we both adore the city. But, an added plus is that Charleston is also the location of my new work-in-progress. It is amazing how doing a little story-related research can energize you and get your creative wheels turning!

So, what are some ways you can dive in?

  • Plan a visit to the town/location your story is set in. Maybe your story is set in England, and this is unrealistic. Well, be creative! You may not be able to afford airfare to Europe, but I bet you can find an English teashop somewhere in driving distance! Or maybe a particular kind of house, tree, barn, etc. plays a key role in your story. Even if you can't visit the real city your story is set in, find a similar object and spend an afternoon near it. Let it really sink into your senses, and take notes. What are the sounds, sights, smells? How do people react to it? If you can visit the location of your story, even better! I guarantee the trip will be worth your while!
  • Talk to/interview someone who relates to your story. While in Charleston, I had the privilege to interview a woman who does walking tours and knows some extensive history that directly relates to my characters' genealogy. Your interviews could be with someone who knows a lot about your setting, or could be with someone who has the same career as your hero/heroine. Rene Gutteridge was the first one to give me this advice, and it really does make a difference. Something comes alive when you speak with people firsthand.
  • Take time to imagine yourself in that situation. I know for me, at least, it's easy to get a few location details at place in a setting description, then rush forward with the story. Instead, push yourself into the living, breathing story. Imagine life for your characters. Imagine how you would feel to walk the cobblestone streets or pick cotton or hide under a desk for an air raid drill. These are the types of details and emotion that set a great story apart from a good one.
  • Don't underestimate the power of reading, Pinterest, and Google searches. Yes, I know it's old fashioned and sometimes boring to pick up a biography or non-fiction book about your setting or someone who lived during that time period. But history is chalk-full of wonderful stories just waiting to be a springboard for fictional ones. Try going to your local library or bookstore, and you may be surprised how inspiration hits!

What about you? What steps do you take when researching a story? Do you enjoy the research process?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


FAith A. Colburn said...

You've just energized me to visit Little Italy in Cleveland. I've done a ton of research on the city in 1937, but a look-see at the layout (even though I've got multiple maps) will help, too, I think.

kaybee said...

Ashley, I agree. For me research is research. I do historicals for a number of reasons, but I know if I did a contemporary and had the heroine an aerospace engineer, or even a registered nurse for Pete's sake, I'd have to do just as much research as I do for my Oregon Trail stories. It's well worth it. I just ripped a WIP apart because I discovered a detail about driving oxen that I hadn't known before, sigh. Good post.
K. Bailey

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Yes, I enjoy research, even though I write contemporaries. :) I get caught up in occupations so different from my scope of knowledge, and I want to learn all the nuances from whatever I can read. Or activities that play a key role in the story (ballroom dancing, anyone?). You Tube has also been really helpful for me to gain a basic knowledge of certain skills ( like fixing a leaky kitchen sink, laying wood floors, learning the tango :) ). I have to cut myself off when I'm researching because I get caught up in it. :)

Most of my stories are located close to where I live, so I'm pretty familiar with the layout of the cities. However, after reading your post here, I'm thinking I need to drive them a little to make sure I've got an accurate mind picture of the places I'm writing about. :)

Robin E. Mason said...

I love doing my research!!! love your suggestion, too, to visit the location. I'm not too [terribly] far from my imaginary town - might make a road trip!!

Ashley Clark said...

Faith, that sounds like a great trip! I love visiting Little Italy's and getting gelato!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you so much, Kaybee! Glad you could come by! And yes, you're right-- contemporaries are just a different kind of research!

Ashley Clark said...

Sounds like a fun day trip, Jeanne! And you know I'm a sucker for ballroom dancing!

Ashley Clark said...

Robin, I did that once! I made up a town based on one I'd visited, and it really helped having a solid real-life location to go back to in my mind. Have fun!

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Ash! I just LOVE researching...actually, it can be a flaw of mine because I will hop on the internet in the middle of my writing session and research as the time ticks on. I am like you, I don't want that credibility thing to pop up, so I have researched little details--like the material of a piece of furniture--to big details, like the next branch of a family tree (but, I write historicals so that's probably not uncommon). So glad you had the chance to go on a baby-moon...and jealous that you are so close to Charleston!!

Ashley Clark said...

Ang, I am always amazed by how well-researched your stories are! It intimidates me to think about doing that much historical research! :D