Friday, March 27, 2015

Is It Easy To Bog Down In Research by Roz Denny Fox


When I started writing speakers kept saying: “Write what you know.” What I knew felt boring and insignificant. So I decided to research areas about which I knew nothing. I don’t know how many of you love to research things like character careers and settings, but it’s the part of brainstorming a new idea that I love. However, it’s easy to overdo and research an idea to death. I’m sure I could never write historical romances, because I’d have books on the time period piled high all over the house and I’d never get to writing. Even writing contemporary stories, I love to forage in bookstores for magazine articles and travel books that describe in vivid detail a place where I want to set a story.

Before the Internet became a treasure trove of information I used to write to the Chamber of Commerce in towns small or large that I’d selected for a setting. I would tell them I was thinking of relocating to their town and could they send me a packet of information. They always did. I never felt guilty about fibbing, because what they sent me enriched my story, and maybe enticed one of my readers to visit the city or town.

The packets contained more information than I could ever use. Maps, what jobs might be available, typical weather, major events, names of stores for shopping, agriculture, and sometimes famous people living or dead who’d come from there.

Now most towns and cities have Internet sites that give all that information, plus some have colored photos of ranches, farms or houses typical of the area.

My first choice is to visit a place and soak up the feel of the hustle and bustle, or even the lazy lifestyle if that’s why people choose to live there.

Restaurants and cafes are great spots to find an actual person willing to talk about the town. Most waitresses are happy to give you little known facts. Octogenarians sitting on park benches love to talk, and if they were born and raised in the place, they give you a rich history maybe not found in the travel guides.

But travel guides from Triple A have helped me enrich my stories, too. And buying a Fodor book on any given state is research money well spent. They do a fantastic job of dividing a state into sections, with enlarged maps, historic and information written by recent travelers. I can soon fill a notebook and several folders with pages of facts. Facts I may never use, or some could trickle into a book.

I have file cabinets full of newspaper articles from small town papers that may have caught my attention even if I only picked the paper up at breakfast when I was passing through. Some of those simply talk about local fairs, concerts, special days celebrated by local residents. Those are files I need to clean out regularly and hate to do. But when the drawers start bulging and no longer close, I know it’s time to pull up a waste basket. Then I have to decide what may still be relevant and what’s not. I have an eclectic library of books, such as Amazing Horse Facts and Trivia, National Wildlife magazines, and Western Horseman. Oh and I love a series called: Off the Beaten Path---you fill in the state. I like books on medicine, both holistic and physician. I have the PDR and the Merck Manual. I buy slang and visual dictionaries. (Why, I’m not sure) I love wandering in the psychology section of Barnes and Noble. I have books on love and hate and everything in between. Books on character and emotional traits. Crime facts and medicinal plants. Oh, and I have stacks of reports on activism both political and environmental. I’m running out of book shelves and at times it’s tough to decide what to do with all the trivia that sticks in my head.

But the upshot of me writing about this is to say I can easily bury myself in research which can set back the time it would otherwise take me to write a book proposal. So tell me, am I alone in having this bad research habit, or do some of you get lost in planning too?

44 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading your post, Roz. The internet has certainly made research much easier. If I am curious about something, it only takes a matter of seconds to generate a long list of information sources. A challenge, of course, is to ensure the sources utilized are credible.

    Although I have visited most of the places where my stories are set, I do refer to the locations’ websites quite frequently.

    My favorite part of research is talking to people to learn about professions or verify facts. I am fortunate that I have a good friend who is a doctor and second in command at a major hospital. She is very generous with her time, thus medical facts are easy for me to verify. We have terrific discourses over a glass of wine. I do wonder what people think, if they overhear us, though!

    Most recently, I had a lot of fun doing research for the trilogy I am currently working on for Heartwarming. It's set in San Diego and each book features a member of the San Diego Police Department's K-9 squad. A K-9 squad officer and trainer for a local police departments has been very generous with his time, helping me learn about what, in fact, is one of the most dangerous areas of police services. (You'll have to read the first book in the trilogy, scheduled for release in October, to learn why this is the case! :- D)

    To keep this post from becoming any longer than it already is, suffice it to say that while I rely heavily on personal knowledge and experiences in my books, I love to do research to learn about places, people and professions, and I believe we do have a responsibility to our readers to ensure our books—where appropriate—are factual and credible.

    Thank you for the great article, Roz!

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    1. Kate, visiting a place where one sets a book is so much better than relying on what other people write. To me it's like soaking in the little facts that make a book come to life. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  2. Great post, Roz. I think writers are naturally curious people. Yes, we research to bring authenticity to our books, but deep down, don't we love it? I have lots of resource books and am always looking for more. My husband looks at the titles and raises a brow, or asks, "Planning a trip?" What can I say, research is a fun part of the process.

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    1. Tara, you've hit on a point maybe all writers share. Curiosity. Thanks.

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  3. Great post, Roz. I once heard a fellow author say that research can be endlessly seductive and I know that's true. It sounds like getting too caught up in research is something you have to fight in order to get books written.

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    1. So right about the seductive part of research. The Midwest Fiction Writers newsletter just reprinted an article by a Houston author who said even if a writer writes fantasy they choose identifiable monsters so that readers identify with the story. Interesting fact about fantasy I thought.

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  4. I'm doing research on New Jersey and Connecticut, both places where I used to live. Hope to do it in person after the RWA National in New York.

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    1. Marion, that sounds like added fun---to go see someplace you know well to see how much it's changed.

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  5. I can easily get lost in research. Then it becomes a problem of how much to include. Don't want all that looking to go to waste. Glad I'm not the only one who has to limit their time on it.

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    1. Patricia, You've hit on a major problem--the deciding how much to include. Sometimes I have to just tell myself TMI and delete.

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  6. Roz, great post! I'm laughing because I'm not sure if "lost" covers the obsession that sometimes overtakes me. In my fist book I managed narrow down my PAGES of fascinating facts about wolves into a couple pages--that my editor then encouraged me to pare down to about two paragraphs! LOL! Love research (maybe a little too much).

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    1. Carol, readers used to love the facts like about your wolves. Now it's like everyone is in a rush and we have to use shorthand.

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  7. Roz, I LOVE RESEARCH and yes I get way too caught up in it. I usually research as I write. I now know more about fine dining, horses, and England in the 1700's than I ever thought I would know. And, yes, I have books all over the house with historical information.

    What surprised me was how much I needed to research for my contemporary series. I wrote about things I know about and still had to research. I learned more about coffee & espresso, Northern Minnesota, and finance. But did I have fun.

    I finally had to limit myself on how long I could research a topic or I would spend more time researching than writing.... And I do agree, we are a curious group and find it all so interesting. The problem is when you have notebooks full of information as background for a single line or paragraph in the story you're writing...oh well it was fun!

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    1. Rose, I have to look at research the way I view education--nothing learned is ever really lost or for naught. Some of what you've researched may pop into another story sometime.

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  8. Hi Roz! I have a love/hate relationship with the research--because of exactly what you said. It's so easy to get lost in it. :)

    When I got "serious" about writing, I was writing paranormal and I always joked it was slightly easier because I could make up something for everything, LOL. For me, creating it out of my head was easier than tracking down information.

    Now that I'm writing contemp (until I get back to paranormal), the research gets more complicated. IT also gives me an opportunity to travel, especially with my Butterfly Harbor books, which take place in a fictional version of Pacific Grove, CA (just outside Monterey). Hello, road trip! Makes for a great excuse for a weekend getaway with my buddies and immerse myself in what I see as "my" town. In person for me hits all the senses, but there's still nothing like finding a selection of books that meet my need (like when I had to research art forgery).

    While I"m writing, I do have to limit myself to putting in a secret code (like XXX or ***) for things I need to research...then I go back and do it all at once. Otherwise the book will never get written. :)

    Wonderful post! Makes me anxious to research something new and begin another project!

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    1. Anna, a road trip to Pacific Grove or Monterey sounds wonderful. I think you'll have to go there several times---lol

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  9. Roz - you can tell we're from the same era. I have files stuffed with Chamber of Commerce information, too. Those were priceless! And I've spent hours, sometimes days, in libraries. Now, we can usually find what we need without getting up from our chairs. I think deep research - even if you only get to fit it into a page - or two paragraphs - will give that information the authenticity we're always looking for. Facts give us feelings and I think we pass those on as well. I've cultivated a 'panel of experts' who've helped me in so many ways - a nurse, a cop, a teacher, a fireman. I always pay them off with lunch, sometimes even a dedication. Nothing feels as good as beginning the book and learning all the ways
    it can go - making it all work is where the headache begins for me. But I take a Tylenol and keep going!

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    1. Muriel, now even little towns have web sites. It's so cool to have everything at our fingertips. But I still like libraries and bookstores. Is that like you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

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  10. Thank you for this interesting and enlightening post about the research aspect of book writing. I've always wondered how writers obtained the knowledge needed to write books. As a reader I appreciate learning new things when I read books, so I can tell you your research is much appreciated. On the other hand, at times endless facts about some uninteresting things can get boring. I read a book last year that devoted the entire first chapter to explaining how a lighthouse works. Although I love the beauty of lighthouses, it wasn't particularly interesting, at least not to me, to read about the intricate details involving all the working parts. I guess balance is the key with just about everything. Thanks for a great post!!

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    1. Laurie, you've given us valuable information from a reader's perspective. I think it's easy for a writer to try to use all the research when in fact it can come off as info dump. You've reminded us we need to keep aware of salting in info instead.

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  11. Roz, fun post. I confess, I'm a Google addict. Research has indeed become soooo easy. You can find anything (assuming it's correct) within seconds. I'm constantly amazed. However…the book I'm writing now is set in the city where I live so I'm adding detail left and right without really moving a finger. I do like to visit other places that I use in my stories. Early in my career, I probably got carried away with research because my then-agent said of a book I'd submitted with a theater background: "You want to give a feeling of authenticity but you don't want to tell someone how to write a play." :) I've never forgotten that. And the advice comes in handy now when as Carol and Roz said we have to cut out much of the detail.

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    1. Leigh. That was great advice to get so early in your career. It made me smile, too. I need to go quickly and reread my wip.

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  12. Roz, I always know you've done your research because the details in your books come through so vividly -- without ever detracting from the story!

    I remember one writer angsting over how long it took her to complete the research, to the point where she never actually got around to writing the book, and recommending she do JUST enough to determine whether the story premise was feasible...then she could chink in the details later.

    But it now occurs to me she might've been happier doing research than writing -- in which case, why not just enjoy it? :)

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  13. Laurie, you always have such good advice to give new writers. And I still learn a lot in your workshops, too. I wonder if anyone has ever decided to not write a book based on not liking what they learned in their research. Thanks for dropping by.

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  14. Love doing research for my historical and contemp novels! :)

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    1. Denise. Glad you like the research part of writing. It does give a person time to unwind I think.

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  15. Hey Roz, Research is a wonderful thing! Too bad the chamber of commerce doesn't ship out as much stuff as they used to. But tourist authorities have some glossy pictures and occasional maps. I've got stacks for each location I'm writing about. I love google maps so I can see the scene. I needed a good idea of El Paso's bus station and the map let me see the street scene complete with passers-by. I did do a drive by last summer as we went through Texas. Combining research with visits is wonderful. It's worth it for those telling details.

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    1. Laura, that's cool about google maps giving you a view of the street and people. I think I haven't used maps like that. Thanks for the info.

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  16. What a great post, Roz. It sounds as though we'd all become slaves to research if we had time. The fact that it was so much fun researching it is truly the reason I've only ever written one historical book. I love the library time, even vicariously, and remember being so disappointed when a librarian in Roaring Spring, PA had absolutely no interest in talking to me. I was too new of a writer to realize she was probably just busy--I assumed that whole library didn't want to help.

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  17. Liz, I ran into a librarian like that in Texas one time. I was doing research on children falling into abandoned wells. It so happened at the time Texas had several incidents that made the news. The woman wouldn't pull the newspapers for me. I wondered if she thought I was going to throw someone down a well. I called the state system and they mailed copies of the articles to me. But for a historical you would have thought your librarian would have been happy to help.

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  18. Roz, great post. I used to also send for things from the chamber of commerce. They always sent such good information. I used to collect pamphlets, maps and brochures when we traveled. I had a whole collection of stuff. I got rid of most of it when we moved the last time because so much stuff is available on line now. Libraries and friends can be a great source of information. I've had a couple of friends who have read manuscripts to make sure my information was correct because they either worked in my character's field or they lived in the setting I had chosen.

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    1. Merrillee, you have a lot of really detailed information in your stories, so whatever you're doing is working. You go girl.

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  19. Great post! I also enjoy researching my characters' worlds/careers. For my dairy farming book, I drew on my own knowledge as my grandparents owned one and I knew that world very well. However, I had a lot to research before writing a book set in the Minor League Baseball world and biologists, conservation officers and wildlife rehabilitators to consult with before my April book. As a former teacher, I feel lucky to continue to learn this way :)

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    1. Karen, thanks for popping in. I loved your baseball book. Sometimes careers take more research than setting. And a lot of times it is subjective to someone in the field. You are doing great. Keep it up.

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  20. I've learned that people demand accuracy on the most random things when you're a writer. Never mind if you write about vampires or wizards, if your character called a Diet Coke a pop instead of a soda based on where they live, people will let you know about it! I love researching some things and Google maps is my best friend. Sometimes I feel like I have actually been to places because of my virtual tours :)

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  21. Amy, you are so right about the regional expectations of readers. Or even the images we've seen from say Disney about mythical characters. I find that interesting. As a person who grew up in a small rural community without (in those days) a lot of access to the greater world, I was amazed by how many place I felt I'd seen before based on fiction books I'd read. My sister and I were voracious readers and we had the same experience. I hope readers still have that adventure even in our world of expanded information.

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  22. Fun post Roz. I love research and definitely get lost in it. I love interviewing people also. They are so interesting.

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    1. Sandra, you probably meet some really neat people traveling around in your RV like you do. And oh the stories people can tell.

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  23. Oh, Roz, you really took me back with your post and I just loved it. From the AAA books to talking to octogenarians on the front porches, you captured exactly what it was like decades ago before the internet and our virtual tour researching. I'm am the worlds' worst at this. I can read all day long and get no writing done. I concur with you as well, that if you call a pop or soda or use "I'll spell you" in the wrong US region, the emails from readers feel like a bloodbath. I do have to say that BECAUSE of the internet, and the global reach of our blogs and facebook posts, SOME of that kind of thing is dissipating. It was a great post, Roz. Thank you!

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    1. Catherine, I'm not sure if I love doing the research via the Internet, but it is way faster than how we used to do it. And the regions are melding---that's a good thing.

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  24. Sorry, I'm late, Roz. I thought you were blogging today but someone else answered the door :-). But I found you and just love your topic. I have discovered inadvertently that setting is what inspires every story I write. When I get an idea my subconscious immediately asks "What is the most exciting place for this to happen?" I research on the fly and the internet was just made for this. Like you, I can spend the entire day seeking out tidbits I probably will never use. The one thing I know is true, though, is until I get a feel of the flavor of my setting I don't write effectively. Once I've made myself at home, the story starts percolating. Glad we share the same kind of journey. Great blog. Thanks you for chosing this topic.

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  25. Connie, thanks for letting me know you got here. Better late than never. And I can't agree more about how important setting is. I've noticed so many linked books these days and think readers return for book after book as much for the familiar setting as to see what new characters emerge. The thing that is great about the Internet is that a writer can throw a dart at a wall map and practically find a virtual tour of anyplace it might land.

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  26. Late to the post, Roz, but love the discussion! I love doing research but I tend to get sucked in...especially with so much info on the internet, it's hard to stop reading up on something! It's something I need to do for writing, yet I have to watch the clock if I'm to get any writing done! LOL.

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