Friday, March 25, 2011

R is for Research

This week, I welcome award-winning author Allison Knight to share her experience on research.


Linda, thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics, research. Historical and contemporary authors have to do research, it's a fact of life, but how do I go about doing it? Well, here are some hints, learned over nearly thirty years of writing and making a lot of mistake. So -- let's get to it.

If you write Science fiction, fantasy or even paranormal romance you don't have as much of a problem as the rest of us. Researching the customs, events, or location isn't difficult when you can create your world, or your creatures. However, for the rest of us trying to deal with real world, it's not that easy. We face the need for research.

Unfortunately, if you make a glaring mistake, believe me there is someone out there who will read your book and discredit your prose because you made a mistake. Rumor has it that a romance writer included a breed of horse in one of her westerns that didn't exist at the time of her novel. A horse enthusiast spread the word the author couldn't be trusted to write a decent novel and the author's career was ruined. I can't vouch for the story, but if it's true, it's enough to give an author chills.

Most of us try very hard to get the facts right. So how do we do it.

I love encyclopedias. And with the internet we have a great deal of information available now that we couldn't access as easily when we had to find in books we barrowed from the library or bought what we wanted to know. You can still go to the library, but it takes a tremendous amount of time to find one piece of information. You can still buy books, but it's discouraging to buy a book only to find what you wanted wasn't in it. However, the internet has changed the way most of us research.

So when using the internet, always verify the information with at least two dependable, independent sources. Better yet, find three sources with the same information. That will usually indicate the facts you have are correct. If you think what you've found is questionable, make a note of the date of the site and the url and keep it with whatever information you've gathered. I use a notebook for each novel with a section for research and I stash my notes there.

Authorities are great. When I wanted information about a particular hurricane of the nineteenth century -- indication from what direction it came, how long the eye would have lasted, (that kind of info) I called a professional meteorologist. Then I talked to someone who had been through a hurricane. Not surprisingly, both people were delighted to talk about their knowledge or their experience. When I needed information on what kind of rifle would be carried and how to shot the thing, I asked a gun collector who was renowned for his knowledge. Again, he too, was more than happy to explain what I needed to know. So don't be afraid to approach the person who might have information you need. I even involved my medical doctor, asking what a certain type of injury would affect a person's available to walk. It also gave me a chance to promote my newest book.

Books, especially journals and autobiographies can provide great information, especially if you are writing a historical novel or romance. Don't discount newspaper articles either. I hesitate using the expertise of another fiction author unless I know something about that individual's researching techniques. Time lines work well if your story involves related events.

Last, if you are trying to describe a location, traveling to the site is the best method to use. However, if you can't go, or the area has changed a great deal because of time or condition, again 'Google maps' or old maps can help. Sometimes you can discover the needed description in journals or newspaper reports which will give clues. But be careful. Twice, I made glaring mistakes about location. In the first, I had the wrong army starting the battle and in the second I describe a location as level farm land when in reality the area was mountainous. In both instances, I caught the mistakes before the books went to the editor. So be sure and check your facts, several times if you can't visit the location.

If you make up a location, even though your publisher will probably add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, it's a good idea to check and make sure the place doesn't exist.

And, it's not a bad idea to add your own disclaimer to either the beginning of the end of the book letting your editor know you have checked the fact.
Researching a novel can often seem like putting puzzle pieces together to make a whole, and it can be as addictive as fitting a puzzle together. It's part of what makes writing historicals such fun for me.

Roses for My Lady
Award winning author, Allison Knight began her writing career like many other authors. She read a book she didn’t like and knew she could do a better job. She grabbed paper and typewriter (computers were not available back then) and announced she was going to write a book. Her children hooted with laughter.
“Yeh, Mom, when cows fly,” her daughter declared.

She took classes, joined a critique group and RWA, and wrote, rewrote and wrote some more. When her first book sold, she came home from her teaching job to find a stuffed toy cow rotating from the ceiling fan in the family room.

It seemed - “Cows did fly!”

Since that time, Allison has written and published seventeen romances for both digital and NY publishers with a digital valentine novella coming out in February. Her current work is another medieval book from her 'song' series.

Because she loves to share her knowledge and her love of romance novels she often blogs with other authors. She also loves to talk about the growing digital market.


You can find her at:

She blogs once a month for The Writers' Vineyard,


Rosemary Gemmell said...

Excellent post, Allison. It's so easy to be lazy about doing the research (as I've discovered!).

Carol McPhee said...

Research can be fun and put you in contact with those you normally wouldn't have met. I once needed to know the color-red or orange-of the Jayhawk helicopter used by the US Coast Guard so I called an admiral in Norfolk. Carol

Judi said...

Hi Allison - question - what type of disclaimer are you saying to add at start of your book? I had a heck of time with 3rd book. My editor refused to believe I'd done a thorough check of two facts - and with a master's in information (library degree), like you, I am a queen of research. Would disclaimer say "I have triple checked data and it is true!"? thanks for good article.

Allison said...

Thanks everyone. I love research and often spend too much time doing it. And Jude, the type of disclaimer I'm referring to is something to the effect the book is fiction and where real people are involved this author tried for the best information available. Something to that affect.

And in referrence to your problem -
that's why I keep track of where I find the info and the date of the site. It helps to say, but I checked and here's the place I found the information.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Useful and interesting article, Alison. I also love looking at children's non-fiction books for research at the beginning of my research journey.

Linda LaRoque said...

I love research, especially when I can visit the location. Judi, I like to add acknowledgements to my time travel books that list all the references I used for my research. That doesn't mean I haven't made a mistake or two.

Great post, Allison.

Linda Rettstatt said...

For one of my books, The Year I Lost My Mind, I knew I wanted a picture of an A-frame cabin on the front. It's integral to the story. There aren't many of those in Mississippi, so I found one in an ad for family cabin rental in Ohio. I wrote and got permission to use the picture for the cover and gave acknowledgement of the campgroung.

Next Time I'm Gonna Dance deals with the issue of breast cancer. I researched it throgoughly from both perspectives--with an oncologist and with a couple of breast cancer survivors.I also have a diclaimer in the book cautioning women not to use the information there for self-diagnosis as it is a work of fiction and that diagnois and treatment methods can change in an instant. The publisher was happy to include that note from the author.

Thanks so much, Allison, for this post and for joining in on The Writer's Alphabet.


Jillian said...

Love this advice, Allison. Research is necessary and can be fun and interesting as well especially when it involves interviewing people with personal experiences that you can glean info from. AND your family must be a lot of fun, too. Great story about the cow!

Unknown said...

Allison--congratulations on your book.
Research is made much easier with the help of the internet. I use the On-line Texas Handbook which may possible cover every historical topic ever known to a Texan. Really! And I can count on the facts being correct. I bought a Texas History college textbook some time ago, which, of course, gives me historical facts. Then I love small paper books that give me some quirky or unusual stories of Texas, such as "Tales from Out Yonder." Now, you know this is going to contain terrific stuff.
Then there are tons of links-Women of the West (everything from Belle Starr to Annie Oakley.)
Anything historical fact an author could possibly need can be found by Googling it.
Hint: Just don't reply completely on Wikipaedia, but I think everyone know that already.

Jude Johnson said...

Allison, an excellent post.

Don't forget to check local estate or yard sales for old reference books. I stumbled onto a set of medical reference books published in 1909 that will help me with not only the childhood diseases prevalent at the time but what was then standard and accepted treatment by the medical profession. I skimmed through some already and it's appalling... Still, best five bucks for five books I've spent in a while.

And I've had readers tell me they would love to have a list of references in the back of the book.


Sandra Cox said...

Very helpful blog, Allison and a great reminder to all of us to check our facts.

Hi there, Linda. Hope you're having a great Sunday.

Fiona McGier said...

This is just one of the many reasons that I prefer to write contemporary novels...I know what life is like these days! (g) You made some interesting observations about all of the exhaustive research needed to write historical novels. And you are right, there is always someone who is willing to knock you for any little error, even when not done on purpose.

Therese said...

Interesting post, Allison. And yes, Fiona, I'm with you-glad I write contemporary and not historical! I do my share of research, but I wouldn't want to dive into researching historical stuff! Love the story about the cow!