The More You Know…

A view out my main character’s window

These days I’m focused on my Work in Progress (WIP)—the one I finished a first draft of last month. I’m all set up on the dining room table with everything I need. Almost everything.

While I reorganize, edit, rework, I’m also doing research. I want to make sure I get it right. It’s a work of fiction, that’s true, but it’s reality-based. It takes place in a fictitious town, on a fictitious island in Maine, but there are still things that need to come across as real.

So as I go through the draft, I have a notebook in hand, and I’ve been making notes of everything I need to check. Questions about things like tides, how water flows, boats, land density, how houses looked during certain times in history, cultural and societal details, renovation and construction of houses, fishing and lobstering, and even treatment of mental health.

These details are what will make my story real to a reader, I know that. But right now—more importantly—they are bringing my story and characters to life for me. Maybe it’s partially my journalist roots, but one of my favorite parts of writing is the research: making lists of questions then figuring out how to get the answers.

I’ve done both primary and secondary research.

I’ve looked at documents, many many old (and new) photographs, deeds, land plots, architects’ drawings, maps of Casco Bay, mental illness case studies.

My dining room work station
I read books, search the web (of course), but I’ve also visited a few libraries, local historical societies, the Town Assessor’s office, the Town Engineer’s office, the County Registry of Deeds. I look at the documents they have, talk to the people who work there.

Because one of my favorite parts of the research process is sitting down with a person or talking to someone on the phone, a list of questions in front of me. Asking questions. Listening. Understanding. People who grew up on islands, people who summer on islands, people with deep roots in Maine but also not so deep. Fishermen and lobstermen, historians, and anthropologists. Contractors, mental health providers, engineers.

And I’ve been going on field trips (which I’m sure sounds like absolute torture…): islands, beaches, out on the water in lobster boats and ferries, old houses, local construction projects, walking trails in local wooded areas, gardens, even coffee shops and cafes. This is one of the reasons I started making the weekly Sunday videos from the beach overlook. Most field trips are planned but some have been impromptu. I’m driving someplace else and I see something I want my main character to see or someone she should talk to. I stop and do some research on the fly.

As I talk to people and visit various offices and experts, I take tools with me: always my reporter’s notebook (and pen), my iPhone (for photos and audio recording), often my SLR camera. Photos have been indispensible in reminding me what I see and even how I’m feeling when I see something: a sunset or sunrise, the starry sky, a moonrise, a boat or a house, a natural landmark or object, and—yes—I’ve even taken some photos of people (some without them even knowing, it’s true).

As I edit and write, I keep photos handy. In particular, a photo of a house—the one I imagine my main character lives in. I also have a photo of the views my main character sees out her window. My notebooks are also by my side, and I read through them frequently—if an interview is particularly important, I’ll type it out. The physical act of transcription helps me remember. If I make an audio recording, I transcribe it as soon as possible.

But that’s where the information stops: in a notebook, on a typed sheet of paper, in a photograph or photocopy, and in my mind’s eye. Most of the research will never see the printed page in my WIP—not in a form anyone but I will recognize. But these details I’ve collected help me shape the story: my character, her history, the things around her, what she sees and feels. And ultimately they will bring my story to life not just for me but for you too.

How do you make your stories come to life for you and your readers? What kind of research do you do for your stories? Are you like me—you enjoy the research process?


Cheers,
Julia

Comments

  1. What a wonderful and insightful post Julia. I admire the lengths you are going to, to get this story right. I’m not quite as big a fan of the research part as you are, but I have a fantastic memory for detail, past places, conversations, people’s faces, so I tend to draw on that a lot. I like to build up the setting and characters in a similar way to you though. For me, without knowing these thoroughly, the story doesn’t work. Good luck with it Julia – can’t wait to read it!

  2. Susan Okaty says:

    You are so thorough. Your hard work will lend authenticity to your writing. Can’t wait for you to get your book published so I can read it.

  3. Pet says:

    Wow, I really like your dining room work station! How lucky you must feel at having such a place as your research and writing base!

  4. I love this post because I can totally relate to it; I don’t think many folks understand the vast amount of research that goes into fiction. I’ve been mirroring your actions over here in the western part of the states since the beginning of 2011 – only I was visiting ranchers (and was nary near a body of water – ha ha), talking to funeral directors, doctors, greenhouse owners, correctional facilities, etc.

    And as you know, I use pictures the same way; it’s SO helpful, I agree. I had to laugh when you said you take pictures of people who don’t even know it. That was me last weekend in Tombstone. ha ha. Undoubtedly some of those folks will make it into a future novel (and in fact, they inspired a new WIP idea for me).

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Emma Pass says:

    What a fantastic post. I’ve had a lot of research to do for my WIP, but that’s mostly involved ordering all sorts of obscure books from the library I work in – much to the puzzlement of my colleagues!

    Half the stuff I research never makes it into my stories either, but I find it makes them feel much more authentic as I write them. I’ll also write detailed character biographies, political histories and so on, and even draw pictures and maps. It’s so much fun!

    Good luck with the book – I hope I’ll get to read it one day!

  6. Kudos, Julia, on finishing your first draft! That’s awesome. Like you, I work at a dining room station and like you I have a journalist’s background, but unlike you I absolutely DETEST research. LOL! Kind of like John Grisham has famously said. I do it, and I hope I do it well, but I find that I just want to research enough to get by for my novels, to make things seem plausible — some times the research is more in-depth than other times, but I find that when I research while I write I’m chomping at the bit to get back to my novel. So, like you again, I tend to research in the editing stages when I’m calmer. Kudos again to you for your diligence and your comprehensive detail work. Can’t wait to read your stuff!!

  7. Hi Julia,
    I really appreciated this post and know how much obsession (oops meant research lol) goes into working on a novel. Although I realize there is a lot of fact-checking after a draft of a novel is written, I was wondering what your thoughts are on how much research to do (is enough) before you start writing your first draft?

    I guess the answer to the question ‘how much research is enough?’ varies for each author, but I was curious about your process at the earlier stage of your WIP.

    Thanks!

  8. All this work and passion is going to come through in the finished product. I can feel it already :) Keep it up!

  9. I agree with you, Julia, about fiction needing a certain amount of authenticity for people to believe it. Sounds like you are being very thorough.

    Looking forward to reading it when it is released.

  10. Katie Shea says:

    Ahh, the first draft. That is where I got, then stopped, and became an agent :) No kidding. I love you picture of your dining room table. A perfect shot – organized, but so scatted at the same time, similar to a first draft ms. Best of luck to you! Never gives up your passion. Ever.

  11. Abi, Thank you… I do love research. I remember your post about characters — so helpful. I so agree that without knowing characters and setting thoroughly the story doesn’t work. For this particular story, I think the details I’m gathering are probably just as critical. Still, I also do love the research! And I do hope you get to read it some day!

    Susan, Thank you… it certainly is my hope that the research leads to authenticity, as you suggest. I hope this story will get published and I will be delighted to have you read it!

    Pet, I do feel very very lucky to have the dining room as my research and writing base — although I do wish it always looked as tidy and warm as it does in the photo! Thanks!

    Melissa, I love hearing about other writers’ research trips. I think that between us we’ve covered many professions and places (you apparently a lot less water than I, however!). And always the photos, so helpful. I figured other writers (and especially you, haha) had used the pictures of unknown people for inspiration! Thank goodness I’m not the only one!

    Emma, Glad you enjoyed the post! I am sooo envious that you work in a library so can order obscure books — really your colleagues (other librarians!?) are puzzled!? I am very lucky to live in a very small town and the librarian knows me so she’ll lend me reference material overnight — that way I can take it and make copies and peruse at a more liesurely pace. Just like you, at least half of what I research never makes it into stories, but it makes them authentic and is SO FUN!! And like you I definitely draw pics (not good ones!) and maps. I hope you’ll get to read the book, too!

  12. Liz says:

    It’s reasons like these that make you a real writer and not just a blogger.

    Go you, Julia!

    Oh, does Mr Bacon provide any inspiration? :-)

  13. Julia ~ I loved seeing your work station and the view from your character’s window! And I’m in awe of your research process. This makes me even more curious to read the finished product, your novel.

    I enjoy research up to a certain point, but it’s not in my blood the way it is with you. I’m usually reluctant to interrupt my writing flow (even during rewrites) so I tend to do my research as rapidly as possible: on the Internet (I have a TON of bookmarks for each screenplay). I also read books and watch DVDs (most recently, I watched Acting in Film with Michael Caine and Secret Life of Bats) and sometimes I check facts with experts by email.

    Your process sounds so romantic, as well as utterly thorough. I wish I had you as researcher for my stories! :~) But, then, that wouldn’t work as well because, as you so rightly point out, it’s what you absorb into your very being that gets translated into the story, even though most of it won’t appear in the finished product. Sounds like your novel will truly have your heart and soul in it.

    ~ Milli

  14. I really enjoy the research aspect also, Julia. I find that’s what interests me the most – the way in which my characters live. Sometimes I get so excited about it, I get off on tangents and have to remind myself that I need to come back to my WIP! I love that you’re doing so much primary research. It going to make your story all the more richer for it!

    It’s not just historical fiction writers that need to be concerned about research, even present day story writers may need to delve into some aspects they didn’t know about. One of my characters grooms bonsai. (!) Great post!

    I wrote a post on this a few months ago with some tips for researching folks might find helpful.
    http://www.thewriterssalon.com/2011/06/nine-tips-for-researching-your-novel.html

  15. Dina, Thank you for the kudos! It feels great to get that first draft done — still lots of work to go but the story is down, YAY! How interesting that you detest research! That John Grisham quote actually makes a lot of sense to me too! As with you, when I was in the fast and furious times of writing the last 1/2 of it, I couldn’t think of anything but the story, it filled my head! I so appreciate your kind words, Dina and I hope to fulfill your interest in reading it :)

    Carole, I’m glad you liked the post and appreciate my obsession. Yes, I LOVE research, bordering on obsession. As forhow much to do before first draft… therein lies the question! I think it’s a highly highly personal decision and comfort level. Some writers may do no research, others may do some, still others a great deal. For me, I feel most comfortable with at least a strong outline, character sketches, maybe some strong understanding and even maps of settings I’m writing about. But this is my comfort level. I know that I don’t necessarily do as much as some writers…and a lot more than others. Generally I start with a file folder that is about half an inch thick of background material and notes. Plus of course I have a file drawer full of materials and several books on my shelf that pertain to WIPS in the wings. Thank you so much for your comment, interest, question — but especially for your visit to my blog!

  16. Sara, THANK YOU!! You are very encouraging and supportive. I hope you’re right that it will come through… I think it’s starting to really make a difference; I’ve made some great headway.

    Karen, Thanks for your support and comment! I’m trying to be thorough, and part of that comes from having not lived in Maine all my life — I really want to make sure I portray it as well as I can!

    Katie, That’s too funny about finishing your first draft and then becoming an agent! Funny!! (Do you think you’ll go back to your draft someday?) As for the organized yet scattered dining room table — I LOVE the way you compare that to a first draft. Beautiful metaphor! And I think it could be extended to my brain at this point as well! Thank you for your encouragement, it means a lot. And thank you for your visit to my blog; nice to meet you!

    Liz, You are so sweet!! And yes Mr. Bacon DOES provide inspiration, when he’s here, but right now he’s MIA. Watch for blog post coming soon about why I have absolutely no idea where Mr. Bacon is! :(
    Thanks for your encouragement and support, Liz!!

    Milli, Glad you enjoyed the view into my and my character’s little worlds! I know you believe me when I say that I hope with all my heart that you and others have a chance to read this book someday! I know what you mean about research interrupting flow, can happen. I usually do it when I’m not in the midst of writing/editing, but at a special time. I love the idea of checking facts with experts via email — I’ve only done that once but I’ll try more often. Saves time and people can answer at their own pace. As for romantic, not sure if that’s what this is or just systematic nose to the grindstone…. oh, and pure FUN! :-) Thanks for your kind words and encouragement!

  17. Jackie, Ah, you sound like me. I have researched the house I live in, back to its builder in 1895 — and I was even fortunate enough to talk to a woman who knew the second residents of our house, back in the 1920s! Fascinating to hear how a railway conductor and a nurse’s aid lived in the ’20s! I too go off on tangents, obviously–reminding myself to return to the WIP–but so fascinating to think how people live(d) and spend/t their daily lives. I’m so glad you included that link to The Writers Salon post; I’ll check it out as I’m sure other readers will. Very helpful!

  18. This is a really helpful post, Julia. I’ve been wondering how to do this. See, I think I can write the basics, but not sure how to capture the details. So I like how you write the general ideas/story. And then concentrate on the details to complete the story. I think I’ll use that approach so I’m not constantly focusing on details during the first draft writing process. Thank you!

  19. Popping head in to applaud. I love love love novels where I feel like I am there, because the writer has done her homework.

    Yes, I do extensive research too – what trees and flowers are blooming at particular times of year, to give time clues, photographs of locations, weather temps so my people are wearing the proper clothing (even if, not that far in, they’re taking them off).

    Can’t wait to read it!

  20. I love doing research too, Julia. Since most of us write about what fascinates us (or should, ideally) it’s a pleasure to immerse ourselves in the world and time of the place we are creating. Before beginning to write Sword of Mordrey I spent a solid 6 months researching medieval times in England. Food, traditions, how they told time, clothes, battle dress, horses, farming, what the different parts of a castle were are called, how their communities were structured…anything I could lay hands on. I felt I had to understand how they lived and what the world was like for them. I also had to research the First Crusade and Jerusalem, which I knew very little about. I had to find out what political and religious influences led to the decision of so many men and women, average people and nobles, to travel what was a terrifyingly long distance in those times, away from their homes and into a completely alien land.
    Thank goodness for the internet; it has made the job of research so much easier. I often wondered during my research phase, what it must have been like for writers in other times. Long hours in big city libraries and university libraries, I imagine.

  21. Hi Julia, I am with you. I really enjoy the research process, it’s kind of like gathering for a harvest. And your research sounds like fun! Glad you’re enjoying it, :-)

  22. My last book didn’t require much research, but this new WIP needs a lot of it. Since it takes place in South America in the 80s, I can’t exactly visit it, but I’ve been reading lots of books, and I plan on interviewing relatives, once I get that first draft down.

    I actually started with research before starting the first draft, and you’re so right that it helps shape the story. There are details I had no clue about that have actually contributed to entire plot twists. And like you said, there are plenty more details that will never end up in the manuscript, but that need to be researched anyways.

    Your field trips sound amazing, by the way! I’m already intrigued :)

  23. Leah, I’m so glad it was helpful to you. Although it’s not clear from this blog — I did have quite a bit of research done before I started writing in the first place. In fact this particular WIP was about half done for a few years, with lots of research. About two months ago, I stopped doing research and I sat down and wrote the rest of the draft in about 10 days. I left blanks where I didn’t know details that I fully intended to research later. It was partially by choice, but it was partially because I got on a roll and the writing was just pouring out…. honestly it’s only about the second time I’ve written like this. Now I am hoping I’ll always do it this way — I like it so much more than stopping and starting while writing! Let me know how it goes!

    Beverly, HI!! Glad to see you! How’s your editing/revising going. I’ve been thinking of you this week, working on your draft, as I work on mine. I’ve taken a self-imposed time out from Twitter which is really helping me. I love the fact you research trees and flowers — me too! Especially because my main character does a lot of gardening, so temperatures and flowers, gardens, etc., are important clues. As for taking off clothes, I may have less of that in my book as you have in yours 😉

    Cynthia, I absolutely love the idea of writing about medieval times in England! Once upon a time I started a YA novel set in England and started doing research. It was so so fun! I can well understand why you’d want to know all you can know, especially to try and understand the Crusades. Fascinating. I imagine it is quite challenging since you can’t talk to anyone who’s done it! And like you I always think of what this would be like before the Internet, especially for someone like me living a long way from the nearest large University library! Glad to find another research hound! :-)

    Mahesh, I love the metaphor of gathering for harvest — so appropriate not just for the season we’re in now. But also for my book…. she does a lot of gardening and comparisons of nature to her frame of mind. Of course gardening and gathering for harvest make so much sense in terms of research! Happy to meet another happy researcher!

    Natalia, That’s so great that you can interview relatives to learn more about the place/time you’re writing about! I’m like you — I find that my research definitely shapes how/what I’ll write. My entire story actually had its origin in a a very tiny part of a story a friend (someone who grew up in Maine) told me merged with my own personal experiences. I’ve talked to this friend several times and she’s become kind of like an informant, for lack of a better word! And almost nothing she tells me will ever end up in the manuscript–just like you! Such a fun job, especially the field trips 😉

  24. Girl Parker says:

    Julia, you’re gunna shake your head in despair at me. I’m terrified of calling someone with a research question. I’d do anything to avoid it. Ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. If I can bribe someone else to do it, I just might.

    But, I love your table! I work at the table too, but mine is 10x more messy. And I approve of the balance ball. I’m campaigning to get one.

    Didn’t realize you have a first draft finished. That’s wonderful, Julia!!!!! Happy dance in your honor.

  25. Ann says:

    Man you are AWESOME! I can only imagine how much work and concentration it takes to do this….and – based on your picture – a LOT of sticky notes!

    The only way I can translate your question into foodspeak is I read a LOT of cookbooks and research a lot of ingredients and cooking techniques. Not all of them make the blog and some don’t even make it as far as the kitchen….

    But the knowledge of these techniques can be applied elsewhere and sometimes make my finished product better. Or easier to explain on the blog, or give it a better texture.

    As for the research part – I LOVE it! It may actually be my favorite part! I adore reading cookbooks and I am never without one! I met my sister for lunch today and just in case I had to wait for her I brought along a cookbook!

  26. Girl Parker, No despair! I completely and totally understand your terror of calling people! It’s scary. Still (and I’m not sure why since I am a major introvert) I have no trouble whatsoever calling ANYONE! Isn’t that so weird? It may be because I was raised in a family that made me do everything for myself…. or it may be my journalism background so I had no choice but to call sources. In any event, thank goodness for email, right? :-) As for the table, believe me I cleaned it up for the photo opp! It IS 10x messier most of the time!! And THANK YOU for the happy dance; it feels great and also like a lot more work to be done!

    Ann, I remember you saying that about cookbooks and research — we’re so much alike. I just really want to learn everything I can about everything (writing included and cooking, too!). I think I’m either the nosiest or the most curious person alive — maybe both! As you say, these techniques and this knowledge can be applied in many different ways and places. I think we’d have a blast cooking together, don’t you??? (Have I ever told you one of my secret wishes is to take a serious cooking class in Paris? Actually a serious cooking class anywhere?) p.s. as for being awesome, not sure…. it’s just the way I roll, as they say. And YES, a LOT of sticky notes are required. Me and Post-its, we’re good friends!

  27. Pah, you put my research to shame! Then again, I’ve only written/started writing two stories set in real-world places (even the fictional version of real-world locations), and the location isn’t as big of an element as it sounds like in your story. Everything else I do is based loosely off somewhere, or entirely fictional (that’s what happens when magic and dragons start getting involved!). Great work, and good luck capturing the very special essence of your locale.

    ~Ashlee
    http://ashleesch.com
    http://theDragonsHoard.bigcartel.com

  28. Ashlee, I can imagine what fun it would be to create whole worlds — although you can write what you want, you still have to keep everything straight in your mind to be consistent, I assume!? It does indeed sound magical! As for my research, thank you for your encouragement, and I hope it will help people see the world in my book the way I see it!

  29. CMSmith says:

    An interesting and helpful post, Julia. It almost makes me want to try fiction. :)

    I sure hope this comment goes through.

  30. Christine, Glad it was helpful! You would be great at fiction! I hope you’ll try it — regardless, you could always just do some research, right? What fun!! Yes, the comment came through (obviously). :-)

  31. Erika Marks says:

    Julia, I’ve been thinking of you lately, knowing you are deep into your edits and writing and so excited for you.

    What always amazed me–and still does–is how I can be from a place and still need to research certain things. It is SO important. And it is the little things. The pieces–as we talked about a few weeks ago–that are not as well known that will make is most authentic. For me, research cuts both ways. Often I will leave a note in my ms where I need to come back and fill in so that I don’t disrupt the flow of the writing, but then other times all I want to do is follow one lead to another and glean as much as I can…

    (Your dining room is beautiful, btw! Are those Moser chairs???)

  32. Erika, I thought about you while I was writing this! I think I always feel a little behind the curve with all things Maine (since I didn’t grow up here). Plus, my current WIP deals directly with the “from away” concept! It makes me feel better knowing that even you, having grown up here, sometimes feels this way… as for the dining room: I WISH they were Moser chairs. The photo makes the room look a lot better than it really does! The chairs are pretty old and dinged up & the table is a hand-me-down. The sun & old floors make them look great, though :-)

  33. Barb Riley says:

    Wowzers, Julia. You amaze me with your attention to detail. I’m getting more and more excited to read your book(s), knowing how much heart and soul you put into them. Like Erika (above) pointed out, sometimes even when we’re from a place we *still* need to research. i.e., I grew up on the perimeter of Chicago, but my novel takes place smack in the middle of the city, so I need to research the details of the locals there. *Sigh* sometimes it overwhelms me to think of all that I still need to do. And other times, researching distracts me too much from my WIP. :( Hard to find a balance. Also, like someone else commented, I’m often too afraid to ask someone to be interviewed. Not so much b/c I’m shy, but more so b/c I feel a bit silly that I’m not a published author. (Maybe embarrassed is the right word.) It’s a confidence issue.

  34. Like the comments said — this really makes us excited to read your finished work. I love the idea of the pictures from the windows that your character is looking out and a picture of the house that is the setting of the story. That would be very helpful. Keep writing. Sounds great.

  35. Barb, So interesting that you’re researching parts of Chicago where you didn’t grow up! That makes me feel better because I always feel at a disadvantage having not grown up in Maine. I’m with you, I’m overwhelmed sometimes too. It’s a lot to do and a hard balance to find. I completely understand the fear/embarrassment of approaching people without the “proper” credentials… I think we all deal with that “imposter syndrome” in some ways. It gets easier with time I’ve found! p.s glad you’re excited to read my book(s) — I better get busy!!

    Jamie, I hope you and others will get a chance to read my book(s) some day… I’m happy to know someone is interested! The house and the location are quite intrinsic to my book — both are like characters in the novel. It is very helpful to have a house in mind as I write! Thanks for the encouragement!

  36. clairemca says:

    Great post and comments, its a wonderful process and will have infused you with knowledge important to the characters I am sure.

    I love doing research too, some of my characters and locations are based on reality but the time and circumstance may be other than what I have experienced and this journey of discovery is as much fun as the writing.

    One of my characters in my most recent novel is studying his Masters in a subject I’m interested in but don’t have the qualifications, but I’m enjoying finding out more.

    All the best, love your writing space too.

  37. Clairemca, I completely agree that the journey of discovery is as much fun as the writing! How interesting that one of your characters is studying something you don’t have the qualifications for — that’s always been one of my very favorite parts of being a writer, the luxury of studying all kinds of things and interviewing all kinds of people! Inevitably, like you, I end up wanting to learn more or sometimes even “be” that profession! Thank you so much for your comment and especially for your visit to my blog! Nice to meet another research hound!!

  38. Missy Olive says:

    This is so great! I always wondered how people were so good at describing scenes. Now this makes perfect sense.

    I do not have it in me to be a fiction writer. But I really enjoy reading how you all do it!

  39. Missy, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post — it was fun and interesting to write. I don’t know if all fiction writers like and do research, but it helps me visualize things and describe them more easily!