Research is No Substitute

I’ve never traveled in a starship, never lived in a castle in 12th century England, and I’ve certainly never cast a spell that turned a bunch of crushed herbs into a murder of crows, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing about them. However, meticulous research can only take me so far. There’s nothing like walking in the dirt I’m going to write about to add that touch of realism to a story.

When I wanted to write that spell-casting novel, I set it in Memphis and immediately decided to take a road trip. Memphis is only three hours down the road from me, so not a terrible jog. I spent the weekend there soaking in the atmosphere of Beale Street and walking along the edge of the Mississippi. I interviewed a police officer, took pics of his uniform and squad car, hit a few bars and a voodoo shop. I got the feel for the setting of my novel, listened to the cadence of the voices around me, smelled the air and experienced the weather—just to add that little kernel of truth at the center of my fantasy.

When I wanted to write a story about a couple of corrections officers working in a demon-infested prison, I interviewed my daughter and son-in-law who were guards at the time, but that wasn’t quite enough to help me feel grounded in the story. I applied for a job at the prison, walked past the gates under the eye of an armed guard in a tower into the administration area where I watched porters buffing floors. I didn’t get to see the housing units, but I know how the place looked from the outside and some of the inside. I saw the prisoners’ and guards’ uniforms, could smell the disinfectant and wax, felt that chill trickle down my spine when those heavy gates closed behind me—again, it was enough to ground the story in reality.

When I wanted to write a story about a search and rescue worker who specialized in cave rescues, I did the research, knew what equipment was common, what techniques are used, but I needed more. I fell back on my own experience rappelling in the Army and in college, and I spent an afternoon with a fireman who talked about his most daring rescues. Then I went to some of the public caves in the Texas Hill Country to get those sensory details I needed.

I’ve traveled most of Europe and have photos and memories to draw upon. I’ve walked through numerous ruined fortresses and castles. I know their size, where they were built, what it looks like from the top of the battlements. I’ve been to the museums to see medieval clothing, armor, weaponry and art. And now I have my books to fill in the details of the things I don’t know—like sapping techniques and how to clean out the cesspit. When I write a medieval historical novel, I have some basis of truth to begin with and I can weave the rest of the story around it.

Some authors do quite well just hitting the books, but I like to get a “feel” for my setting and my characters’ occupations as much as I need to fill in the blanks of my knowledge with some Internet surfing. When I went to a roller derby match with friends last Saturday, no amount of movie-watching or online research could fill in the pictures that strobed through my mind. I know the size of the arena, who attends the matches, how the women dress, how they sound when they play and especially when they fall. I watched how their bodies moved, smelled them up close after they’d been at it a while. I could write that roller derby queen now. Just have to hit the internet to figure out the rules of the game.

I’m heading out on a cruise to the Caribbean with Sasha White in December and I expect to come back with fodder for many stories. I’d never attempt a cruise ship story without actually experiencing it. Some things I have to live first before I can write them.

If you’d like to see some of the places I’ve gone recently in search of truths central to my stories, check out my blog travelogue: Delilah’s Travelogue

5 thoughts on “Research is No Substitute”

  1. Like you, I need to feel/experience many things. I’m so not a book learner. We’re going to have A blAST on the cruise. (And get lots of research done too!)

  2. I agree that sometimes the sensory experiences are necessary to enrich the story being told. You have definitely had some interesting experiences in the name of research.

    Oddly enough, I’ll be heading out on a Caribbean cruise in just under 2 weeks now. lol

  3. Sasha!! Can’t wait either. I’m so gonna ask them the best places to stash a body and of course hide out for a quick tryst!

    Karin! You have to tell Sasha and I how it goes and what you wore. I haven’t a clue what to pack!

  4. Oh! And I didn’t mention the visit to the mortuary to get the scoop on body prep prior to funerals. THAT was awesome stuff and I wove it into the opening scene of Frannie ‘n’ the Private Dick.

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