Readers often ask what I enjoy most about writing. I try to explain that my favorite part of “writing” isn’t the actual writing. It’s the research. I love exploring old houses, tracking down names and places, turning the crisp pages of a diary written more than a hundred years past.
As a novelist I’ve been told to “write what I know,” but the truth is I don’t know that much—at least not enough to sustain a career in fiction writing. But I do enjoy learning new things so, when I begin a novel, I slowly put together the pieces of my story puzzle by doing these five things:
Like most novelists, I begin my research online, searching for the seeds of my story. When I started to write Chateau of Secrets, for example, I wondered if there were any Jewish men in Hitler’s army. On Google I discovered that there were probably tens of thousands of Jewish men who were in the Wehrmacht. This startling fact became central to my novel.
In the past fifteen years, I’ve visited locations around the world via computer screen, read countless interviews on a wide range of topics, and connected with multiple experts in my areas of research. But even though the Internet is fantastic for obtaining facts and some sensory details, it’s not my only means of information. I always try to verify what I find online through one of these other types of research.
Visit the Location
When I researched for Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana, I spent days exploring hidden places in homes near Liberty that had once been stations along the Underground Railroad. I drove through the surrounding forest at night, and when I stepped out into the darkness, the owls hooted and the cloud cover masked the stars. My heart raced, and I felt terribly alone—a glimpse of what a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs.
In one house, I climbed the secret staircase hidden in a closet and crept over the exposed nails and boards to the room where the Quaker homeowners once hid runaways. The winter air chilled my bones in that cramped attic room, but even as I shivered, I felt more determination than fear. The runaway slaves were determined to find freedom.
If you can’t visit the place or places where your book is set, the terrain and photo features on Google Maps as well as Google Earth help tremendously with geographical details. But visiting a location now only allows you to appreciate what your characters might experience, it provides you the opportunity to smell the scents they might have smelled, taste what they could have tasted, hear exactly what they might have heard.
Since I always visit my main settings, the layout and details of a place are rooted in my mind so when it’s time to start writing, I don’t have to worry about the location. I can get completely lost in my story instead.
Interview Experts and Locals
Most people love to talk about their hobbies or area of expertise, and if you tell them you write fiction, they’ll probably give you much more information than you will ever need for your story. Or at least, more than you think you’ll need—an interview often changes the direction of a story.
Because I write both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed detectives, history buffs, Amish people, and the families of men and women who were part of the French resistance. I’ve spent hours talking to new friends about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and the details of living in France when Nazi Germans occupied the country.
The most important interview I ever did was with an Amana woman named Emilie. I asked her a simple question—what were Amana women passionate about in the 19th century? The answer to that question (friendship) shaped both Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa and Love Finds You in Amana, Iowa.
Explore Museums and Landmarks
Living farms, museums, and historical villages like Williamsburg or Old Salem offer a unique and educational window to the past. For my historical novels, I learned how to run a printing press in a tourist village, how to cook on the open hearth at an old home in Indiana, how to load a rifle at the Oregon Trail Museum in Idaho, and how to drive an Amish buggy at a museum in Walnut Creek. While landmarks and museums are open to the public, many will give private tours to writers, and their tour guides often have accumulated more information in their heads than most reference books have between their covers—and I always ask the guides direct questions about my next book.
Invade the Library
The manor in Refuge on Crescent Hill was inspired by a beautiful mansion in Ohio that had been built before the Civil War. As I tried to find information about this house, the town’s librarian uncovered the mother lode—a research paper written sixty years ago about the mansion including pictures, historical detail, and folklore about a secret tunnel that ran—and maybe still runs—underneath. This one paper gave me the information I needed for the details of my fictional house and, like my interview with Emilie, this paper helped form my plot.
Newspapers, magazines, diaries, archived research papers, and of course, books provide basics like how people dressed and what they ate during a specific era as well as more abstract concepts like how they approached life and what world events shaped their thinking. Novels set during specific time periods have been an invaluable resource for me as well. While I was writing The Silent Order, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald topped the reading stack beside my bed. Right now, I’m reading books about the Underground Railroad in California and life in England during World War II. In the near future, I’ll stop researching and starting writing again about something that months ago I didn’t know.