Research: Because sometimes the best part of writing is…Not writing
By Beth Kendrick
When you’re stuck on a plot point or can’t figure out how to set up and resolve key conflicts, your best course of action may be to step away from the keyboard, pick up the phone, and start asking questions. In my ten years as an author, I’ve chatted with jewelry designers, salon owners, dog trainers, film producers, pastry chefs, bartenders, attorneys, surgeons, and idle rich men (yes, really) to get their personal and professional perspectives, and I’ve learned a ton and made some great friends along the way.♥
Research can inform your storyline and add depth to your characters. The main character in my novel, Cure for the Common Breakup, is a flight attendant, but when I started the first draft, all I really knew about flight attendants was what I’d seen in movies and TV shows. I wanted this character to be more than a composite of media stereotypes, so I tracked down a flight attendant and peppered her with questions. She told me what she’s thinking about during takeoff and landing and how she identifies potential troublemakers on each flight. She corrected my airplane terminology and shared some common flight attendant phrases (such as “bowing to the cockpit” during taxi). She also divulged some great little details that I never would’ve found via Google — like the fact that pairing her required navy uniform with her required black pumps offends her fashion sensibilities.
How do you find research sources?
I’ve had remarkably good luck with just asking around. A friend of a friend of a friend might turn out to have just the information you’re after. And don’t be afraid to talk to strangers when appropriate; a few years ago, while on jury duty, I was interviewed for a panel of potential trial jurors. During a break in the proceedings, I approached the presiding judge and asked him a few questions I had about bail, jail, and vandalism charges. (This was for The Bake Off. My bakers had a wild side.) He was good-humored, articulate, patient, and suggested storyline options I hadn’t considered before. He also provided some vivid sensory details (“Have you ever smelled a precinct holding cell on a Saturday night? Let me tell you all about it…”)
What are the best questions to ask?
You’ll probably have some very specific procedural questions that tie in with your plot and characters, but consider asking some broader, open-ended questions, too. When you allow the expert to guide the interview, you end up with a better understanding of the emotional and social nuances of his or her job. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Tell me about a typical day at your job.
- What was the best/worst thing that ever happened to you at work?
- Do you have a best friend or sworn enemy in your field?
- How did you get into this field?
- What’s one common misconception people have about your job?
How do you incorporate factual research into a fictional story?
Because authors are nosy by nature, we can easily spend hours chatting up our sources and compiling fascinating stories. But you don’t want the reader to get distracted by minutiae or long lists of facts. Your job is to cull a few choice, illustrative details that tell the reader more about who your character is, lend authenticity to the setting, and to enhance your story’s drama and sense of urgency.
Beth Kendrick is the author of twelve women’s fiction books, including New Uses for Old Boyfriends and Nearlyweds, which was made into a Hallmark Channel original movie. She lives with two bumbling red rescue dogs in Arizona. You can visit her website: www.bethkendrick.com or Facebook page: www.facebook.com/BethKendrickBooks