Research in the Trenches


By Betty Thomason Owens

Research is not limited to bookwork or Google searches. Sometimes, it’s hands-on. There are times when you need to go there. Choose an exotic locale for your next book, and you can write off a vacation in Bali. Okay, maybe not.

Research is not only necessary when writing historicals. And your setting is not the only reason to research. If your protagonist is a clerk at Walmart, or an associate at the Apple Store, this may require research, unless you or someone close to you has the experience. Maybe your main character wants to be a great chef. She needs the best schools and internship, a post-grad job in a world-famous restaurant. Research.

RoyaltyFreeImage-OrangutanA friend of mine used a zoo as a setting. Her MC inherited the zoo upon the death of her estranged mother. For her preliminary research, she worked alongside a zookeeper (or technician) for a day, scooping manure, preparing food, and whatever other chores were the daily requirement. Her careful research continued as she wrote. Questions arose and she jotted them down. These required a personal phone call to her contacts at the zoo. She made good friends along the way who later became readers and marketers of her book. Win-win!

Brainstorming can release ideas. Think of the coolest professions and locales (places you can go). Now, pinpoint one, and construct your story around it. Then launch out to do your research, answering all your questions. Remember to make connections on the job or at the locale so you can do follow-up as questions arise. This is research.

Research may be watching movies. It could require listening to music or going to a ballet, or visiting a historical site, such as a battleground or national park. Don’t just walk around and observe, take photographs, talk to the park rangers.

I made a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest and traveled down the West coast on Highway 101. I took dozens of photos and talked to people along the way. I don’t have a story with this setting yet, but it’s a possibility. I now have research to fall back on. I just have to go through the photos and look at my notes.

You can do research any time, even while waiting at the doctor’s office. Try listening to the conversations around you. Jot down the humorous or goofy things you hear. Sometimes you see things that amaze you. People leave their children unattended or have what should be a private conversation on their cellphone. These are definitely going into my notebook for later use.

Most important of all, be aware of your surroundings. You can drop a story anywhere, in any situation. You’ll bump into some wonderfully weird people out in the world, quirky characters to populate your novel. You never know when your next great idea will show up. Research is everywhere.

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photo credit: Kenny Teo (zoompict) via photopin cc

photo credit: ucumari via photopin cc