Research: Where to Start

You want to write a story, but don’t know where to begin. The setting is current, your idea is for the main character to be a firefighter. Problem is, you’ve never even known a firefighter—you’ve only watched a movie about one.

Or, maybe your story is set in Boston, in the early 1900’s. You’ve never even been to Boston.

You need to research, but where do you begin? How do you find the information you need?

My first works of fiction were historical, and at the time, I had no home computer and no access to internet. Yes, I know—ancient days. We still had an antennae connected to our television, and the phone was on the wall.

I drove to the library, and returned home with a stack of books. These included a book that gave the reasons behind the stock market crash. Another book about the famous cruise lines of the day, a pictorial history of the Great Depression, and a couple of well-known novels set in the 1920s.

I hoped these would help me work up a timeline and get into the mindset. They did, to a degree. But my resources were limited.

These days, it’s a lot easier and so much more convenient. You can Google whatever you need to research. You don’t even have to leave home. Here are a few things you may not have considered:

  1. You Tube videos from the 1920s and ‘30s – even one that shows a family on a cruise ship. You can also find newsreel videos on a variety of subjects. Very interesting!
  2. Don’t forget the popular songs of the day, which will add depth and atmosphere. Listen to them, as you construct scenes.
  3. Current events – these can add reality to your conversations, fill a quiet moment of contemplation. Troubling events often occupy our thoughts. Your character would react in much the same way.
  4. Google locations can take us to the very spot. Select “street view” and voila! You’re looking at houses and images that will add definite reality to your writing. The earth is at your fingertips. Choose a location and go there. It’s not quite as good as actually being there, but it’s better than nothing.
  5. Make the trip. Even a short day trip or over-niter is often enough to inspire your writing.
  6. Antique shops and cemeteries! If your story is historical, visit local antique shops. Look for interesting ordinary objects that would populate a home from your particular era. Sometimes, the shop owners/clerks can help you. We have a number of antique shops near my home, along with a cemetery dating back to the early 1700s. What a wealth of information can be gained, just walking around in there.

Current interests, like the firefighter, can be easily researched on the internet. You’ll find numerous blog posts, news stories, television shows, movies. After you’ve read enough to get a good background, I suggest you call a local fire department and see what’s available to you. In some cases, a writer can tour the department, and interview actual firefighters.

Today, if we can imagine it, we can find it on the internet. Your setting is in the Antarctic? Or, your main character is a science officer on a space station? No problem.

Stay tuned all month for more articles from our contributors on research, how-to, and why. We’ll give you tools to make your writing pop.

Click to Tweet: #Research is the key that will unlock all the information you need. Sometimes, we are only limited by our imagination via @InspiredPrompt #amwriting

Writing Prompt: Arlene knelt in front of the tombstone. Weather had etched it until she could barely make out the dates 1652 – 1717. There was only one name—Corley—was it the surname? And beneath it, three words…

You May Be a Fiction Writer

I always thought it would be fun to write fiction. After all, it’s just made-up stories, right? So, I started writing, and I enjoyed it immensely. Well, until I realized my stories needed a plot to make sense, and some sort of structure and plan. I needed to learn the basics of fiction writing.

Off to the bookstore I went, to find a couple of self-help books. But, I’m more of a hands-on learner. I closed the books, and put those principles into practice. All right, I was onto something. It was looking good. Until I sent my first chapter to a critique group. I was so embarrassed by all the corrections, and the not-so-gentle suggestion, “…you really need to polish this more before you send it in…”

Maybe fiction writing wasn’t as easy as I thought.

How do you know you’re a fiction writer? What clues you in?

Here’s what led me to believe I may be destined to write fiction:

  • My mother. She called me a storyteller a long time ago. It wasn’t a compliment.
  • Years of living in my imagination–my “happy place”–creating stories in my head.
  • Reading my way through the fiction shelves at the local library. While reading, I was figuring out a better way to tell that story.

You might be a fiction writer. But–brace yourself–it’s not easy. Matter of fact, it’s a lot of hard work. You not only have to begin a story, but end it, and the ending, or “denouement” needs to make sense, and satisfy the reader. Quite the challenge, especially in this age of instant books, when writers crank out multiple novels a year. Their loyal readers devour those novels as quickly as they appear. How did they do that? Let’s dissect the thing and find out.

Write. Sit down and write. There’s no substitute for it. Tell your story, as only you can. And, while you’re at it, learn the craft. Read, study, follow blogs, take classes, attend conferences. Fellowship with other writers. Find a good critique group–this last one is essential–truly the best way to learn. Notice I said, GOOD critique group. Find a group, either in person or online, that will challenge you and help you grow as a writer. As Sara Turnquist said in Back to Basics – How to Start, choose a group that has at least one published author.

A good work of fiction includes…Even in fiction, facts are not only welcome, but necessary. What makes a really good story? It’s believable. It could really happen. It mirrors real life.

Like the house built on sand, a story with no foundation will quickly wash away, and its writer will look very foolish. Include a factual foundation, such as, basing a story in a real place, or using everyday articles that might be found in someone’s home. Sometimes, good characters and engaging dialogue are enough to ground the story. Think of the best scenes in your favorite movies. Don’t they usually include dialogue and interaction between the characters? They become real in those moments, and you become part of the scene. That’s great fiction.

Showing … not telling–One of the greatest commandments of fiction writing! Fiction is a finely-crafted work of art. A really good story doesn’t just tell you what’s going on, it shows you. You get so wrapped up in the story, you feel what the character feels, see what he sees. You’re emotionally involved. I read an excellent blog post on this subject, written by Cindy Sproles, on The Write Conversation. You can access that article here: Writing With Emotion.

Read good fiction. Find writers whose books you love, and read. I use the following list of questions as I read:

  • How does the writer make me want to turn the page?
  • What draws me to the lead character?
  • When are the stakes raised?
  • How does the writer integrate minor characters?
  • What makes a scene work?
  • What’s the key to the conflict?
  • How does the writer handle dialogue?

These questions also work with television shows and movies. The answers can be very revealing. What are the author’s strong points? What are his shortcomings? What’s your takeaway? Challenge your own writing in this way, and you’re bound to improve.

I don’t claim to know it all, because I don’t think it’s possible to learn all there is to know about writing. It’s an ever-changing scene that needs to be edited and updated, molded to fit genres and themes. And there’s no way I can tell you all you need to know in 750 words or less. But, if you really want to learn, and you want to excel at the craft, or at least develop your personal style and voice, you can achieve that.

Click to Tweet: I jumped in, feet first, and guess what I learned? It really is fun to write fiction.

Writing Prompt: Your main character (Jill) has just moved to a new city, where she’s taken a job. Jill accepts a coworker’s invitation to an informal gathering. As she steps inside the room, describe the scene, using conversation between Jill and the coworker.

Christmas in Our Hearts

by Betty Owens

The wonderful thing about Christmas is…it’s the only one. (Adapted from the Tigger song).

Yes, there’s only one Christmas, and it comes once a year. I hear some of you shouting, “hallelujah!”

For many of us, the hectic Christmas season can be overwhelming, especially lately, when it seems to last the entire final quarter of the year. However, it’s still a magical, joyous time.

Christmas is one of those seasons that’s new every year–no matter how many traditions you carry over from previous years, there’s always something that’s new and precious.I tend to associate memories with sounds and aromas. Sounds, like the bells of a nearby church tolling seasonal tunes, send me back to my childhood home in San Diego, near the mission at Balboa. Aromas, like molasses cookies baking in the oven, mixed with the fresh scent of pine from the Christmas tree remind me of home. With the visual of old-fashioned Christmas bulbs reflected off shiny glass ornaments—I can almost hear the crackle of excitement in the air, as memories come rushing in.

I didn’t grow up in an overly religious home, so I didn’t always associate Christmas with church services and worship. But, we sang the beautiful carols and hymns I came to love and cherish. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Angels We Have Heard on High, O Come All Ye Faithful, are a few of my favorites.

As a young teen, after I accepted a friend’s invitation to join her church’s Christmas choir, I was hooked. Something began to change in my heart, making room for the Savior, and the story of His birth.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.~John 1:14 NIV

Christmas took on a new and special meaning, so much deeper and more satisfying than the beloved fairy tale story of St. Nicholas. [Click to tweet]

We’ve had some wonderful posts this December, as our crew members have shared their hearts and warmed ours with beautiful moments, and priceless memories. Taken as a whole, these messages combine to relate the true meaning behind Christmas, and confirm our beliefs in the One born on that first Christmas Eve. I’ve linked them here, if you’d like to re-read them.

December: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Micki Clark’s Christmas Traditions

A Glimpse of Christ

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas; The Reason for the Season

‘Twas the Night before Christmas

What Christmas Means to Me

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your all-time favorite Christmas memory or tradition? What sets your heart aglow as the day approaches? We welcome you to join the conversation. You’re the reason we write, and we love to hear from you.

From our homes to yours, may you have a wonderful, blessed holiday season!

The Writing Prompts Crew

Grandma Had No Recipes

I heard a rumor it’s already November. I’m not sure I’m speaking to November. However, I am leading with the topic for this month, so I’ll just have to get over it. The official topic is “From My Grandmother’s Kitchen.” This means that all our wonderful bloggers will be writing about some of their favorite foods, and sharing memories, along with one of Grandma’s favorite recipes.


Here’s my dilemma: oh, wait, you already read it in the title of this post. Maybe I shouldn’t have led with it. You may be wondering why Grandma had no recipes. Everyone uses a cookbook, or borrows recipes, right? She probably did, at one time or another, but by the time I came along, most everything Grandma made, she knew how to cook. She never used a recipe. She added a little of this and a pinch of that.

My grandma made the best biscuits ever. If you’ve read my Kinsman Redeemer series, or maybe just the first book, Annabelle’s Ruth, Cousin Thelma’s biscuits were like my grandma’s. They were big and fluffy. Toasty on the outside, moist on the inside. Is your mouth watering? Mine is!

I watched her make them. We all did. But no one could duplicate them. We’ve all tried, with no luck. She also made wonderful teacakes—an old-fashioned sweet biscuit-y cookie. I ate plenty of that cookie dough. As soon as Grandma turned her back, into my mouth went another lump. It was delicious, but no one could duplicate the recipe. She even tried writing that one down. We could get really close, but not quite. It was so disappointing.

Grandma was a plain cook. Kind of like Amish plain. She cooked the best vegetables–lima beans, corn pudding, grits and red-eye gravy. Yum! And her creamed potatoes were a-maz-ing. She even made a warm mashed potato version of potato salad, topped with sliced hard-boiled eggs. Delicious, but no recipe to be found, anywhere.

However, she could not create a meat dish unless it was fried. She fried steak. And nine times out of ten, her cakes came out burned, or dry. Her egg white frostings cracked. Sorry, but it’s true. We ate a lot of crumbled cakes, because nothing was wasted in Grandma’s kitchen.

The meringue for a lemon pie was a way to redeem herself. She made a lovely meringue, and the filling was scrumptious. Not me, I usually pile on the whipped cream. I’ve made meringue in the past, and it turned out pretty good, but I take shortcuts these days. She did, too, as time went on. An invention came along that changed her life. It was called “canned biscuits.” It set her free. From that day forward, we ate canned biscuits at Grandma’s house. It was heartbreaking. Such a sad waste of talent.

So, what recipe shall I share, since Grandma had no recipes? Well, I have a binder filled with all my favorite recipes, and guess what? I’m Grandma! So I’ll share one of mine.

Here’s the scene: You’re going to brother’s house for Thanksgiving, and sister-in-law asks you to bring a dessert. She’s a wonderful cook, and always has a gorgeous array of desserts, so you’re intimidated. This simple little cookie may save the day. They taste a little like a pecan sandie. Make a practice batch a few days ahead, just to get the hang of it. These are a hit, wherever I take them—almost as good as Grandma’s—but not quite.

Click to Tweet: Find out why my Grandma had no recipes. #holidayrecipe #cookies

Butter Pecan Cookies


¾ cup pecans
½ butter, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ cup (or less) confectioner’s sugar


  1. Spread pecans on a baking sheet and bake in 350-degree oven for 5-6 minutes to toast them. Remove and let cool completely. When cool, chop finely and set aside.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add vanilla extract and beat again. Slowly add flour and salt until completely combined.
  3. Mix in pecans.
  4. Use a medium cookie scoop to spoon out cookie dough (a regular spoon works fine). Roll dough into a ball. Roll the top of the ball in reserved sugar. Place sugar side up on an ungreased cookie sheet (I line them with parchment paper). Use a small glass to gently flatten cookies.
  5. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 12-14 minutes, just until edges start to brown. Remove from oven and let cookies cool on baking sheet for 10 minutes before removing to racks to cool completely.
  6. After removing to racks, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.

Makes about 30 cookies.