Hearts Through History Romance Writers

How far would you go?

by | August 24, 2009 | 14 comments

We seem to be on a research binge. How far would you go to get the information you need for a story? Do you dig and dig until you get the answer or do you give up when it looks like it will be a lot of work? Especially knowing you may only use a minor piece of the information for the story?

I’ve been digging up information for two stories lately. I’ve borrowed books from the library, purchased used books on the subject, and I’ve sent out email feelers to loops and people I know to get more information to make my characters jump off the page. I now have some scholars in my address book and I’ve corresponded with experts on railroads in my area(and made a new friend) not to mention I joined an online group of Native Americans to pick their brains.

I’ve also cornered people for interviews, had some hands on experience with tools my character will handle, and walked as well as I could in the shoes of my characters.

After writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper in a town where the museum curator went out of her way to help me, I now have a standing invitation to do book signings at the museum.

Along my long and winding road of searching for the illusive bit of information that will make my characters and setting come alive I’m gaining a larger list of support people and new friends.

And volumes of notes either highlighted in books or scribbled on various colored notepads and stuck in binders.

How much of the research you do, do you think actually makes it into your books? And do you also feel that research isn’t so much the words you put in a book but also the tone and setting you impart?



  1. Gwynlyn MacKenzie

    Research is my Waterloo. I love it, but tend to spend way too much time finding obscure details that I never use. I've heard it said historical writers use between one and five percent of the information they accumulate. Seems a waste, but there's always tomorrow!

  2. Deb Carr

    I have the same problem…I was the child who could spend hours looking up words in the dictionary… However, I do not consider ANY minute detail to be a waste. It enriches me in that I KNOW more about that subject, and have a greater appreciation. Those seemingly useless facts may also INDIRECTLY influence something in your writing. If not, as you say, "there is always tomorrow!"

    Also, Google Books and Amazon Books have MANY out-of-copyright books in digital form now. They are FREE for non-commercial use, and can be downloaded in many forms. I usually choose PDF. I found the references that I needed by using Yahoo search (title of the book and author). The Google Book had some pages missing, but the Amazon Book – which even had LargePrint – is complete!
    BTW, I LOVE this blog!

  3. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    Great blog. It depends what the detail is as to how much time I spend on it. Sometimes I just skim for answers, others I'll do more in depth research.

    I think the more you know of the place, culture, everyday life of your characters, the better writing you'll do, even if you don't use all the details you've found. It's like character backstory, you may know the heroine has three sisters, but it may never come out in the book, because it's not important to the story you're telling, but it's imporant for you to know the character inside and out.

  4. Cate Masters

    I love research and tend to spend too much time wandering through it. I spent two days of my vacation in Key West, Florida, in the library and maritime museums while my family went parasailing and snorkeling. But I knew I wouldn't be getting back to Key West anytime soon, and the library had local info I couldn't find anywhere else. But the result was a historical novel, Angels Sinners and Madmen, due out later this year. 🙂

  5. Terry Blain

    I tend to set my ms. in places I've actually lived, or at least visited.

    I've send away for books, called musems, gone to 'living history' sites, searched college libraries for master's thesis on the area/time I'm writing.

    But the most fun was when I wanted my Texas Ranger hero to teach the heroine how to ride a horse — how hard would it be, how long would it take, etc. So, of course, I took horseback riding lesson. Anything for the story, right?

  6. Cheryl Ann Smith

    I've bookmarked several sites already to refer to when I'm writing. I do enjoy finding cool tidbits of info to use when I write! Great blog!

  7. Paty Jager

    Gwynlyn, I think that number is true. But like, Anna Kathryn says even if it isn't in the story it makes the story richer because you have the knowledge and maybe incorporate it in a different way.

    Deb, I didn't know about that site. I'll have to look a couple books up I haven't been able to find.

    I agree, Anna Kathryn.

    Cate, I thought I was the only one to shun my family and fun for the tombs of museums. LOL Congrats on the upcoming book.

    Terry, I've done that with most of my books so far. But I still want to know more about the history of the places when I'm writing the books. And the digging is so much fin! Might come form the fact I was a newspaper reporter for a while. 😉

    Thanks Cheryl Ann!

  8. Susan Macatee

    I do think it's the tone and setting that gives the reader a feel for the time period you've set them in. As a reader, I like to get a feel for the period, but don't like too many facts to get in the way of the story.

    It's the little things you insert in your story that gives it the flavor, but I have to admit, I did have a lot of immersion into the American Civil War, the period I write, before I even put fingers to keyboard.

  9. Debra St. John

    Even with contemporaries it's important to have that background research done. Finding out all of that stuff is fun.

    Kids' non-fiction books are a great resource. The information is all in a very easy-to-read format!

  10. Paty Jager

    I agree, Susan.

    Deborah, Yes, I interviewed a rodeo bronc rider for a character for one of my books that is a contemporary and then I had to research a couple of rodeos for him to be riding in.

  11. Miss

    For me research was awful. Hard to get books, a lousy library, you name it. I had much more info than necessary and not enough at the same time.

  12. Kathryn Albright

    I like the little odds and ends that make the story more real. Such as (in westerns) the feather dusters left by the front door for visitors to dust the dirt off their boots and pants before entering the house.

    But sometimes, just reading about a time or place, gives me wonderful ideas on where the story should go next, such as if there was a terrible storm that demolished the town, or a freak flood that year.

    Nice post Paty!

  13. P.L. Parker

    I love history and research. I get so involved in researching, I sometimes forget to write. I've been known to just walk up to strangers and start asking questions. Sometimes it actually works.

    P.L. Parker

  14. Paty Jager

    Miss, I've found that smaller libraries in the area where my story is set are much more obliging than my local library. Also the state historical museums. I've had wonderful experiences with the historical museums in other states. My own state not so much. They tell me to come to the museum- But it's three hours from me and the others will work with me via e-mail.

    I agree Kathryn, I like to add those freak of nature or unusual incidents into my stories to make them feel more real.

    P.L. I wish I had your nerve. LOL I won't walk up to strangers, but I'll corner museum staff for information.



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