On-Site Research

Nancy J. Cohen

On-site research enhances your novel with authenticity. It’s your chance to make the story come alive for readers when you write the scene that inspired your visit. To get started, have an idea of what you want to research before you leave home. Begin with either a quick pass-through tour or research on the Internet. This allows you to sketch the scene ahead of time, even writing it in your manuscript, while filling in the details later.

For example, I have a research trip planned to Arizona. I’ve already written the synopsis for this story, so that tells me I have to trek through a copper mine, stay overnight at a dude ranch, visit a ghost town, stay at a haunted hotel, note the terrain and plants and animal life, and in general, walk through the steps my sleuth will be taking.

For HIGHLIGHTS TO HEAVEN, book five in my Bad Hair Day mystery series, I included a scene in Mount Dora, Florida. We had driven through there one afternoon, spending a couple of hours shopping and eating lunch. That brief survey was enough for me to write the scene in the book where my hairdresser sleuth, Marla Shore, tracks down a suspect’s sister to interview her.

After writing the first draft of the Mount Dora scene, I knew I had to make a return trip to fill in details to my satisfaction. Equipped with a notebook, I headed back for an overnight stay. This brings to mind the two most important tools to bring with you: notepad and camera. You cannot possibly remember all the details you will explore. It’s best to document them so you can refer to your materials when you’re back home. If I hadn’t gone to this town to note these particulars, I might have missed the chirping bird sound at traffic intersections when the light turned red.

I did the same for Cassadaga, a spiritualist camp in Central Florida where Marla goes for a reading from a psychic. This was the first time I’d had a reading, and it was an eerie experience. Here I used a tape recorder as an additional tool so when I got home, I could transcribe the entire interview into my computer. This became the basis for Marla’s reading in DIED BLONDE after I changed my rendition to suit the story.

SHEAR MURDER, my latest title in this series, has a wedding scene in fictional Orchid Isle that’s based on Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park. Again, I went there with camera and notebook to walk the trails as my heroine and scribble down the details.

You need to see things with your writer’s eye instead of the usual tourist experience, and our view is much more detail oriented.

1. Do preliminary research to sketch your scene.
2. Plan your trip to focus on the details you’ll need to acquire.
3. Bring a notebook and camera, possibly a digital recorder.
4. If you plan to interview people, bring one of your books, a supply of flyers, and business cards to present yourself as a professional writer. Compose a list of questions ahead of time. Direct the interview to the topics you need addressed. Write down quotes from your subject. Ask if you can run the scene by them for an accuracy check after it’s written. For informal interviews, chat up residents and get their take on things in their home town. Try to capture unique elements like favorite expressions, mannerisms, and speech patterns.
5. Once on site, walk the path of your protagonist.

Observe with your Five Senses. Take detailed notes and don’t mind the curious stares of pedestrians as you stop abruptly to scribble in your notepad. Just make sure you’re not in the middle of the street.

 A. Sight
Sight means looking at the world with a writer’s eye. Say you’re on a ship. What do you see when you stroll on deck: An outdoor clock? A crew member hosing down the deck? A coil of rope? What makes the scene unique? On a city street, what do the windows on a building bring to mind? Do they yawn like open mouths? Are they blank like vacant eyes? Note small details like overhead electric wires, stray dogs, chickens in a yard, tilted signs.

Imbue your observations with your character’s attitude. Always remember to stay in viewpoint. Then look for interesting ways to describe things, i.e. a reflective nature like water, glistening like a cobweb in sunlight, glossy like a polished piano. You’re not only writing about what you see, but also about its special characteristics or emotional associations.

B. Smell
What does your protagonist sniff: A lady’s floral perfume? Oak-aged burgundy? Beer and pretzels? Pine trees and wood smoke? Vanilla and nutmeg? Diesel fuel or rain-tinged ozone? What memories does this scent evoke?

C. Sounds
Close your eyes. What do you hear? Birds warbling, ducks quacking, construction hammering, engines whining, water dripping? See how many different sounds you can distinguish.

D. Touch
Outside, is your skin pounded by the hot sun? Blasted by a ceaseless wind? Caressed by a warm breeze? When you walk, do you trip over the uneven pavement? Is the surface spongy like wet sand? How does your character react to the sensation?

E. Taste
The sense of taste is often related to your nose. If you smell sea air, you may taste salt on your tongue. If you smell ripe grapes, you may taste wine. Try to detect a taste where there may be none obvious. Is it a pleasing flavor or unpleasant to your protagonist?

Be Sure to Observe:
PEOPLE: Physical appearance, mode of dress, speech patterns, gestures
FOOD: Meals, restaurants, foods unique to the area
NATURE: Birds, trees, animals, bugs, flowers
ARCHITECTURE: residential housing, government buildings, commercial districts
EXPERIENCES: Adventurous, Funny, Scary

Be Sure to Bring Home: Maps, tourist brochures, books on locale, menus, postcards, photos

Now your notebook is filled with details describing what you’ve seen, smelled, tasted, touched, and heard during your research trip. Your job is to go home and transcribe this into your book so your reader feels she is there with your heroine, seeing from her eyes and living the story with her. This is your greatest gift to the reader, that you remove her from her own world and transport her to a new place for a few hours of escape. “I felt like I was there,” are sweet words from a fan to an author.

Make it happen.


37 thoughts on “On-Site Research

  1. Wow. Excellent reminder list, Nancy. Makes me want to do more “fun” research. Many of my scenes can be creepy dangerous and I’d be interviewing hookers. No umbrella drinks.

    Thanks for the tips. Well done.

  2. I’m definitely not as brave as my heroine but fortunately Marla doesn’t go into too many dangerous places. How do you research your scenes?

  3. Hi, Nancy,

    I think you’re so right about the need for authenticity in novels. If we’re going to describe a place, it’s a good idea to have physically been there. As for dangerous or creepy places,
    I would have to rely on research. Fortunately, in my Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim is a librarian and so having worked both as an academic and school librarian, I could provide authentic setting info.

    • You are lucky with the librarian setting. Depends on what scrapes your heroine gets into. Even for my paranormal romances I have to do on-site research or rely on my old travel journals. Warrior Rogue has scenes in Tokyo and Hong Kong, for example.

  4. Yep. Yep. Yep.

    It’s funny because in the post about going on Retreat my first thought was “That sounds fun except for the fact that I’d rather go on location to do research.” It would be great to hang with other writers and share processes, but I’d almost rather spend the afternoon with a pair of Marines to talk about military protocol to be sure I get it right. Last summer one of my highlights was going to a gun range and firing a 9mm for the first time so I could accurately describe it.

    And the best part there was that it was also my character’s first time firing one so I could do a direct 1-1 translation of the experience from the wall of force that seems to emenate from the weapon, to the surprising lack of kick when fired. Maybe it was all those hours of Call of Duty but I really expected the thing to be pointed at the ceiling of the range after every shot, and instead it remained pretty dead on target, if you’ll forgive the pun.

    I think this is almost the same thing that Fantasy and Sci Fi writers have to do but in a different way. You can’t tour a space station, but that same “Time” investment has to be made in planning the station, the ecosystems, the mechanics, running the schematics past people in the know, and being sure that what you want to do will actually WORK for what you’re trying to write. In short you need to put the time in to be sure that you’re writing, even if it’s totally fictitious, still is “right” enough for an audience to accept.

    • So true, especially as I also write scifi and paranormal romance. I have scenes by a volcano and did research on the terrain and signs of imminent eruption to make it authentic. For scenes in caves, I’ve either been in caves myself or asked my brother who is a spelunker. Consulting experts is another means of research.

    • Rob that is cool you got to do that. Even though I’m a regular shooter myself and have fired a lot of weapons, I find that it is still important to test fire whenever possible for research, because every different kind of fire arm feels, sounds and even smells different.

      Firing a 9mm Taurus 92B (same as military issue M9) is very different from the same round through a Taurus 709 concealed carry pistol and very very different from firing the same round through a Taurus 905 snub-nosed revolver. Even though they are all from the same manufacturer and firing identical ammunition, the shape, feel, weight, and size makes for an extremely different experience.

      For example my son likes shooting the 92B even though it is almost too big for his hands, but doesn’t like the properly fitting 709. The larger pistol is much more accurate at distance and being big absorbs more shock. He can shoot a hundred rounds from the big one without getting tired, but after two 7-round magazines in the little his hand hurts from absorbing the shock that escapes the smaller lightweight gun.

      Of course by the end of the weekly 300 round shoot house course it’s all the same. I just tell him, “Hey buddy, get used to it. We’ll be using the .50 cal Desert Eagle after you turn 13.”

  5. Great tips, Nancy, and I especially like your reminders to survey a locale for impressions related to all five human senses (or maybe six senses, if it’s a paranormal! 🙂 ) We writers tend to over-rely on sight and sound in describing scenes; incorporating the other senses can really bring a scene alive for the reader.

    • Yes, it’s critically important to employ all the senses and use them in writing scenes. Doing so makes us more appreciative of the setting, too.

  6. Thanks for organizing all that. You just can’t beat the feel of a place or a situation. And “firsts” are just that, and you only get one chance to experience it and remember it. There’s nothing like being in the suffocating grip of fear for the first time, when everything seizes up,the adrenaline dumps into the bloodstream and the vision tunnels. And that’s just what klowns do to me.

    • It helps to keep a journal, even if you don’t plan on using a site you’re visiting right away, because you never know when you’ll want to use that setting or emotional response in a story.

    • Even better, it helps to carry the journal (or a little notepad) and a pen around at all times. The first rule of photography is to always bring your camera. The first rule of writing it to always carry paper and pen (or iPad). Gotta snag those little gems and zingers as they whiz past.

    • It’s easier now with cell phones. We have our handy camera and notepad all in one device, if we forget the old fashioned pen and notebooks.

  7. I recently did an on-site visit at a high school that will is the main setting of an upcoming YA paranormal. Being there brought to mind some issues I hadn’t thought of. I think on-site research is great for the unexpected it can generate. I don’t take notes, but do snap a lot of able to photos, and mostly, just experience each moment as fully as I can. It’s the lived experience that I know I’ll be translate onto the page. Thanks for your detailed guidance!

    • You are so right in that being on the spot can generate all sorts of new ideas! So can talking to the people there who might be goldmines of information. Their shared experiences can also make its way into a story.

  8. Hey, Nancy, when you come to Arizona, be sure to check out Bisbee. “The Queen of the Copper Camps,” now a funky artist colony mostly, features a haunted hotel (The Copper Queen), a mine tour (the in-the-mountain Queen Mine, which isn’t operational), the also-defunct Lavender Pit mine, and a tour company that does jeep tours of the town’s mining history. If you need an operational pit mine, there are several south of Tucson, a couple hours away. (I live in the area. That’s how I know about these places.)

    Terrific post, by the way.

    • Go for Internet research and ask on the listserves for people who live there. I’m sure you can find other writers/readers willing to help out. Even ask on your FB page. And don’t forget about Google maps etc.

  9. I love getting the variations in sensory perception down right. One of the most striking differences I’ve experienced in general sensory overload is the thickness of the air and its effect on vision and taste between the muggy east coast and the arid arctic.

    In the eastern parts of North America it is, at least where I’ve been, the air feels thick, like a semi-solid web that one has to practically cut through to move. Creating a nearly impervious wall of refracting moisture, one can seldom more than a few miles clearly The humidity at times gets so dense that it can seem possible to scoop it into containers and carry spare atmosphere about. Birds and insects don’t fly through the air in some of the eastern places, they swim.

    By comparison the dry arctic air of most of Alaska is so clear that from Anchorage we can clearly see the details of Denali (local name for Mt. McKinley) even though it is nearly 200 miles north. It is so thin feeling that I sometimes wonder how birds and insects, let alone airplanes, manage to fly in it.

    One of my other loves is the smell of dirt. Whether it is the fruity slightly acidic smell of my wife’s uncle’s North Carolina grape arbor dirt, the ruddy nutlike odor of a northern West Virginia yard, or the scent of ancient mastodon and caribou herds in the black soil on a Matanuska farm in Palmer Alaska even the ground we walk on has a life of its own.

    So definitely catalogue your experiences in each place you go, if you want to write about them well.

    • Your descriptions are poetic, certainly of dirt. I’d never thought of it that way. And I know what you mean about humidity. In the summer here, you can practically cut the moisture in the air with a knife, it’s so visibly thick.

  10. Hi. My name is Jeanette. I hope it is ok I just jump in. I’m new to the site but very excited to have found it. This topic in particular is of great interest to me because my girlfriend and I are attempting out very first novel together. The majority of our novel takes place in Manhattan, NY. The problem is we both live in California and neither of us have the means to travel. Can this really be accomplished without having actually been there? We’ve gone a little stagnate because of the intimidation factor of not REALLY knowing NY, and Manhattan in particular.

    • All you have to do is watch the myriad of movies and TV shows that take place in New York to get a feel for the place. It’s vibrancy, energy, noise, and crowds of people continue to enthrall the masses. Look for details like the rumble of a subway train vibrating underfoot, the way many tall buildings have fire escapes, the smells of trash mingled with garlic from a nearby deli, etc. Ask online for people who live there to describe these sensory factors.

  11. Good tips, Nancy! Your Arizona trip sounds like a lot of fun.

    I did on-site research for my new Nocturne, Phantom Wolf. Part of the book is set in Honduras, and I travel there frequently for the day job. It was fun imagining the cafe where I ate lunch in real life being a setting for the hero and heroine’s suspenseful encounter with the bad guy who’s chasing them. And the food was good, too!

  12. Great tips, Nancy. I just returned from Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Saw a couple of plays and just inhaled the atmosphere.

  13. Amazing article, Nancy! Like many of your articles, this reminder is getting printed and pinned by the computer. Thanks for sharing !!!
    Edi Ojeda

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