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.
POINTS TO CONSIDER
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.