Do your Research!

imagesToday I leave for a very exciting trip to India – not only am I excited because it’s a place that’s been on my (long) ‘must see’ list for ages but also because it gives me a chance to do some ‘on the ground’ research. I’m lucky that my love of travel and history can be combined in this way, but I also understand that I have an obligation to future readers to get the details of any story I write as accurate as possible. Although ‘on site’ research isn’t always possible, few things compare to actually breathing in the air of the place you plan to write about or to feel, smell, hear and touch the very things your characters will experience.  The immediacy of this kind of research will (I hope) translate into a more visceral sensory experience for the reader as well.

Following Jim’s theme from yesterday’s blog post – I also feel strongly that one of the top things guaranteed to make a writer fail is a failure to do research. This research includes critical information about the publishing and writing industry as well as everything pertinent to the book a writer is hoping to complete. And when I say everything – I mean everything. Readers today demand a compelling and accurate story – and be assured, if you fail to research something properly there will be an army of readers out there eager to tell you so!

This research can usually be done at the desk top – with the internet offering a wealth of information that was never as readily accessible as it is today. I can read antiquarian books that have been electronically scanned, view newspaper columns from a past era – even look up the weather reports for a particular date I have in mind. As a historical writer, I feel an obligation to get the facts right as much as possible and I have been known to spend way too many hours researching furnishings, paintings, and books that will comprise less than a few sentences of background in my novels (what can I say, I love my job!). Still – nothing quite compares to the thrill of actually being in the place you want to write about.

So today I go armed with notebooks, computer and camera as well as all my (aging) senses – hoping to capture the essence of place and history for India that I want to capture in my future story. My travels will include Delhi, Agra, Hyderabad and Udaipur, and, I know I will find the experience overwhelming and confronting at times, as I witness the juxtaposition of modernity and history, poverty and riches first hand.

Unfortunately, I may not be able to view this post or comment as much as I’d like (as I’ll be flying part of the day), but I would like to hear from my fellow TKzers on a place that they would like to visit as research for an possible book they’d love to write.

So what country or place is on your ‘must see’ list for a possible future book? Have you ever given up on a book after realizing the writer failed to do their research?


18 thoughts on “Do your Research!

  1. Even though most of my books are set in my home town, L.A., I always go and visit the locations, take pics, get details. Nothing beats being there and I always find things I never could have any other way, including characters and plot ideas.

    • Nothing really beats being there, I have to admit too:) Usually I have to also use my imagination to envisage what it would have been like during the time period I’m writing about – but that’s so much easier when you’re actually walking the streets where your character would have walked.

  2. I would love to be able to take a “sabbatical” and travel the path my great-great-grandfather followed from Montgomery to Gettysburg and back. He was a sergeant in the Confederate infantry, wounded at Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg (the latter resulting in the loss of his left arm), captured and transported to Fort Delaware POW “camp”, then released when his captors thought he wouldn’t survive much longer due to gangrene. This is where what I know dries up until well after he had returned to Alabama. How he got home from that mud-flat in the middle of the river remains a mystery to me. But I would like to be able to see the country-side he saw, even if it has mini-marts and drive-thru’s on it.

    From this, I’d do two things:
    1. Write a “parallel-docu-travelogue-history-biography” of George Clinton Clisby and yours truly;
    2. Write an historical novel of his, and his brothers’, travails – one served in the southeastern “theater” – Tennessee/Georgia – dying here in Atlanta at Peachtree Creek; the other served in the artillery before being reassigned to the Civilian Commissary Corps in Mobile (sounds so very “John Jakes”, doesn’t it?)

    Enny whey… didn’t mean to take off such a long post… but thanks for humoring me nonetheless…


    g (George Clisby Smith [the III, no less…])

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever given up on an author for lack of research, although I’ll snicker or growl. How can anyone write a book set in Florida without at least *some*references to the climate? I try to set my books where I’ve been, or where I know someone well enough to pester with questions like, “What street trees bloom in May in Salem?” I’d love to send my characters to Ireland (so I could visit my daughter) or the Galapagos Islands. I’m not sure what the IRS would think of it, though, come tax time.

  4. Clare,
    Have a great trip! I was in India (Chennai only) for my nephew’s wedding years ago. They do weddings up pretty big time over there — complete with painted elephants! It was an amazing trip and my first time visiting a non-European culture.

    As for tossing out badly researched books. Only happened to me once — read a description of the Florida sunset — quite beautifully rendered — except the scene was set on Fort Lauderdale beach. Maybe it was an honest mistake (Hey, I’ve had some bone-headed ones in my books). But there were other inaccuracies about my home state that were annoying and made me think the writer was just too darn lazy to even do a Google street view.

  5. I have a pair of books that I want to write, one fiction, one non-fiction, about Kenya.

    I also have an open invite to run a half-marathon in Alice Springs. I lived there for four years, but the population has tripled since then. I can find a story there.

    Currently staying closer to home with a trip to Seattle this weekend to visit the Mt. Baker neighborhood for my latest novel. In May, I’ll be traveling to Eugene to meet a group of mostly non-fiction writers during the Prefontaine Classic for an anthology. Only two fiction writers were invited by the patron to the Eugene meet up, so I’m a bit stoked.

    • Paul – sounds great! I’d love to go to Africa as I have lots of ideas for books that could incorporate there:) I’ve been to Alice Spring many years ago – and there is definitely a story in that place – have you read Adrian Hyland’s Moonlight Downs? I thought that was a great mystery with a real sense of place.

  6. You’ll have to let everybody know how Holi treats you!

    India is one of my favorite countries to travel in. Well, except for the driving ;-). You don’t say if you’ll be on your own, or with a group, or if you’re already booked solid. Udaipur is lovely, even though it’s touristy. If the Lake Palace restaurant is open to non-guests (I’m assuming you’re not forking out the hundreds required to stay there) it’s worth going there for dinner and entertainment. You definitely have to go out on the lake in any case. In Agra don’t forget to visit Fatehpur Skiri; there’s more in Agra than just the Taj. Not too far from Agra, and conveniently on the way to/from Jaipur (if you’re going there) is Keoladeo National Park. This is a fabulous place to see birds. Even if you’re not a twitcher it’s nice, peaceful, slow-paced experience. There is so much in India it’s difficult to make recommendations, and once you’re there you’ll be bombarded with info anyway. Oh, and I hope your suitcase is half or more empty so that you can cram it with all the wonderful and cheap stuff you can buy. Have a fabulous time.

    As for where I’d like to visit for research: Turkey, Egypt, Mali. These are all places I should have already been, but the trips fell through.

    Paul D: Kenya is a great place to visit. I took my profile picture at Samburu.

  7. I’d love to go to Algeria, and to Algerian Sahara. And I will in 10 or so years time. So my children when they come can remember. I want to share places of my childhood with them (I was 3 years there with my parents) but also see how everything has changed and moved forward. And I want to use impressions and re-discovered memories in my books.

  8. Many years ago, I spent a few weeks in Cuba. I’d like to go back for two or three weeks.
    Alaska is another place–I’d love to travel around there for about a month, especially since I read, “Bear Down, Bear North,” a sharply atmospheric book of short stories by an Alaskan native, Melinda Moustakis.

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