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.

ON-SITE RESEARCH: Author/Dolphin Encounters? Oh, Yeah!

By Kathleen Pickering  http://www.kathleenpickering.com

My job rocks!

My dear friend, Heather Graham, won this amazing Dream Date with Dolphins from a fund raiser at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon Florida. Guess who she invited? 


Yes, indeed. Yours truly. (This photo is dubbed: The Board Meeting)

Heather and I spent the entire day with trainer, Linda, and DRC director, Mandy, who took us through their daily routine with the the dolphins. OMG! You just know that an amazing experience such as this, as well as watching Heather transform into the proverbial Mermaid while swimming with these charming creatures, could turn into nothing less than on-site research.

You see, Heather has invited me to join her, and authors Beth Ciotta and Deborah LeBlanc to write a Christmas anthology slated for 2013. The characters will be in line with her Keepers series. That said, my search for a “Keeper” character who will transform from animal to human was easily found at the Dolphin Research Center.

005_5Between the dolphins, sea lions, peacocks, exotic birds and other aquatic life surrounding the compound, you know that I discovered my character for the Keepers anthology.048_48

But, I’m not telling. Not yet, anyway.

I really don’t have a question to ask you folks today, but would welcome your comments. If you’d like to talk about how lucky I am at my job, well, feel free. I heard Steve Job’s Stanford University speech back when he originally made it in 2009. When I heard him thumbnail[3]

then, I punched the air saying, “You’re so right, Steve!”  Up until around 2005, I had been sidetracked, and letting “stuff” get in the way of my dreams. But no longer. It’s amazing how, when you decide to live true, you world unfolds in ways you’d never expect. Hence, a dream date with a dear friend at the DRC, and what do I get? The character for my next book. Not too shabby, eh?

So, let me leave you with this last link to a day made in heaven. If you have ten minutes, you may enjoy viewing Heather’s and my first ten minutes of our dream date morning at DRC.  Click Here:


Yeah, we’re hooked.

Oh, and if you’d like to read an in-depth discussion of our fun day, visit Heather’s blog: http://thelipstickchronicles.typepad.com/the_lipstick_chronicles/2011/10/dream-date.html

Happy writing, one and all!

REAL LIFE AND FICTION: On-Site Research at Its Best

By Kathleen Pickeringhttp://www.kathleenpickering.com/

For this author, conducting on-site research on a work of fiction to hone the story into a living, breathing event is one of the most exciting aspects of writing.

Now, I know this isn’t always possible for a writer, but when it is, oh, I don’t know, can you say, tax write-off? It is a lucky day when one can take a trip for his/her profession and find business is a pleasure.

EOL_SMFor example, when I wrote ECHOES OF LOVE, a paranormal romance hopping from Manhattan to London, I just had to fly to England. After all, the last thing I wanted was for a local Brit to let me know my facts were wrong. Major story killer!

I wrote a pick-pocket scene when my character, Melissa, stepped off the curb in Hastings. Now, you or I would have thought stepping from a curb would be a normal, every day event. However, the curbs on the main street in Hastings are a foot high! Melissa would have fallen, not stepped. Had I not been there to discover this little fact, I could have hurt my character and my credibility!

Also, how was I to sneak Melissa past the closed oak doors and rock walls of Battle Abbey to crash a concert in the dead of night, if I had not done so myself? (Oops! Did I say that?)
Battle abbeyTruth be told, I did sneak in! I and a cohort (Jane had no idea I was getting her into mischief!) found a path leading through the woods to the high cliff behind the Abbey. This cliff overlooked the valley where the Battle of Hastings was fought. And to my surprise, not only did I discover a real-life gypsy wagon camped in the valley (which I promptly used in the story) but, I found the rear of the Abbey un-walled and easily penetrable. All of this worked beautifully into Melissa’s adventure.

On another occasion, my husband, some friends and I took a trip to the Bahamas which resulted in the contemporary romance I just sold to Harlequin (WHERE IT BEGAN – Jan. 2012). Nice familySailing the waters, snorkeling the reefs and meeting a strange and unsavory local resident helped craft the book. The story ideas just kept coming!

My craving for facts sent me to San Francisco for MYTHOLOGICAL SAM-THE CALL, then brought me to New York City last September and just recently under the guise of attending Thriller Fest—oh, wait, I did attend for a day! Cruising The Big Apple, I found places, artifacts and images such as these to weave into the second book in progress in the Mythological Sam series, THE SHIFT. I’m not even going to tell you (yet) how I’m using these photos!

subway platformshadow man1McSorleys newstransformerstalker



Ahh. The joy of writing and research all wrapped up in real life. So, tell me. I know you can’t go kill someone, really. (Murderer-celebrities excluded.) What works best for you when researching your novels?