January 6, 2007

BUT–WHAT DO I DO NOW? I’VE NEVER BEEN THERE!

Beth Anderson here this week. My alter ego, Hotclue, became sick and tired of the warm, snowless weather we’ve been having in Chicago and a few days ago flew off to Aspen, in between snowstorms. Thankfully (I’m always grateful for the peace and quiet when she’s gone) she seems to be snowbound in some lodge there. I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it when she gets back. Meantime, since I do the majority of the writing around here anyway, I thought I’d talk this week about research.

Every once in a while the subject of research comes up on various writers’ lists, and the general concensus seems to be that you should go to the location if you’re not familiar with it and do your research on the spot. Easy for them to say. Like, why not head on over to Bangkok for lunch today and take a look around? Most of us are not that fortunate.

So what do you do if you’ve never actually been there? If you do extensive, deep-down research on that location, does it matter that you’ve never been there?

I say no, not really. You can wing it successfully as long as you wing it carefully.

It helps if you can go there, of course, because you’ll pick up nuances, little bits and pieces of feelings and scenes that nobody else might notice, which always adds realism to your location. But does that help you get published? Not really, because while setting the scene is important and can, but not always does, keep you out of hot water with fans who keep every fact about every city on earth in their heads, characterization is a lot more important than where your protags are when they’re getting into whatever they’re getting into. Dwell too much on local color and you fall into dire danger of writing a travelogue, which is boring unless you keep it short and remember that your people, not your location, are your book.

Most of my books have been written without my ever having been there before I wrote the book. I’ve been heartened by letters and emails I’ve received telling me whichever book it was they’d read had sounded to them like I’d spent most of my life there. It takes extensive and careful research to do that. When or if I do go there later on, I always have to smile as I walk through the streets, or look down on them from a hotel room, because then I know I’ve got it right. And so can you.

Examples:
My first-ever published book, ALL THAT GLITTERS, came about because my youngest daughter had gone to Hollywood to try her luck. I was terrified about what might happen to her out there and one Saturday night I sat down to list what all I was afraid of. April popped into my mind. April and Jet, the boy she left behind when she went to Hollywood. I’d been trying for several years to get a book published, but as I sat there that Saturday night at my kitchen table, the hair on the back of my neck began to tingle and I knew this one was going to be published. I got a bunch of maps of Hollywood and L.A., talked to some people who did live there for local information, and off I went–not going there yet, but writing the book anyhow. Sure enough, that was my first contract. I had the location and the ambience and the characters and the story arc right. Some of that changed during the editorial process, but I had it right enough to sell it.

My second book published, DIAMONDS, was set in Vegas. I’d never been to Vegas but it seemed, now that I was interested in finding out about it, television shows set in Vegas or documentaries about Vegas were popping up everywhere. The Tennessee part, where the book briefly began, was easy enough because I’d spent time in Virginia when I was much younger and I remembered how that was. All the Tennessee scenes took part in a backwoods location, so it wasn’t too hard. Diamond was frantic to leave Tennessee and head for Vegas, looking for excitement. So between the maps of Vegas and television shows, where I took copious notes, I wrote the book. One part of that book also took place in Paris, where I’d also never been. But again, like magic, a television documentary gave me loads of local color, enough to be believable, and off I went to Paris in my book.

This happens a lot. If I need something and open my mind to it, it comes to me.

Third book, a Harlequin Superromance called COUNT ON ME, was set primarily in Illinois, in a town sort of like the one I live in now. Almost without effort, as far as the location went, mission accomplished because I could be totally authentic without being sued. I made the town up. 😉 The book itself, which was the first book written, third published, was not without effort, though. It took me eight years and many rewrites before I got the Superromance part of it down pat. But locationwise, I was set.

Fourth book, NIGHT SOUNDS, was my first murder mystery. I set it in Chicago, although I made most of the locations up except for Ravinia, the jazz venue in the opening scene, and the Gold Coast scenes. I had one scene I probably wouldn’t repeat but didn’t know any better then, of Joe, my male lead, driving from Chicago to Calumet City, and I listed places he passed as he drove. That’s pretty non-productive and I admit it. I put it there so it would make the scene more realistic. The scene itself could have been deleted and probably should have been. Live and learn. Readers familiar with Chicago liked it though, so all was not lost.

Fifth book, MURDER ONLINE, another murder mystery, was set in Chicago. I had seen a small article in the Sun Times about a young woman found strangled to death in her apartment and the police had no clues. That set my imagination off while I thought about how a killer could do that, kill someone and leave absolutely no clues. The research on this one was more on-site. I drove through the location I had chosen for her apartment and took lots of notes. Then I visited the police department in Area One, because Marty, the detective on my case, was going to be my co-protagonist and I had him working in Area One, a high-crime location. Everywhere we drove, I took notes. The small town Claire, the female lead, lived in was in downstate Illinois. I made that town up, taken from bits and pieces of towns downstate. You can do that. It’s fun. Make one up if you feel like it, but make sure you get the big cities right.

Sixth book out, SECOND GENERATION, was totally, completely research except for the Washington D.C, part, where I grew up and I remember well how it was at that time. But Bogota, Colombia? San Francisco? Never been there. However, because of, again, extensive research both online and in the library, maps, magazines (I did a lot of research with this book), I’ve had people tell me my opening scene, which took place in the Andes Mountains outside of Colombia was exactly the way it actually is. So it can be done. I’ve never had anything to do with running a cocaine cartel either, but there’s research on that everywhere you look, if you look in the right places. I did have a close relationship with politics because of my stepfather, so I could write with great authority there. The upshot of this weird research combination is that this book has won five unsolicited reviewer awards and many other great reviews both on my website and at Amazon.com.

The one I’m re-working right now because of a few structural and characterization flaws, pointed out by an independent editor, is called THE SCOUTMASTER’S WIFE. It takes place in Valdez, Alaska, and yes, I have been there. I spent three months in Valdez but the most awesome thing was on my first day there, as I stood watching fog rolling down the mountainsides instead of lifting like it does everywhere else I’ve ever been. I heard a voice inside of me whispering, “The voices of my ancestors call to me through that fog,” and suddenly I was transported into the head of a female Athabascan (Alaska Native) and the story grew from there. Even though I’d been there, I still brought back, and bought afterward, tons of research material on both Valdez and the Athabascan culture. I did meet a woman there who was an Alaska Native, Athabascan tribe, working in the white man’s world and basically straddling both cultures. She is a lovely, lovely young woman who inspired me to create my female lead, Raven.

So for me, research has been a hit-and-miss thing. Sometimes I write from experience and observation, the rest of the time I do a ton of research because I want my locations to be as realistic as possible. In SCOUTMASTER, the location, because of its extreme beauty and remoteness and uniqueness, is really a character in this book.

If you’ve been worrying about not being able to visit the places you want to write about, get on the Internet, go to the library, buy maps (you can order them online), talk to people, read books about it, watch television documentaries every chance you get and take notes right then and there and file them, because you never know which location you’re going to need information on in the future.

And good luck! This is a tough, tough occupation/career. Give yourself every possible chance to get it right, even if you’ve never been there. Loads of authors do the same thing I do–research. You’ll learn a lot of little things by doing that, which is also a good thing. I’ve found that things stick in my mind that other people never notice, but that’s what we do. We look, we feel, we learn, and then we write about it.

I just spoke to Hots on our cell phone and she said to be sure and tell you she LOVES you, you KNOW she does. We both do, we’re truly grateful for every one of you, so come back soon, ya hear us?

Beth, not-so-subtly subbing for Hotclue this week.

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  1. Thank you, Beth. I love to do research and with the Internet and cable tv, I can go places, experience new cultures and write. Research can be painful at times, but it enables me to see through your characters eyes, experience what they experience. However, right now I’ve got a twenty something hip hop Brother character and watching music videos is giving me a headache. Tell Hots, HI!

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  2. Great info about research. So far I’ve stuck with writing about places I know, but I think it’s time to broaden my horizons and research new places. My writing is stronger when my imagination is engaged and I feel a longing for a place. As a reader, setting is very important to me, and I love it especially when the character gets to travel.

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  3. Maybe I’m weird, but research, to me, is half the fun of writing a book because of constantly learning new things. (It’s a lot easier than the writing, that’s for sure!)

    Thanks, both of you, for writing AND for visiting. Love to see that.

    Beth AND Hotclue

    Reply

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