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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

10 Tips for Effective Research Trips

Vickie McDonough is an award-winning author of 24 books and novellas. She is the author of the fun and feisty Texas Boardinghouse Brides series from Barbour Publishing. Watch for her new books from Moody Publishers, Texas Trails: A Morgan Family series, in which she partners with Susan Page Davis and Darlene Franklin to write a 6-book series that spans 50 years of the Morgan family. The first three books release this fall. Also, next year brings the release of another new series from Guidepost/Summerside, Pioneer Promises, set in 1870s Kansas.

Leave a comment for Vickie and be entered in a drawing for any book on her website. U.S. residents only, please.

Ten Tips for Effective Research Trips

I’ve just returned from my first cruise to the Caribbean. I never dreamed a sunset could be so beautiful or the color of the water so vivid. There was such an amazing difference in the houses of the poor, made from tin or only partially built with people still living in them to the lavish mansions of the wealthy with their beautiful flowers and fancy locked gates. 

When I visited Charleston several years ago, I was awed by the 300-year old homes and buildings, especially when you consider I grew up in Oklahoma where we just celebrated our centennial five years ago. The only thing we have that’s 300 years old is the land. 

In North Dakota, I was amazed by how the flat lands, which seemed to go on for forever, suddenly turned into hilly mounds and then the rugged, grassy Badlands.

Research trips are one of the best perks a writer enjoys. Traveling to a place you want to write about makes your story more realistic and alive. You’ll discover tidbits that you probably wouldn’t if you never visited the area, and seeing it for yourself is so beneficial to learning the lay of the land, the culture, flora and fauna of the area, and how the local people of the speak and live. These this make your story authentic.

So, how do you prepare for a research trip?

11.     Know what information you need and make a list. The last thing you want is to get back home and realize you forgot to get info on something crucial to your story.

22.     Research the town or locale before you leave home.
            *View online websites
            *Study the history of the area
            *Decide in advance which places you want to visit. Museums and tourist sites in small towns are sometimes only open on certain days and for a few hours at a time, because they are often staffed by volunteers. The last thing you want to do is to make a trip somewhere and not be able to visit the sights you want to see. Do I sound like the voice of experience here? Make a list of the sites you want to visit, with addressees, phone numbers(so that you can call if you need directions) and hours.
             *If you’re a AAA member, get a tourbook of the state. They have some good historical information as well as a listing of the main places to visit with contact information, hours, and prices.

33.   Take Good Notes. Document everything. Even though you think you’ll remember things, once you get back home, minute details and impressions will slip your mind. Most phones have a video recorder, which can be handy for places where you’re not allowed to take photos, like some museums. If you tour a historical home, you might want to record the tour guide, who usually gives lots of great info about the family who lived there and the town’s history.
   4.   Be sure to write down contact info and the names of the people you talked with (get the correct spelling) in case you need to contact them again or want to acknowledge them in your book when it comes out.          

  5.   Don’t forget your camera. I take tons of pictures on research trips.(All the pictures in this article are ones I’ve taken) Pictures of buildings, houses, waterways. When I can take photos in a museum, I snap pictures of furniture, dishes, guns, wagons—anything that represent the time period I plan to write about. Also take pictures of the landscape, trees, birds, and flowers.

  6.   Talk to the locals. They love to chat about their town and its history. Ask them questions and ask if they can refer you to someone else in the know. If you make a good connection with someone, you might also ask if they’d mind giving you their email address is case you have questions later.              

  7.   Don’t overlook college research centers. I visited the Carroll Library on the campus of Baylor University in Waco to view part of The Texas Collection while researching my books for the Texas Trails series. The workers their were extremely helpful, and I found lots of fodder for my stories.

88.   Take an envelope with you to keep all your receipts in. Those tiny buggers can easily get lost and then you’ll lose a tax deduction. I also like to take a letter size plastic envelop with a Velcro closure when I travel. I put all my organizational papers, hotel reservation info, and maps in it so I can find them easily.

99.   Visit tourist information centers. You can find great maps there, information on local sites, and sometimes historical info. The people who work in the centers are often a wealth of information too.
110.  Have fun. Take some time to do something just for fun. Don’t work your whole trip. Visit a tourist site, see a local show, and enjoy yourself.

Did you know that if you’re actively working toward becoming a published writer that you can deduct a chunk of your expenses when you take a research trip? Be sure to check the laws in your state to know exactly what you can and can’t deduct.

Long Trail Home

A weary soldier returns from the War Between the States to discover his parents dead, his family farm in shambles, and his fiancée married. A pretty, blind woman reaches through his scarred walls, but will the secret she holds ruin all chances for a future filled with love, faith, and family?


  1. Great pictures Vickie. And great tips. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for the tips Vickie. I always enjoy reading author's advice and I enjoyed your pictures as well.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  3. So many great tips, Vickie! Thanks for the suggestions. Now if you can just tell me how to afford a research trip to Holland, I'll be good to go! LOL Congratulations on all your book successes!

  4. Thank you for the research tips, Vickie! Your suggestion to use a voice recorder in places that don't allow photographs was especially helpful to me. My "forgetter" works wonderfully well once I step outside the door! Congratulations on your new books--the series sounds very exciting!

  5. Awesome list Vickie! I haven't been doing this writing thing long enough (yet) to prepare for an actual research trip, but I have found myself going back to details about past vacations and working details into my work. In my current WIP, I included details from a photo I had taken of an amusing bi-linugal sign I found on the bathroom door of a bus in Guatemala! : ) Thanks again for the great list!

  6. a wonderful posting, vickie. thanks for sharing :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  7. I love to travel and often use what I've learned in my books. But it can be a long time between the trip and finishing the novel, so I say Thank God for the Internet! I can always find good reminder info there and usually locate someone that will give me the details I need, too. I'm currently working on a story set in the Galapagos, and I'm grateful I can read Spanish as well as English. Great post; good tips!

  8. Great tips, Vickie! I'd add - bring an Audubon guide so you can identify what you're looking at, and bring bug juice so you don't come home with unwelcome critters. Thanks!

  9. Thanks, Sharon & Cindy. I'm glad you enjoyed the photos.

    Hey Diane. I can't tell you how to pay for the trip to Holland, but if you go there, do research, and set a book there, you can deduct it from your taxes.

    Thanks for the congrats, Cathy. My 'forgetter' works like yours does. Oh, the wonderful info that I've forgotten.

    Good luck with your writing and research, Bill. Can I ask what the sign said--but only if it isn't in bad taste.

    Thanks for stopping by, Karen.

    Pamela, thanks for the reminder about using the Internet for research. If I had to do all my research at the library, I doubt I'd have written so many books.

    Great advice, Cathy. I usually buy small booklets that show the birds and flowers, bushes, and trees of an area that I visit.

  10. Thanks for sharing the wisdom you have learned.


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