Write What You Don’t Know: Researching with Passion and Purpose
by Melanie Dobson
As a novelist I’ve often been told to “write what I know,” but the truth is I don’t know that much—at least not enough to sustain a career in fiction writing. But I do enjoy learning new things so, when I begin a novel, I slowly put together the pieces of my story puzzle by doing these five things.
1. Surf the Web
Like most novelists, I begin my research online, searching for the seeds of my story. When I started to write Chateau of Secrets, for example, I wondered if there were any Jewish men in Hitler’s army. On Google I discovered that there were probably tens of thousands of Jewish men who were in the Wehrmacht. This startling fact became central to my novel.
In the past fifteen years, I’ve visited locations around the world via computer screen, read countless interviews on a wide range of topics, and connected with multiple experts in my areas of research. Even though the Internet is fantastic for obtaining facts and some sensory details, it’s not my only means of information. As fiction writers, we need to verify what we find online through other types of research as well.
2. Interview Experts and Locals
Most people love to talk about their hobbies or areas of expertise, and if I tell them I write fiction, they’ll often give me more information than I’ll ever need for my story. Or at least, more than I think I’ll need. An interview often changes the direction of a story.
Because I write both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed detectives, history buffs, Amish people, and the families of men and women who were part of the French resistance. I’ve spent hours talking to new friends about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and the details of living in France when Nazi Germans occupied the country.
One of the most important interviews I ever did was with an Amana woman named Emilie. I asked her a simple question—what were Amana women passionate about in the 19th century? The answer to that question (friendship) shaped my entire novel.
3. Invade the Library
The mansion in my novel Refuge on Crescent Hill was inspired by a derelict brick mansion in Ohio, built before the Civil War. As I tried to find information about this house, the town’s librarian uncovered the mother lode—a research paper written sixty years ago that included pictures, historical detail, and folklore about a secret tunnel that ran underneath the Curtis Mansion. This one paper gave me everything I needed for the details of my fictional house and, like my interview with Emilie, this paper molded my plot.
Newspapers, magazines, diaries, archived research papers, and of course, books provide basics such as how people dressed and what they ate during a specific era. They also give insight on more abstract concepts like how people approached life and what world and cultural events shaped their thinking. Novels set during specific time periods have been an invaluable resource for me as well. My current work in progress takes place in the 1940s, so I’m reading a stack of World War II novels right now.
4. Explore Museums and Landmarks
Living farms, museums, old houses, and historical villages like Williamsburg or Old Salem offer a unique and educational window to the past. For my historical novels, I learned how to run a printing press in a tourist village, how to cook on the open hearth at a home in Indiana, how to load a rifle at the Oregon Trail Museum in Idaho, and how to drive an Amish buggy at a museum in Ohio. While landmarks and museums are open to the public, many will give private tours to writers, and their tour guides often have accumulated more information in their heads than reference books have between their covers. After a tour, I always ask my guide for their email address so I can send him or her questions as I write.
5. Visit the Location
While Google Maps and Google Earth help writers establish a fantastic sense of place, I still think it’s critical to visit a location to experience the sounds, smells, and even the tastes of a place before describing it on paper. Currently, I am writing European time-slip fiction which means I’ve headed twice across the Atlantic in the past two years. In France, I stayed in the medieval chateau that inspired Chateau of Secrets. For a week, I immersed myself in local life and culture, meeting new people, visiting the historical sites, riding my bike around the villages, sipping espresso and—the toughest part of the job—eating chocolate croissants. I flew home with a folder filled with detailed notes, and from my experiences emerged a story set outside the beautiful Norman village of Saint-Lo.
When I researched for Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana, I spent days exploring hidden spaces in homes near Liberty that had once been stations along the Underground Railroad. I drove through the surrounding forest at night, and when I stepped out into the darkness, the owls hooted and the cloud cover masked the stars. My heart raced, and I felt terribly alone—a glimpse of what a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs.
Since I always visit my main settings, the layout and details of a place are rooted in my mind so when it’s time to start writing, I don’t have to worry about the location. I can get completely lost in my story instead.
By ardently researching both online and off what we don’t know, I hope that we, as fiction writers, are able to expand our interests, meet new people, travel to interesting places, and through our stories, take readers on a journey with us so we can learn together.
Melanie Dobson is the award-winning author of 14 historical romance, suspense and contemporary novels. Dobson and her husband, Jon, enjoy living in the Pacific Northwest with their two daughters. When she isn’t writing or playing with her family, Dobson enjoys exploring ghost towns, line dancing and reading historical fiction.
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