If there is one question that I have been asked repeatedly—especially since Plain Secrets, an Amish romantic suspense, released—it is: Did you have to do a lot of research?
The first time a writer at a conference asked me if I did research for writing romance, I’m certain that I made a queer face at her. I thought to myself, What? You don’t? Shocking business.
A couple of years later, I participated in a conference panel about research for fiction writers. And just recently, I’ve been asked to speak at a writer’s group to discuss, yep, research. Apparently, doing research is an arduous and sometimes daunting task for many people. Including writers.
Maybe you feel that way, too. But, let me tell you, research doesn’t have to be painful or complicated. In fact, it can be fun. Consider this, there are 3 types of research—first-hand, second hand and third hand.
First hand research is when you have a real-live interview; when you visit a place; when you actually see or experience that thing which you are writing about. I’m not Amish. So what did I do to in writing Plain Secrets? I got in my car and drove to Lancaster, PA. I toured. I talked to people. I spent some time there so that I could get a feel for the place and the people. This is the best way to research something. There is no substitute for seeing or doing something yourself.
Second hand research is when you talk directly to another (trusted) person who has been to a place or experienced something. For example: I have my cousins who live in Lancaster, PA. So, they have access to local and current news (which I don’t have in VA). They know Amish people. They grew up around them. They can faithfully give me information about the area and the people. Not as great as the writer seeing it for him/herself, but still a pretty effective method for gaining insight on something.
Then, there is third hand research. This is when you read something on the Internet, in a newspaper, in a book, et cetera. Also, a fine way to research. With Google at your fingertips, it’s certainly the fastest, easiest, and most economical way to find facts, pictures, or blogs/articles where someone has written about whatever it is that you want to write. (Just be careful not to waste precious writing time browsing over interesting information that is of no use to your novel—I’m terrible about that!!)
Ideally, when you write, you will have a mixture of all of these types of research, which will produce authentic, correct, and believable stories.
Now, are you still asking, Why? What’s the big deal? It’s fiction. It’s all just made up, right? Why should it matter?
Yes, your story is made up. My story is made up. But Amish people are not made-up. Police procedure is not made up. The FBI and the way it works is not made-up. If we are going to use these things (or anything like them) in a story, we need to do it with care. Do not assume your reader is stupid and doesn’t know about the topic either! Readers are smart and they don’t want to be thrown out of a story because a little detail about a subject they know well was handled carelessly. And not only will they be thrown out, they might be reluctant to pass on your book to another.
Does this mean we should only write about what we know? Just to be safe...
I don’t think so. In fact, I think sometimes when some writes about what they know they are too close to it and have a hard time deciding what needs to be told and what doesn’t.
So, be encouraged! If I can write about Amish, you can write about whatever appeals to you. Just don’t forget to do your research ;-)
Kit Wilkinson is a former Ph.D. student who once wrote discussions on the medieval feminine voice. She now prefers weaving stories of romance and redemption. Her first inspirational manuscript won the prestigious RWA Golden Heart and sold to a popular division of Harlequin. Her second novel, Sabotage, was nominated for a 2010 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award. Her fourth novel releases in July 2012.