On-Site Research -- Writing About What You'd Love to Do Yourself by Jo Ann Brown
I love research.
Like other writers, I dream of flying off to the location of my work-in-progress and soaking up the atmosphere.
Time machines are out of the question, but on-site research and picking the brains of experts are not. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t enjoy talking about what interests them. Just look in the acknowledgments of my books, and you’ll see their names listed. I try to have more than one, because even experts disagree with each other.
I contact museums, and I’m always invited for a tour. During a tour by the director or a senior docent, you often see things – and sometimes touch them – that “normal” folks don’t get to see and do. After sitting in a hip bath at a historical house in Toronto, I have much more respect for those who used them! I always ask if it’s okay to bring a camera (either my cell or an actual camera, depending on how many pictures I’ll need and the detail I’ll want). With so much information coming at you, it’s easy to forget details. The camera helps preserve it.
Before I leave the expert, I confirm the spelling of their name/address/phone number/email address. I ask if I can ask further questions later. I tell them they’ll get an acknowledgment in the book – something that always pleases....and I send an autographed copy when it is published.
When I go to a historical site, I buy the site’s booklet. It’ll have information I may not have discovered. I bring a “measuring tape.” It’s my husband. He’s exactly 6 feet tall. I tell him to stand next to doorways or windows or whatever – and I can see how many “Bills” tall something is when I get home.
I’m always prepared to be wrong. Even if I’ve studied a location, it can look completely different. I adjust my thinking – and my book – to fit reality. And I prepare myself for Twilight Zone moments. One of my goals on a trip to Wales was to find a setting for a specific event that is the centerpiece of the story. It took place along a small river in the far west. At the car park for St. David’s Cathedral, I saw a small waterway. I decided to use this stream for the site, because none of the books I’d read had specified it. I took pictures, came home and was looking for something else in a book. . .and found the name of the river where my event took place. Going to the map, I found it was the same stream I’d taken pictures of. Cue the Twilight Zone theme. . .
I allow time for “wow” moments. My biggest one was when I stood next to the 17th century memorial stone for my however many times great-grandfather in Norwich Cathedral!
And most importantly, have fun. You might find the very fact will give you an idea for your next book!