Adventures in Research: Becoming a Writer 4

The thing is, I’ve always loved research even more than writing. Which is a curse, really.

Plenty of writers simply simply sit down at their computers and spill out stories, their imaginations fired by nothing more than . . . their imaginations.

I have a problem with that. It’s my problem, of course. There is absolutely nothing wrong with–in fact, there are all kinds of things right with–writing out of the imagination. The best fantasy gets written that way. Neil Gaimon, for example. Steven King. Margaret Atwood. JK Rowling. L. Frank Baum (remember the Oz books?).

But I am a fact-based writer. I love nothing more than to take real-life events, real thingsand real people, and stir them into stories. I love the edgy interface between what’s “true” and what’s made-up.  I covet the confusion and uncertainty that bubbles up when what’s real intrudes on make-believe. To me, the real thing makes the fiction more lifelike; the fiction reminds me that what we naively believe to be real is really a story, too.

So when I started writing the China Bayles mysteries, I based them on several Texas towns that I knew, on real plants, on real people and events. When Bill and I began the Robin Paige mysteries, set in Victorian/Edwardian England, we wrote about real people (Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Lily Langtry, Jennie and Winston Churchill) who had done real things, embedded in stories about a pair of fictional sleuths. I pushed this even further with Beatrix Potter’s Cottage Tales,  mixing Miss Potter’s actual life in the village of Near Sawrey with fantasy animals, hers (which she also turned into stories) and mine. And so with the Dahlias, too: a real era (the 30s) featuring real-life events. And especially with biographical fiction: Rose and Laura, Hick and Eleanor, Kay and Ike. All of which, of course, requires diving deep into the actual weeds of real-world stuff.

In the 1990s, this meant day-long trips to Austin (120 miles round trip) to the library–usually the University of Texas library. Shopping bags and briefcases full of books, going and coming. Tons of books. Acres of books.

And then the internet arrived.

But not that fast. It inched along, slower than a slug on a leaf, with no place to go and in no hurry to get there.

In 1997 , the internet finally came to our rural corner of the Texas Hill Country via a tenuous landline connected to a tiny server in a small town about 30 miles away. This dial-up service was intermittent, hesitant, recalcitrant, often totally nonexistent. (For us, www literally meant: the world-wide wait.)But I was hungry enough for the internet’s resources to wait (and besides, it beat driving to Austin). And things gradually improved, both in terms of internet speed and in the kinds of online research material I was able to find. In 2008, ten years after our first dial-up, we found a satellite service called WildBlue and installed a dish on the roof, and from then on, the situation improved exponentially. Every year, the speed has increased and tons of new research material appears on the internet daily.

A few examples. In 2004, we went to Scotland to research Death At Glamis Castle, near the tiny village of Glamis. We snapped dozens of photos and videos, bought guidebooks, looked at maps. Came home and found–on the internet–that the village had a one of those 24-hour village cameras. We could see the houses, the people, the weather. Amazing. Oh, and Bill wanted a bicycle for use in that book. He found it on Wikipedia: the Pederson folding bicycle, which was used during the Boer War.

For the 8-year Cottage Tale project, Bill and I spent weeks in England’s Lake District, where I learned as much as I could. Back home, I used Google Earth to picture the settings, dug up the names of plants and animals from research sites online, and found timelines of real events. Just one example: I discovered by accident that Winston Churchill came to Lake Windemere in November, 1911, to test out the seaplane ‘Waterbird.’ I used it in The Tale of Oat Cake Crag   to the scorn of a fanciful dragon who resented the intrusion of Churchill’s flying machine on his lake.

The Dahlias and I love to turn up interesting regional foods and food history. I spend a lot of time browsing food ads from the 1930s, like this one, from the June, 1935 issue of the Anniston AL Star. Wow. Just look at those prices! And if I want to feature a real recipe from a real restaurant (say, Lindy’s cheesecake, from the legendary Lindy’s on Broadway in NYC, where Hick used to hang out), I can find it on, along with all kinds of fascinating stuff about Lindy’s and cheesecakes–and much, much more.

And of course, there are the biographical novels. Each one has presented its own particular challenges. I especially loved following Kay Summersby’s post-war life through the pages of 1950s and 60s newspapers and magazines. (That was original research that no one had done before.) I used the internet to piece together Lorena Hickok’s personal history  and her writings, after she left her hideaway on the third floor of the Roosevelt White House in 1944. And Rose Wilder Lane left an internet trail for me to follow as I dug into her foreign travels in the 1920s. For each of these projects, I collected photos that informed and inspired me from all over the internet and assembled them on Pinterest boards (posted on the website’s book pages).

My writing has changed over the 20+ years that I’ve had access to the astonishing trove of treasures on the internet. It’s become less derivative (that is, less dependent on books that others have written), more detailed, more informative, and (I hope) more true to the real world we all inhabit. Every day, I’m amazed by what’s available on the internet for us. All we need is a lot of curiosity, a little patience, and some research skills. And a willingness to learn.

And the internet gives us an amazing place to share what we learn with friends and family and other curious people.

Like you. And me.

Aren’t we lucky?




21 comments on “Adventures in Research: Becoming a Writer 4

  1. It is with some sadness that I’m well into reading the last of the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter ~ “The Tale of Castle Cottage”. I just DO NOT want this delightful series to end! The overlay of facts woven into the whimsical and enchanting stories are written with such grace and humor that I’m charmed down to my toes!

  2. Many thanks for this post, Susan. I am working on background for a memoir about my grandmothers. Both were Swedish immigrants who landed in Minnesota. The research is fascinating and revelatory about my being raised in a Swedish ghetto in the Twin cities.

  3. Detail is always a question mark, Natalie–especially “how much”? Example: brand names back in the 30s. I love to track those down, especially when it comes to food, grocery items, etc. It’s available now, in newspaper archives. I’m always asking myself whether the detail is a helpful and interesting addition–or an overload. And readers have different levels of tolerance for detail: some like a lot (that’s you, maybe); others not so much. 🙂

  4. Charlotte, for me, the “instant information” that you mention is a huge part of it. I have a ton of books, but many indices are incomplete or inaccurate. I could spend hours looking for something and not find it. Of course, online information may not be accurate and must be verified against other sources–but books are often inaccurate, too, depending on the level of fact-checking the editors have done. Like you, I’ve become addicted to “instant information” (appropriately checked).

  5. Looking back over the books, I can see some real changes as I began to move from print resources (often hard to find!) the resources that have become so plentiful on the internet. The latest China mystery–featuring vanilla–is a good example. There is contemporary detail (that is, 2017 information) in that book that won’t be available in print books for years, if ever. And it’s detail that–as I discovered it–affected the direction the main plot and subplots were taking.

  6. And I appreciate your work on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Teresa. The history you’ve assembled in Little Lodges on the Prairie illuminates the real story behind the Little House books. Thank you!

  7. Gloria, Bill and I remember meeting you on book tour years ago–Indiana, we think it was. You bring up such an interesting point here: the intersection between fiction and history. This is relevant for me now, because I am reading some revisionist history about the JFK murder and Watergate. How much of our “history” is fiction? Who wrote it and why–and how does that fictional history shape our understanding of the “real” world? These are important questions. I’m glad that your students had an opportunity to confront them!

  8. You’re right, readerchick–research is so seductive! I can get happily lost in the weeds for hours and then realize I can’t use any of it in the writing. Or I can stuff lots of it into the writing and then decide it’s a personal indulgence that hinders (rather than helps) the narrative. Hard to keep that “inner researcher” in check!

  9. I agree with all the above comments. As a history major and former teacher I, too, love research. Have used my research skills all my life and was afire when delving into the ancestry of my husband’s and my families. It was so exciting to unearth a document that, in turn, led me to another discovery. At times my husband had to pry me from the keyboard.

    As a Reader Advisor volunteer at the library in our large retirement community, I always display one or more of your books. I especially like to ask patrons (all of whom are of a certain age) if he/she like Ike. Encouraged to tell me why, I then suggest reading “The General’s Women” which just might temper their wholehearted adoration. Most of the feedback is that, though they were aware of the romance between Ike and Kay, they didn’t know why, when and how it ended and Mamie’s problems. Their views of Ike shifted.

    Good books shed light thanks to authors like you who like to delve, inform, entertain and transport. Thank you, Susan. Please keep all your stories coming our way.

  10. Fascinating article! I really enjoy the interface between the real and the imagined in you books.

  11. I really liked this post. I can’t tell you how much pleasure all the series have brought me. And a big part of that is the details in the stories that take me there.

  12. What a find! China and the Dahlias; I have not yet ventured into the third series. I, too, am a research enthusiast, getting lost for hours linking from one website to another to another. I have become insanely addicted to instant information. I don’t have much interest in social media but will delve for hours into university libraries, community libraries, and the internet. Most of all, I like real books! Happy New Year!

  13. As a history major, I love research. Often house was dusty and floors needed mopping but I was reading and researching things I was interested in. House and floors would always be there.

  14. How interesting all your detail sharing of researching your books–THANKS! Think I will read Glamis Castle.

  15. I sooooo love research too! It can help but it definitely can be a huge hindrance….I do have a bit of the wild imagination, though. Trying to meld the two is challenging. Keeping my inner researcher tamed is quite the challenge too lol

  16. Susan, love reading these insights into your writing. I first started reading your China Bayles series because I lived in New Braunfels and worked at Southwest Texas University, now Texas State and enjoyed seeing similarities. However, as your writing progressed I followed and read your other books which are supported by your intense historical research. Of course I have continued with China and Ruby. Thank you for sharing.

  17. The connection to real events, real people, real life is one of the things I like most about your books.My very favorite of all he series so faris the Victorian-Edwardian series by Robin Paige; I love history. To introduce my literature students to historical fiction -and how the two interface, I had them read the first in the series and do research to check your facts as well as critique the book as a mystery and to respond to one of the pairs in poetry. It is still one of the best lesson plan and execution that i have ever done. Thank you Susan for yu and Bill providing the inspiration.

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