May 23, 2009

Making Your Research Count and Using it to Trigger Your Imagination

by Cheryl St.John

Researching your setting will provide all kinds of fodder for creativity. Most of the writers I talk to say research often gets in the way of writing, because they get so carried away with it. The setting you select should give you additional ideas for scene and conflict.

Your place and time should create ways to show characterization through your character’s reactions.

As with any other aspect of writing effectively, setting is all about the details. By reading travel journals, diaries, costume books, biographies, books about the era and the climate and the buildings and the flora and fauna, you get a grasp on what life will be like for your story people. In order to write about this person, in order to see, know and feel what they feel (method writing), you have to be able to place yourself in his shoes, his house, and his city.

Your setting needs to be more than a stage, where you will stick your characters and watch them perform. Your characters should have strong feelings about where they live, work, travel, and play. Why? Because emotions and reactions are why the reader cares and keeps reading. In order to use your setting to its fullest advantage, have your characters react to their surroundings. A really effective tool for you, as the character’s alter ego, is to see the character’s surroundings.

If you're fortunate, you can or have traveled to this place you're writing about. But plenty of us write in historical periods or different worlds, and we need other stimuli, like pictures and maps. Digging deeper is an amazing click away with the Internet.

When I started writing, there was no Internet. I know, I age myself when I admit that, but hopefully wisdom comes with age. I spent hours at the downtown library. The library doesn’t loan out books or periodicals donated by the historical society, so I spent ten cents a page to copy them on the copy machine so I’d have the information at my fingertips. I wrote to people and called historical societies, and labored intensively for the information I needed.

One of the most exciting things to me now is the availability of information on the Web. I am a google addict. I can find anything in the click of a mouse. And if I need more, I am on at least twenty listservs made up of people from all parts of the world. Someone out there knows what I need to find out, and they are always willing to share.

It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Don’t make mistakes with research details. Never assume you know something if you haven’t checked it out. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical or contemporary, your readers will be smart. Someone who picks up your book will know about this topic or location, so get it right. Readers do write and let you know if you’ve made an error. God bless them every one.

And don’t think that just because you made up a fictional town, that you don’t need to have factual data. Unless your story is set in a land and time or on a planet you created, you still have to educate yourself on the area. The rules of credibility apply to even a completely fictional location.

I most often make up my locales, but I search maps to find something that sounds realistic. I find the name of a county or a creek or river in that state and use it for the name of a town. And I plot out my location on a map, so I have a real sense of direction and place and know the geography and topography of the region.

I’m making this up, so why do I need all this detail?

Because: The closer you are to reality, the more your reader buys into it.

We were able to buy into the doctor’s biological engineering of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park because the author used authentic details of scientific development to make the impossible imaginable for the duration of the story.

So even when you make up something, it’s important to know the real facts, because somebody out there knows more about your subject than you do.

If you blunder and lose the reader’s confidence, you’ve lost a reader.

Writers who create fantasy worlds advise to give the reader a reference point, something they can relate to their own world. For example Battlestar Galactica is a parallel to westward expansion. Star Trek episodes are all character-driven and parallel the times in which they were written. The common theme is always hope for mankind.

In the end, if you want the reader to believe in your story world, you have to believe in this world you are creating.

Next time you watch a movie, write down details as you observe place, weather, time and how they affect the characters.

If a place feels familiar to your character, it should feel familiar to you.

If a place is unfamiliar, we should know why and react.

Hang up photographs. I do google image searches and find buildings, places, scenery, clothing, etc.. I do save them in a folder on my hard drive, because at some point those visuals become attachment for your art facts sheets and aids for the cover artist who will design your book cover. Give the marketing team all the help you can in getting your cover accurate and pleasing to you.

Is your research convenient to find and use?

Can you back up your research with proof if a copy editor questions your facts?

Does your research inspire you?

Do you have a good enough feel for your place and time to release it into your writing in a natural flow as the character experiences it?

REMEMBER: You will never need all the information you gathered!
There is nothing more glaring and boring than an info dump. An info dump is where a writer thinks s/he needs to tell about something and writes several descriptive paragraphs that don’t move the plot forward.

Getting your location right is about making it real, and it must be real to you first, if it will ever be real to your reader.

The Preacher's Wife

Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical

Releases June 2009


Tracy Garrett said...

Good morning Cheryl,

After reading your post, I can only say yes! Making it real in my mind is how I can make it real for the readers.

Thanks for the post.

Magdalena Scott said...

What a great post, Cheryl! This is why good historicals are so important to people today--the talented author creates a setting so real, we can retreat there for a while.

Linda Broday said...

Wonderful words of wisdom. I think writing an info dump is the sign of a new writer. But not always. I constantly have to fight with myself to stomp down the urge to tell everything. You're right. It is boring reading and it won't sell stories.

Congratulations on the release of The Precher's Wife! Woo-hoo! Looking forward to reading it.

Renee Ryan said...


Awesome post. I especially loved your point about info. dump. It's so hard to know what to keep and what to let go. Any specific pointers from a pro???


CherylStJohn said...

Good morning, ladies! Isn't this a great site? I'm enjoying my visit. Thanks for dropping by to chat a spell.

Victoria Bylin said...

Hi Chery, Congratulations on THE PREACHER'S WIFE. My copy arrived in the mail yesterday. Can't wait to read it!

I totally agree with your thoughts on research. If we respect the history, we'll have better stories with stronger characters. Details bring a book to life.

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Cheryl, my copy of TPW is on its way. Congratulations!

Thanks for the words of wisdom. I totally love Google too. Once I needed info on deeds in Nebraska and a woman at the state archives photocopied me something I needed at no charge. I thought that just rocked.

Hugs and continued success...


Edna said...

Congratulations! The book sound great I love historicals also and would love to win one.


CherylStJohn said...


In a nutshell: In my online class on setting last month I delved into the topic of only teasing the reader with backstory. They only need to know enough to make them wonder - and enough to make them care because your character is so emotionally involved with his sitution. Don't tell it all until the reader NEEDS to know.

CherylStJohn said...

Hey, Vicki and Tanya - thanks for ordering TPW! Thanks for visiting, Edna.

Mary Connealy said...

Cheryl, great blog. Don't put my name in the drawing. I've got my copy. YAY!

CherylStJohn said...

Hey, Mary - thanks for getting my book!

Caffey said...

Hi Cheryl, as a reader I so love the feeling of being there when I'm reading. I find its a beautiful way to being attached to the whole story. Some say its escaping but for me its a great comfort!

Beautiful to read your post! Glad I could find you chatting bout your new book.

Abi said...

I love historical books. Love to research things. May have to look into this book. I love LOVEINSPIRED Historical books.

ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

Emma said...

Hi Cheryl,Congratulations on the release of The Precher's Wife! I read the excerpt of it and it sound wonderful.Have a good week.