Ask almost any writer, and they’ll tell you they love the research aspect of writing a novel. Most of us have this innate drive to get the details right (even if we wind up altering some of the details for storytelling purposes). I know one writer who told me, “I could research myself to death, but at some point I have to sit down and write the damn book!”
My research process is two-pronged: the history, and the settings. Since my new series is centered around the Civil War era, there are many, many resources available to me: books, papers, library archives, and yes, online sources. I make use of them all. I talk to people. I send emails. (And without fail, people are responsive when presented with a reasonable request.)
But I especially love on-site research. Of course, it’s not always practical. I still have a couple of day jobs and three teenagers at home, and a little thing called a budget. So I can’t go everywhere I would like. Still, if I’m writing about a place for any extended part of a story, I try to visit that place.
COLD GLORY is set in part at Fort Washita in southern Oklahoma. It’s ten miles from my hometown, and about a two-and-a-half hour drive from where I live now. I made three trips to the site and walked the places my characters walked (both in the 1865 and present-day parts of the book). I knew how many steps it was from the entrance of the Chickasaw burial ground to the main part of the post cemetery. I stretched out on the ground behind a cenotaph so I would know how the ground felt. I breathed in the wind, I listened to the crickets, I felt the gravel crunch under my feet. I got to know the place.
Same thing with the Falls of the Ohio. I visited the Louisville area and spent a full day wandering around the park. I counted the steps leading down to the platform where Nick Journey was shot, calculating what would have to happen for him to fall into the river. I climbed on top of the railroad trestle and looked down onto the road below. I just stood and absorbed the feel of the place. Esoteric? Yes, undoubtedly. But I experienced bits and pieces of what I was asking Nick Journey and Meg Tolman and my other characters to experience.
For some of my earlier books, I hiked to the top of Black Mesa, the highest point in Oklahoma. (And I’m no hiker, I can assure you.) I walked along the seawall at Galveston. The atmosphere is overpowering. The sense of place is another character of the story, in my view.
For SILVER CROSS (release date: Nov. 2012): I spent time on the Cape Fear coast of North Carolina; I took a legendary car ferry across Lake Michigan; I walked up and down a dry river bed in the Texas Panhandle; I toured a working mine. I took pictures, I made notes, I took long walks and tried to figure out how much of all that atmosphere needed to be in the story, and how much was over the top.
In the near future, I will be road-tripping from my home in Oklahoma to Kansas for research on the third book, as the “Bleeding Kansas” era prior to the Civil War plays a role in that story. I need to visit Ford’s Theater in Washington as well…we’ll have to see about that one. But…I’m getting ahead of myself.
Nothing beats being there. I love visiting new places, and every new place I visit can become research. Case in point: the Lake Michingan ferry. That wasn’t intended as research, but the setting so impressed me that I knew I had to write about it.
Perhaps I will see you down the road somewhere, and perhaps the next place I visit will work its way into a new book–even further down the road.
Oh by the way–the photo that I use as the banner for this website? The ruins of the west barracks at Fort Washita. See, it’s ALL research.