My friend Donna MacMeans, author and Romance Bandit, just returned from a visit to Scotland. While most of us would be scouting out brawny, kilted Scots, Donna’s visit was all about research. (I’m betting she took a few kilt pictures, too – for education purposes, of course!)
I write historicals – Victorian historicals. Thus many people envision that “research” for me translates to stacks and stacks of library books on everything from nineteenth century fashion to railroad timetables. Well, that’s partially correct. I do have books that I refer to frequently for just that sort of information – but sometimes books and magazines can’t engage all of your senses to give you the information you need to know.
My current work-in-process is set in Scotland. Certain plot elements require it to be set in Scotland, yet I’ve never been there. I’ve subscribed for a year to the magazine SCOTLAND. I’ve purchased numerous travelogues. I have maps. But still the manuscript didn’t feel right. It just didn’t feel authentic. If I couldn’t suspend belief that my characters were in the highlands, then neither would my readers. What to do?
Bob Mayer and Jenny Crusie had been keynote speakers at my local chapter’s conference a few years ago. While lots of good advice was freely given, one piece stuck in my mind. “Walk the ground,” Bob groused, meaning that we needed to know our setting sufficiently to use it convincingly in a story – and some things can only be learned by being there. You walk the ground to pick up the scents, the feel, the flow of energy in the land. You observe the sounds, listen to the speech, truly experience the setting. I realized it was the thing I was missing. I needed to walk the ground.
“I’m going to Scotland,” I told my husband while we were out for an evening walk. He looked over at me like I was crazy. (Come to think of it, he’s had that expression rather frequently these days.)
“That’s not really a country on my bucket list,” he said.
“I’m going for research. This is a business trip. I need to walk the ground,” I explained. He didn’t look convinced. After all, for all of our walking the pavement in Ohio, I haven’t really placed a book here.
He tried a new strategy. “I don’t think I have vacation time.”
“You don’t have to go,” I said and in that moment, I knew it was true. “I’ll book a tour so I won’t need to drive. I make friends easily. I’ll be fine.” He couldn’t argue with that as I’m by far the more gregarious of the two of us.
“It’ll be expensive,” he said almost in desperation.
“I’ve decided not to go to Anaheim for the RWA convention this year. I’ll use that money for Scotland instead. I think it’ll be a wiser use of funds.”
We didn’t talk much about this for the rest of our walk. But a few days later when we were walking again he said, “I’ve reconsidered. This could be the trip of a lifetime and I’m foolish to miss it. (Smart man) But I can only be gone a week. Can you work around it?”
Now to be honest, I had planned to be gone much longer than a week, but I value our marriage so I compromised. Instead of traveling to all parts of the country, I focused on spending the bulk of our time in the highlands so I could get a good feel for the land.
So off we went. I took a digital tape recorder to capture the accents and cadence of the Scots. I tried to pay particular attention to the sounds, scents and tastes of the country – things I couldn’t capture in a magazine photo.
When we came home, I read the proposal I had prepared for my Scotland novel and recognized that much of the described countryside would be more appropriate for Ohio than the Scottish highlands. Walking the land provided an authenticity that I wouldn’t have been able to incorporate otherwise. Research made a difference.
Now not everyone can pack up and travel overseas to satisfy a research “itch.” I know that. If I hadn’t sacrificed the trip to Anaheim, I wouldn’t have been able to do this either. So I tried to think of some other ways to “walk the ground” without actually stepping outside one’s community. Here’s what I put together:
- Watching movies for setting details. Now you have to be careful because sometimes the movies are filmed in places other than the setting suggested in the movie. So you want to be observant for the details the director used to create a sense of setting, and also search out films that were actually filmed in your setting.
- Children’s books are great for capturing dialect in a readable form. However, I tried this for an educated Scottish accent and struck out. I understand that many universities have languages on tape for use by their theatre students to learn dialect.
- Regional cookbooks can give you a sense of dishes and meals you might encounter in that location. (I did sample Haggis in Scotland. Not sure I’d attempt to make it. Then again, I believe it’s available in a can).
- Google Earth can help you visually explore streets and towns
So what sort of techniques do you employ beyond the visual to get the setting right for an unfamiliar location? I’m happy to send a copy of THE CASANOVA CODE to someone leaving a comment.
On Friday, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discusses personality types and eneagrams. Join us!
Award winning author Donna MacMeans made a wrong turn many years ago when she majored in Accounting in college. What was she thinking? Balancing books just can’t compete with crafting plots and inventing memorable characters. She finally broke free of her life as a CPA to write witty and seductive Victorian historicals for Berkley Sensation in what can only be described as her dream job.
Her books have won numerous awards including the prestigious Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America, and the 2008 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Historical Love & Laughter. Her latest release, THE CASANOVA CODE, came out in June 2012 and received 4 1/2 stars from Romantic Times book reviews.
When not at her keyboard, Donna enjoys painting, traveling, and creating luscious desserts. An avid reader, she also uses the analytical skills learned as an accountant to analyze novels in an effort to constantly improve her own craft – and then teaches those skills in workshops around the country. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband of thirty-eight years. Please contact her at www.DonnaMacMeans.com
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- Doing Research in the 21st Century: How Online Sources are Transforming the Way I Research My Books – by Jennifer Robson