Posted On August 29, 2012 by Print This Post

Donna MacMeans: The Value of Research

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

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36 Responses to “Donna MacMeans: The Value of Research”

  1. Hi Donna,

    Your vacation and research sound great. I published a paranormal about vampires, but I don’t care to meet one. Did the actual Scotland meet your imagined Scotland? What surprised you the most?

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 29, 2012, 5:49 am
    • Hi Mary Jo –

      I think the thing that surprized me most was that much of the highlands had the feel of the forests in Virginia and North Carolina. In hindsight, I should have released this as I understand those states have a high percentage of Scots relocating there. Heck – it would have been a lot cheaper just to drive to Virginia myself (grin).

      The strong connection to Australia surprised me. I didn’t realize those two countries were close. And the strong resolute sense of country and independence – even today – caught me off guard. I’ll probably use that in my book. The issue of Scottish Independence from Great Britain comes up for a vote in 2014. I’ll be watching.

      I love paranormals! Good Luck with your vampires!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 8:51 am
      • Donna, what a fun post! I so envy your trip.

        When I visited Inverness as a student, we attended a Highland music and dance show put on for tourists. When the fiddlers struck up, we were amazed. We looked at each other and mouthed, “Bluegrass!”

        Posted by Nancy Northcott | August 29, 2012, 12:07 pm
        • LOL – The tour guide played Scottish music on those long quiet stretches. He started one tape and I could almost hear my sister playing (grin). I guess all fiddle music has celtic origins – including bluegrass.

          Cool that you were got to see Inverness. We were there overnight. Inverness has such a different feel to it than Edinburgh. It’s more of a Viking – Scandanavian city than the medieval walls of Edinburgh.

          Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 12:53 pm
  2. Morning Donna!!

    I’m a big one on google earth….it does let you almost literally walk the streets – at least visually. I also try to find someone in one of the many groups I belong to who lives or has visited a setting I want to use. As fellow writers, they know what kind of details I’m looking for – and that helps a lot!

    Congrats on your latest release!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 29, 2012, 5:49 am
    • Carrie –

      I think romance writers in particular share this strong sense of community and will help with so many of those details to add authenticity. I have found a group of writters of books set in Scotland. I haven’t needed to draw on their knowledge yet, but it’s comforting to know they’re there.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 8:54 am
  3. Donna – I love your post! One of my stories is set in Albuquerque, which I know pretty well. But I didn’t feel comfortable with it until I went back for a visit and traveled the routes my heroine took so I could get the flavor of the surroundings. I find that even when I’ve been someplace before, I look at it with new eyes when I’m considering it for a story.

    I’m envious of your trip to Scotland. I’ve only been there once – to Edinburgh, for the Tattoo. It was very impressive, but I wish I’d had time to visit more of the country. I have a good friend who lives further out in the (semi-)wilds of Scotland. One day!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | August 29, 2012, 7:07 am
    • Becke – I’ve discovered that we as writers look at things a bit differently as well. About thirty years ago – long before I ever thought of writing a short story, much less a book – I went to London. I took lots of photos (as I was into painting at the time) and looked for color and composition. I still draw on my memories of the feel of the city from that time – but if I’d return today, I’d use that time differently and visit museums and historical spots.

      I live for those “one days” (grin). So many places I long to see. The nice thing about this trip was the realization that I couldn’t procrastinate. I couldn’t wait for a big anniversary, or special birthday. If you wait long enough – life decides you weren’t serious about going in the first place.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 9:00 am
  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Donna.

    I love the determination and resolve you showed. It was well worth it. Having such resolves demonstrates to the people around us where our focus truly lies.

    I’m originally from Ohio (Cleveland) and this is the setting for two of my finished manuscripts. I often mention things about Cleveland during the stories, but after reviewing feedback on my Stiletto contest entries last night I realize I need to capture the essence of Cleveland and the Midwestern experience.

    Posted by Roxanne | August 29, 2012, 8:00 am
    • Hi Roxanne –

      My husband is from Cleveland. We lived in Lakewood in an upstairs apartment across the street from the Playboy Lounge for about three years after we got married (grin). While I’ve been to other parts of Cleveland visiting in-laws over the years, we went back to Lakewood about eight years ago when my son’s football team played St. Ignesius at Lakewood high school. Much of that community has changed, but darn if the Playboy Lounge isn’t still there. (grin).

      Setting is often more than a place, it’s almost a character in your stories – especially when that setting has a unique feel about it, like Cleveland. I can see how that Midwestern feel could add to the drama of a suspense. Go for it! And if you need help with some of the setting details, and can’t “walk the ground,” don’t forget there’s an RWA chapter in Cleveland – Northeastern Ohio Romance Writers of America (NEORWA). I’m sure someone there can help out.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 9:07 am
  5. Donna –

    Scotland is on my bucket list :-). I almost have the opposite problem…I’ve traveled so many places and haven’t yet figured if I can use them as book settings in the future.

    I was most recently in Sri Lanka and had an idea for another shapeshifter series after visited a wildlife preserve. But I’m not sure readers want to go to Sri Lanka in their heads.

    I love your idea about the recording!


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | August 29, 2012, 8:08 am
    • Kelsey! What a problem to have!

      Okay – here’s the reality check – it’s not that readers don’t want to go to Sri Lanka. You make it real enough and the story compelling enough, and they’ll be right there with you. It’s the publishers you have to worry about. (Of course, if you self-publish this isn’t a problem.)

      Every month, I take my issue of Romantic Times and look at the settings/publishers for the new historical releases. It’s pretty clear that NY is only buying historicals set in certain locations. I’m not sure that’s a problem in paranormals…but it could be.
      Of course, you could always have your Sri Lanka shapeshifter come to America but long for various attributes from his homeland. That way you get the best of both worlds.

      Good Luck!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 9:12 am
  6. Hi, Donna,

    I agree completely about research and especially walking the grounds. I used a business trip of my husband’s to go with him to San Francisco. Great locations I used later. A trip to St. Francisville, LA, was a great source for life in the early 1800’s. And, in the church graveyard, we found the best names! Everywhere you go is research for a book–even the grocery store! Now, how can I get to Scotland and what kind of story do I want to write?

    Posted by Ann Macela | August 29, 2012, 8:13 am
    • Ann-

      Isn’t being a writer great! You really look at the world differently. I visited a cemetary in Scotland as well and looked at the names. So many clan names in this one little country spot (the tour bus stopped so we could see the oldest tree in the world – which apparently is in Scotland). But you’re right.

      Hey – I used a business trip of my husband’s to San Francisco to frame my very first novel as well – a contemporary suspense! Hard to ignore a city with so much personality.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 9:17 am
  7. Have you watched “The Decoy Bride”? One of the characters is a writer who wrote a novel set in a small island in Scotland without ever being there.

    I write science fiction, so my research needs to be of a different sort — but I feel like I walk the ground quite a bit in the middle of the night.

    Posted by Patricia Moussatche | August 29, 2012, 8:20 am
    • Patricia – No, haven’t seen that one but I’ll have to look it up.

      Do you hang out in the science museums? I would imagine a contact of two with the aerospace industry wouldn’t hurt. We have the Wright-Patterson complex here in Dayton, Ohio. I once saw the space shuttle piggie-backed on a plane landing there. There’s usually a space geek at observatories that would love to chat about outer space and truth/fiction there.

      Completely creating your world, though, can be a very freeing experience. You aren’t restrained to keep setting tied 100% to reality. Science Fiction can be a real testament to one’s imagination. Good Luck with this!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 9:25 am
    • Sounds like a cool movie – I’ll have to check it out, too.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 29, 2012, 4:10 pm
  8. Good for your Donna! And I must say, your husband’s response sounds very familiar. Thank you for sharing your list of alternatives to travel–I hadn’t considered using Google Earth or language study program resources. Great suggestions!

    Posted by Linda L Graham | August 29, 2012, 8:26 am
  9. LInda –

    LOL – I love the man, but – yeah- I don’t think his reluctance was particularly unique. What surprised me, though, was my conviction to do it alone if necessary. That was an eye-opening “defining” moment for the both of us.

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 9:28 am
  10. Hi Donna,

    Great post on the value of research and I’m sure your book is just that much better for having visited Scotland. Your lucky readers get the benefit of authenticity and probably don’t even realize it. : )

    I’m a nonfiction author who is transitioning into writing fiction and my first book is an urban fantasy set in London. My husband and I ( both writers ) are going to live in London for 4 months this year for research. I can’t help but think that’s the right decision after reading your article.

    The tape recorder idea is fantastic for perfecting dialogue!


    Connie Brentford

    Posted by Connie Brentford | August 29, 2012, 11:45 am
    • Oh Connie – I’m jealous!!!! I’m sure after four months you will definately capture the flavor of the city and it’s little quirks that make ALL the difference in authenticity. The digital recorder is great. Listening to it takes me right back to the to the site.

      Have a fabulous four months (or more – you may fall in love with London and want to stay. That’s one of the wonderful things about being a writer. You can work your craft anywhere.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 12:43 pm
  11. Hi, Donna–

    I would’ve loved to take this trip. I like walking the ground for research. If I can’t, I tend to be vague, lest I get something wrong.

    I loved The Casanova Code!

    Posted by Nancy Northcott | August 29, 2012, 12:08 pm
  12. Welcome back, Donna!

    I loved Redeeming the Rogue, and I’ve got The Casanova Code in my TBR pile.

    I’m planning to take a needed vacation in October. It’s a research trip, too. Love the idea of using a digital recorder. I keep one on my nightstand and mutter incoherent ideas that pop into my head in the middle of the night.

    I’m always interested in what people do for a living. Our painting contractor. The moment she told me she collected vintage tools, I wanted to write a heroine who did the same.

    Thanks for being with us again.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 29, 2012, 3:28 pm
    • Hi Jennifer –

      LOL on the incoherent tape. Can you understand what you said? I know I can never read my handwriting the morning after an inspiration wakes me in the middle of the night.

      My husband just told me today that he learned the song “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” was based on a dream. It had all those meaningful phrases in it – but really, it was all a dream. Imagine that!

      Love the vintage tool idea. It certainly adds character to the character (grin).

      Thanks for the Rogue Love. Hope you enjoy Casanova Code as well. It’s one of my favs.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 3:38 pm
  13. Donna – I still remember when I first heard about you. I was at Lori Foster’s Get Together and everyone I met was raving about a book called THE EDUCATION OF MRS. BRIMLEY. I was just starting to get into historicals then, and that was one of the first I read. It’s on my keeper shelf! (It was, anyway. My keeper shelf is currently packed in boxes in the garage.)

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 29, 2012, 4:12 pm
    • Becke – That was fun. Coming to Lori Foster’s Get Together as a published author rather than an aspiring one. I wasn’t aware of the buzz down there about The Education of Mrs. Brimley. I think I was too caught up in the whirlwind. But that was one great cover, wasn’t it?

      So glad to be one your keeper shelf (eventually) Becke. Thank you for that. Mwah!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | August 29, 2012, 6:19 pm
  14. Thanks so much for a great blog and for joining us today, Donna!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 29, 2012, 6:26 pm
  15. Thanks, Donna. You’ve convinced me. I made a statement like yours to my dh this spring, but let him talk me out of it. I’ll be planning a trip for next spring thanks to you! I’m two books in to my series, but a fresh infusion of “being there” will do a lot to keep me going. What month do you recommend? I don’t think you said when you were there – if you did, I missed it.

    Posted by Willa Blair | August 29, 2012, 9:27 pm

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