Posted On November 7, 2012 by Print This Post

Writing What You Don’t Know by Nancy Northcott

Today’s guest is Golden Heart finalist, Romance Bandit and (hurray!) debut author, the fabulous NANCY NORTHCOTT.

I’ve never killed anyone, engaged in political intrigue, or worked magic, but characters in my debut novel, Renegade, do all these things.  This would seem to fly in the face of the once-popular advice to aspiring authors, “Write what you know.”  Taken literally, that would be very limiting.  J.R.R Tolkien, never having visited Middle Earth or seen an orc, a hobbit, or an elf, could not have written The Lord of the Rings, and yet he did and it became one of the most popular series in print.


Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter notes the author’s fondness for walking through rural landscapes like the Shire, and John Garth in Tolkien and the Great War:  The Threshold of Middle Earth discusses his subject’s experiences on the Western Front.  Tolkien knew war and the camaraderie of soldiers.  He also knew and loved the rural vistas being lost to industrialization and the Anglo Saxon stories and customs that helped form his imaginary world.


Tolkien drew on things he knew and believed and spun them into a world no one had ever seen before.  He made the world and the characters seem so real that their appeal is just as strong decades after they first appeared.


The creation of my mage series The Protectors, also involved combining what I knew with what I didn’t, as noted above.  I drew on the themes and traditions I’ve enjoyed since childhood.  I loved fantasy and the Arthurian ideal of “might for right” that also pervaded the superhero comic books I read.  The concept of superheroes moving anonymously among us ordinary people also intrigued me.  I majored in history and especially enjoyed English history.  These things I already knew were early building blocks for this series.


But there were important things I didn’t know, like how to perform a spell, how mages get their power, what its limits are, and what supernatural villains I could use and still have room to adapt them.  Research helps with those things.  I found books on Wicca and folklore, made friends with the people in the local New Age shop, did research on the internet, and consulted friends who’d also looked into these subjects.


This might be a good time to mention that internet research can be a mixed blessing.  Anyone can put up a website and say anything she wants.  Whether the information  is reliable is another matter.


I think it’s a useful rule of thumb to look for corroborating sources on any concept or to seek out websites where the people involved have some sort of credentials.  My hero fights with a quarterstaff, so I consulted the website and the YouTube videos of the English Quarterstaff Society.  I also found one book about the history of the quarterstaff as a weapon and another showing it in use.


My mages use Latin imperatives when they need to amplify their power.  I took Latin in high school, but that was a long time ago.  With help from a university contact, I consulted a Latin professor, who helped me with the correct word forms.  Many people are happy to talk about their work if approached in a professional manner that shows respect for their subject and appreciation for the time they are taking to help.


I also read many, many books about earth magic and elemental magic and drew on what seemed most useful to me.  In creating the ghouls, I took the name, which evokes something unpleasant but is less clearly defined than, say, “zombie” and put my own spin on it.  The vampire tradition of sucking blood became the ability to steal life energy or magic.  Instead of fangs, my ghouls have retractable talons that also inject potentially lethal venom or rend the flesh of their prey.


With a bedrock of the familiar, whether it’s themes or materials, and the addition of research, a writer can come to know almost anything well enough to build a world around it.


Here’s the blurb for Nancy’s new release, RENEGADE:


As the mage council’s sheriff for the southeastern United States, Valeria Banning doesn’t just take her job seriously, she takes it personally. So when a notorious fugitive and supposed traitor risks his life to save hers, she has to wonder why. To find the answer, she’ll have to put everything on the line, starting with her heart.


As a mage, Griffin Dare is sworn to protect innocents from dark magic, which is how he finds himself fighting side by side with the beautiful Valeria Banning. But when the council finds out the two have been working together, the pair must run for their lives–from the law, the threat of a ghoul takeover, and a possible council mole.



Have any of you run into problems researching information for your books? Do you have any helpful sites to recommend?

Check back on Friday, when Romance University co-founder ADRIENNE GIORDANO presents “A Case for Story Structure.”



Nancy Northcott’s childhood ambition was to grow up and become Wonder Woman.  Around fourth grade, she realized it was too late to acquire Amazon genes, but she still loved comic books, science fiction, fantasy and YA romance. A sucker for fast action and wrenching emotion, she combines the romance and high stakes she loves in her new contemporary mage series. Check out Nancy’s website here. She blogs with the Romance Bandits and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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27 Responses to “Writing What You Don’t Know by Nancy Northcott”

  1. Hi Nancy,

    I’m humbled by how much I don’t know. I’ve written paranormal and fantasy romances where I can blur some lines.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 7, 2012, 7:11 am
  2. Hi, Nancy –

    Thanks for a great reminder that writers have to get out of their comfort zones!

    One reason I love writing paranormal is the ability to put a spin on the accepted “reality” and make it something your own. However, I also write contemporary and I find it’s much harder to make up details. I used to research everything up front, but I’ve more recently taken a page from Stephen King’s book and I do research when I need it. If the whole plot relies on it, then I do it up front. If it’s something small, I tend to leave it until the draft is done.

    Thanks so much for your post!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 7, 2012, 7:16 am
    • Kelsey, my mages are contemporary, so I know what you mean. I’m revising the second book now, and I had to check things like proper terminology for the heroine’s gun (she’s an FBI agent, not a mage) and those of the bad guys. There were also medical questions to be worked out. I did those as they came up.

      I’m glad you liked the post!

      Posted by Nancy Northcott | November 7, 2012, 8:53 am
  3. So true! My latest blog covered the need to sometimes write a character beyond your own/known characteristics. Create the drama you are glad doesn’t exist in your own life (hopefully). Great article and congrats on your book!

    Posted by Karen | November 7, 2012, 7:57 am
  4. Hi, Nancy. I’m always amazed at how the smallest detail can trip me up for hours while I do research. One day last week, I lost four hours on something that I hadn’t expected. It was good to do the research though because I learned a lot about different types of bullets. 🙂

    Thanks for a great post.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | November 7, 2012, 8:16 am
  5. Morning Nancy!

    I’m like Kelsey, I do research when I need it, but sometimes not even then. Sometimes I just put *** and remind myself to go look up how to fix a jellyfish sting. The book I’m currently writing features a caterer/baker (which my sister is) and a sheriff of a small town (one of my favorite people is one!) so I feel I’ve got a pretty good grip on it.

    But I do remember writing once about my couple who lived in New York and I had to do some serious research on various neighborhoods. Google maps really helped on that one!

    Thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 7, 2012, 8:22 am
  6. Hi Nancy – Thanks for writing about a topic close to my heart. My problem is I can go off to research (or confirm) one small detail and end up spending a whole afternoon digging deeper and deeper.

    BTW, congratulations on the release of RENEGADE! I preordered the paperback but since I have no patience, I’ll probably get it on my Nook, too! I’m so excited for you!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 7, 2012, 9:00 am
    • Becke, thank you for having me today. Research is a near and dear to my heart, too. I wrote several historicals and loved wallowing in the customs of by-gone eras. I have to be careful to keep research from becoming an end in itself.

      Posted by Nancy Northcott | November 7, 2012, 9:03 am
  7. Carrie, I’m delighted to be here. It sounds as though you have great sources. I have a ms. That’s set in London, and I relied heavily on my blogmate Anna Sugden, who lives in Cambridge, for help with British slang and settings. Google Earth is great, and there are British newspapers still available for free online, but when you need to know in a hurry which neighborhoods would have a particular problem (or which calls would most aggravate a small town sheriff), there’s nothing like a native guide.

    Posted by Nancy Northcott | November 7, 2012, 9:00 am
  8. I’d like to thank Becke and everyone at RU for having me as a guest today. I love talking about books and writing and research.

    Becke, thank you for preordering the PoD. I think you may be the first person to do so. I hope you enjoy the book.

    Posted by Nancy Northcott | November 7, 2012, 9:04 am
  9. I just came across the book trailer for RENEGADE:

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 7, 2012, 10:52 am
  10. Hi Nancy!

    There’s a bandita in the house!

    I love doing research, but it can be a major time suck because I obsess over tiny details. Are Pink Lady apples available in NY in October? Did Greyhound have bus service between Ithaca and Albany in 1975? I researched Publication by Divorce sites last night for an hour because I needed a way to cover a possible plot hole. I might not use the info, but at least I know how to write around it if that makes any sense.:)

    Congratulations on your debut and your killer cover! Thanks for joining us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 7, 2012, 1:48 pm
  11. Great post, and it’s encouraging to learn that I am not alone in getting lost in the research process. The problem is that research always throws up more ideas for other novels……..if I could just focus on the one at hand I’d be doing ok!

    Posted by Edith | November 7, 2012, 2:27 pm
  12. Nancy – Thank you so much for hanging out with us today! I’m looking forward to reading RENEGADE – and I’ll be thinking of this post when I do!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 7, 2012, 11:15 pm

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