Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Research, research and then, more research...

Write what you know or know what you write? If you have no choice & it has to be the second option, then research is the answer. Of course, all writers are aware of that fact. Even if you know a topic, there's still something to be learned and then woven into your story.

But if you're setting your mystery in a location, either fictional or real, where you've never traveled, this could be tricky. If you can visit the place, by all means do so. That's the best way to get both a visual and more subtle feel for it. The intangibles, such as how people treat each other, the fragrant smell of a flowering shrub, the angle of the sun in early can read about these things but once you've experienced them, it will be evident in your writing about them.

If it's a fictional town, I recommend modeling it on a real one. Someplace nearby that you can visit. A town that looks like and feels like the place you're writing about. Then change the street names, the flowers and shrubs (if you're in a totally different growing zone), and of course, the name of the town.

If it's a real place but you can't get there, take heart. Mystery novelist John Spencer Hill who wrote in the mid-1990's, set his two Detective Carlo Arbati novels in Florence, Italy. John, who lived in Ottawa, admitted he had never visited Florence. But you'd never guess that when reading The Last Castrato and Ghirlandaio's Daughter. Of course, I've never visited it either but when reading the books, I felt transported to Florence and that's what mattered. He did it by reading books about and set in Florence, and using a map. I'm sure he had other methods, too but this was before such things as Google Earth, Streetscape, and the wealth of research information available via the Internet. (Sadly, John died before being able to finish his third novel in the series.)

Google also offers wonderful photo albums, such as house styles (I used it for antibellum mansions) and reference pages with images of foliage.

Besides the vast array of information using the Internet, there are bound to be numerous books about the area in question. Your public library is a good source for these reference books and even fiction novels set in your chosen part of the world.I also borrowed a workbook with CD for actors which taught southern dialects. It helps me when creating dialogue to hear that southern lilt in my head.

If you're a member, the CAA is a great source for maps and their popular Tour Books. And, don't forget to use DVDs. Here again, they offer visual and audio cues that help in building your location.

And, don't forget to ask. If you know someone who lives in that region, or can find a friend of a friend...don't hesitate to ask for help. You'll probably find they're dying to talk about their towns.

I'm sure there are a lot of other methods for writers doing research. What have you found useful in research locations?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime


  1. Good post, Linda. Don't forget YouTube. There are numerous videos illustrating every accent under the sun, and I found several showing canoes running the rapids of the Nahanni river, which I needed for my own research.

  2. The Lonely Planet website and travel books are wonderful. They go beyond the "usual suspects" for site seeing. You have to know what you're looking for when you're looking up maps and history. Lonely Planet is a great first step.