How to research a novel

In theory, since a novel is make-believe, the idea of doing research is oxymoronic.  Isn’t it?

No.  I don’t think so either.  I’ve always done research.  Part of the appeal of my books is that readers buy into the story, so it has to be real.

It used to be that real came from the library.  I loved working there.  It got me out of the house, for one thing.  For another, I find the smell of old books both comfort and inspiration.  There’s nothing like endless rows of library stacks to make a girl feel like she’s joining an honorable profession.

Nowadays, though, I do my research differently.  Most of the small stuff comes from the web.  Want to know when lavender blooms, google it.  Same with whether the name you’ve chosen for your island in the Gulf Of Maine is already taken.  Did you know, BTW, that there are more than 3,000 names in the Maine Coastal Island Registry?  Some are pretty funny – like Tea Kettle, Junk of Pork, and The Shivers.  Many are named after their original owners or residents, but I kept gravitating to those with a Native American feel, hence, my island, Quinnipeague.

When it comes to researching the major theme of a book, though, I talk to a person in the know.  For SWEET SALT AIR, for instance, I’m working with a doctor who is an expert on using umbilical cord blood stem cells in treating disease.  I connected with him through a friend of a friend.

Another friend of a friend writes a fashion blog, and since one of my lead characters in SWEET SALT AIR is a food blogger, I figure there has to be some overlap, certainly in the technical aspects of being a blogger.

I have nurses ready to help with health issues, lawyers ready to help with legal issues, and daughters-in-law ready to help with baby issues.

And then there’s Jack.  Jack is the guy who comes over when my front porch needs a powerwash, the showerhead needs replacing, or a Big Wheel (remember those???) needs assembly.  Jack is, well, a jack-of-all-trades.  So I had a situation in SWEET SALT AIR where Charlotte happens upon Leo as he’s up on a ladder repairing his house. She sees that he’s struggling and, having built houses with charity groups, she knows what the problem is and how she can help.  I take a step back.  What would he be repairing?

I’m trying to decide this, when my doorbell rings.  It’s Jack, come to replace the window in an upstairs bathroom.  “Hey, Jack,” I say, following him up to the bathroom.  “Here’s the question.”

Two seconds later, he has the answer.  Leo is replacing a shutter, but not just a narrow little decorative shutter.  It’s a big, solid, storm shutter that has to be attached to the house in a hinge-and-pin way that allows the whole thing to be closed in a storm.  Each shutter has two hinges, two pins.  The problem – the problem – is lining up both sets of hinges and pins while you’re high on a ladder trying to balance a large and bulky piece of wood.

The solution?  Four hands.  Which fits my story nicely.  🙂

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  1. Christine on November 19, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    When I read one of your books, I always learn something new. I can always tell that you have done thorough research during the writing of the book. From the way to ‘pluck’ angora rabbit fur; to gathering and processing maple sugar; to the process of thinning the leaves on grape vines. It always adds to the depth of the story and makes the characters seem even more authentic.
    Your tireless research is greatly appreciated by this reader.
    Keep it up!


  2. Linda on November 19, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    No wonder I like to read you. I’m forwarding this to my daughter who is learning how to do a lot of research for the articles that she writes for her college newspaper. She loves to write fiction. I told her journalism would come in handy for writing novels. Thanks, Barbara, for writing this information.

    I can only imagine what could be written if you and Dan Brown team up on a novel, lol.:-)

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