What to do on a research trip

“On my street” is not the greatest first line. I wish I could revise it now that Carol posted it. Sometime I wish I could revise both my published novels. Especially when I do readings and mid-sentence I realize how dumb I am sounding and why did I put that word there? And why do I keep repeating myself? But by then, it’s too late.

Hmm. That’s depressing. I think I could revise forever and I’d still feel like an idiot every time I did a reading.  Sometimes I feel like words are coming out of my mouth and people are sitting there but they have no idea what I’m saying or why I’m saying it or why someone decided to publish this book and I want to stop reading but I can’t because I have to fill up more time and then I start reading faster and then I see my husband give me the slow down signal and I’m like, you slow down. And he’s like I’m not up there reading from my book and I’m like so and he’s like slow down and I’m like oh yeah and  by that time I’m almost through twenty pages.

Hmmm. So last weekend Cameron and I took a research trip for my upcoming book. This is our second trip scouting the area and I realized, mid-trip, that I was making some of the same mistakes I made the trip before. This is no good. Especially if you have limited time and a weekend babysitter. You have to plan and you have to be wise. Even it’s not your personality. Next time I am going to be much better prepared. Here are a few things I learned:

1. Go with a list. I hate lists. But go with a list. The first time we went, I hadn’t written the book. I had written some of it but not a lot and it was more of an inspiration trip if anything. As we drove into the town, I kept seeing fascinating details in the landscape, the setting. I was in awe of the desolation and the beauty and the eeriness of the place. After awhile (duh) I realized I should be writing down what I was seeing. So I grabbed a pen and started writing on a scrap of paper that was in the car. Then I lost the paper.

As I write this, I realize this might not be a helpful post because I am seeing how I am sort of a grade a moron. Like isn’t it common sense to take notes? To be the slightest bit prepared? To maybe err, you know, have some kind of system before you go? A notebook? Something that’s not going to fly out the door when you stop for cheetos?  If you feel sad for me, please come organize my closet.

Anyway, I was doing the same thing again this weekend when I realized that I needed a formal list. Something that categorized all the things I wanted to know, all the things I wanted to see and remember. What was it like driving into town? How did I feel this time as opposed to last time (different time of year, different landscape (completely) and that makes a difference if your book takes place over a year or so). What are the names of things? I want to get it right. What is the name of the gas station, the general store, the cafe where we ate? How do the people look? How do they treat me when I ask stupid tourist questions? How does the landscape fit the town and vice versa? What makes this town different? In the case of this novel, the setting is extremely important. I want it to feel real and true to my characters and how they would react in this town. I should have come with these questions all ready to go.

2. Check the weather. I wanted to go down this second time because the end of the book happens right at this time of year. I wanted a feel for it. I wanted to see if the MC could actually physically do the things that I had her doing. I knew it would be cold down there but I didn’t realize how cold. We were ummm, a little unprepared. Especially since part of the research involved hiking and a tiny bit of climbing (I made Cam do that).

At the beginning of one of our hikes, it felt like we were going to be fine. There was a little snow, some mud here and there, but all in all, no problem. We’d done the same hike last summer and I felt confident it wouldn’t be a problem.  Ha ha hardy ha ha. About ten minutes into it, the snow got deeper. And in some places deep deeper. This would have been fine if we’d had snow shoes (which we own but didn’t bring). So my foot kept breaking through the snow and I’d be almost hip deep. This was NOT FUN. At all. I almost cried. Cam pulled me up and then we’d both go back in. This was discouraging. Enlightening, but discouraging. It added a whole layer to the story I thought I was getting right but clearly, if the snow pack was standard for that time of year, was wrong. So check the weather and be prepared.

3. Don’t be pregnant. Just kidding. You should be pregnant if you want but you don’t have to.


What I’m trying to say is, give yourself a break. I kept getting discouraged because I wanted to go faster and get things figured out better but then it was taking more time. And things weren’t where they were supposed to be.  And I had to keep taking rests. And my pants were too tight. You know, that sort of thing. All of this is good. Very good. But I needed to be realistic about what could and couldn’t be accomplished on the trip given the time and physical contraints.

4. Remember it’s fiction. Cam had to keep reminding me of that. Again, I’ve never written a book where setting is so important. Because of that I felt like I had to know everything. Make sure it all fit. As we drove around the town I was trying to find a house that would be a good fit for my MC (the locals liked it when we drove slowly back and forth in front of their house).  None of the houses matched what I’d seen in my head. What am I going to do? I said–in a frenzied panic as usual.

Umm, he said, make it up?

Make it up?

That’s what you do, right? Make things up.

Make things up. Can I do that with a real town? I found out that, oh yeah, I can.

It’s important to get things right as much as you can but more important is to tell an honest story. A story that matters.

I think that’s all for now. We had a great adventure, I’ll tell you and it was well worth the soggy socks and aching legs. If you ever have a chance to go on a research book trip, I highly recommend it.


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2 responses to “What to do on a research trip

  1. When I was writing Prisoners in the Palace (which is about Princess Victoria at Kensington Palace) I wrote the setting from research I did here — books, online architects drawings, memoirs about Princess Di (who lived there too). But I didn’t quite have a handle on the way the rooms worked and somehow the configuration during Victoria’s tenure eluded me. Finally I visited the Palace. Then I realized how the rooms and the back staircases fit together. And what you could see from each window. I also talked to a lovely docent who explained that since Victoria’s mother had done an unauthorized renovation of 17 (yes, 17!) rooms, the plans were deliberately vague. If you can possibly do it — VISIT!

    Glad you didn’t get lost in a snowbank!

  2. Juliette

    Ooooh, I’d love to go on a research trip! One of my books is set in NYC. I visited NYC about five years ago, so I had to rely quite a bit on my memory and it would’ve been a hundred times nicer if I could’ve just visited again. But I did the best I could, using my memory, Google, etc. Plus it helps that there are millions of movies set in NYC, particularly chick flicks. I would guess half of all chick flicks are set in NYC. Ever notice that?


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