Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guest Blogger: Samantha Gentry -- Research Can Be Fun


Please welcome my good friend Samantha Gentry! She has many years of writing experience under her belt and always a joy to learn from. Along with writing sizzling hot books! You can find her at www.samanthagentry.com


My name is Samantha Gentry. My thanks to Linda Wisdom for having me here today with the Casablanca Authors as her guest blogger. For my topic, I'd like to talk about research.

There's no denying that research is a part of writing whether non-fiction or fiction. And within the parameters of fiction, the genre somewhat dictates how much research is required. Certainly, historical fiction requires extensive research into place and time in order to be accurate with details down to the simplest clothing items. Techno thrillers, legal thrillers, and medical themed novels need to be accurate in terminology, science, and procedures.

But there is an area of research that is often considered trivial or inconsequential in the overall scope of your story. And that's the location where your story is set. Certainly the setting is important, but as a matter of research it seldom makes it to the top of ther list.

A contemporary novel set in your home town requires little in the way of research for location. You live there so you know about the terrain, weather, the businesses, the good neighborhoods vs. the bad neighborhoods, streets and highways, tourist attractions, places of special interest and historical interest. That's easy.

But, what about setting your story somewhere that you have never been? If that is the case, you have options available. The most obvious for accuracy is to visit the location—take in the ambiance, make note of the geographic elements, study the activities of the residents, and grab the tourist brochures available in the hotel lobby. All major metropolitan areas have certain 'must see' tourist attractions that are common knowledge around the world. The Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower. Well known tourist attractions can certainly be included in descriptive passages of your setting or become part of a scene where some action takes place. That gives the reader an immediate mental image reference to go along with your descriptive passages.

Travel and tour books can be a great help for general research information. The Auto Club (AAA) publishes tour books for all the states that includes information about the major cities in that state and certainly the tourist areas. A real estate search of a city will give you knowledge of the various neighborhoods. A city's website will tell you about the educational system, shopping, cultural events, sports activities, etc.

My most interesting research experience was for one of my Harlequin Intrigue novels, THE SEDGWICK CURSE, a romantic suspense written under my other pseudonym of Shawna Delacorte.

My story was set in a small stereotypical village of the type found in the Cotswolds in the English countryside. A large estate inhabited by the Lord of the manor—land and a title that had been in the family for centuries. An annual festival that had been held on the estate grounds every year for over two hundred years. And murder involving the titled rich and powerful.

I needed to research several things. Certainly accurate information about the physical setting I'd chosen. And then specifics (beyond what I'd gleaned from various British crime drama series on PBS' Mystery) about the way local law enforcement interacted with the privileged aristocracy when investigating a murder.

I had already been to England several times and had another trip planned, so I included spending one week in the Cotswolds to do the research I needed. **This is where the fun part of the research came in. :) ** I found a charming centuries old hotel in the town of Tewkesbury and used it as my base to explore the surrounding area.

My research started when I walked into the local police station, said I was a writer doing research for a novel, and asked if there was someone I could talk to about how a local murder would be investigated. I was passed on to a Detective Sergeant who was very helpful and spent about two hours with me, which was an hour and forty-five minutes longer than expected. I garnered far more information than I needed for that specific book, but great research material for future needs.

The next step in my research was the immediate location for my fictional Lord Sedgwick's estate. This was a major stroke of good luck. About three miles north of Tewkesbury is the village of Bredon that had everything I needed, including a large estate that hosted a village festival every year and the weekend I was there happened to be festival weekend. I was able to wander around the grounds, take pictures, and get information about the estate straight from the owner's mouth. One of the buildings on the grounds, the Tithe Barn pictured here, is part of the National Trust and dates back to the 1300s. It is accurately described and used in my book, as are most of the features of the real counterpart of my Sedgwick Estate.

Obviously, traveling to a foreign country to research a location isn't that practical. If the location is a well-known tourist attraction, you will have lots of research material available to you. But what if your desired setting is a typical small town or village in a specific area? That brings us to the more practical solution of creating a fictional small town as the setting for your story.

I have set many of my Harlequin and Silhouette books in fictional small towns. But the one thing these fictional small towns have in common is that they are all patterned after a real place that I've been in the state where I've set the story. And in lieu of that, there's always the ability of taking something like a beach town or mountain village and transplanting it to another state for the purposes of your story.

If there's someplace you've been, a vacation you enjoyed, and you want to recreate the feel and ambiance for your story setting without fear of getting some of the facts wrong about the real place, the best way to handle it is to create a fictional location. Do some basic research on the general type of location you've selected for your story such as a fishing village on the coast of Maine. That will give you basic generic facts for that type of setting. Then you can take the feel of the real life place you visited and impose those memories and impressions on top of your researched facts for a fully realized story setting. Your characters can then impart that sense of place to the readers with the words and actions you give them in addition to your descriptons.

Do any of you have any research tips for story setting that you'd like to share?

18 comments:

  1. Welcome Samantha! What a stroke of luck to have the festival the weekend you were there! Talk about meant-to-be!

    I love Google Earth for research to new places. When I was writing my Mer series, I had to do extensive research on what the ocean floor was like in the North Atlantic and Google Earth was invaluable (I have yet to find a friend who's been to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean halfway across!)

    Thanks for joining us today!

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  2. Good to have you on board, Samantha!

    I try to be a diligent researcher, but I figure I'm always going to get something a little off if an expert is reading my book. I try to cover that in my acknowledgments -- that I am using fact as a platform for my fiction. But I know some readers really get pulled out of a story if they have personal experience that tells them you've gotten something wrong.

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  3. Samantha,

    Detailed and interesting post. I think you covered just about everything. I'm one of the historical writers who still enjoys going to my local Library for books on time periods I want to research. I'm sure it's faster on the internet, but not as much fun as curling up in my favorite chair and reading until the wee hours of the morning. But absolutely the best way to research--on location!

    Thanks for joining us today.

    Amelia

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  4. Welcome Samantha!

    I can attest to her research skills since we did a lot of talking and researching during our times in Virginia City.

    Linda

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  5. Welcome Samantha! Great to have you with us today. And thanks to Linda for roping you into it!

    Great post. I write historical Regency novels, so know all about the trials and tribulations of research. Traveling to England is not within my budget - yet - and that sure would make it a bit easier. But then I have to subtract some 200 years, adding to the difficulty.

    For me the internet with the thousands of websites available has been my lifeline. Our library isn't all that hot, so without the world literally at my fingertips I never would be able to write a convincing story. Luckily I adore the research. That sure helps. :)

    Thanks again and I hope you will visit us at another time.

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  6. Welcome to the blog Samantha! Your research sounds fascinating, and I want to run out and read your books :)

    Thanks for stopping by and good luck with everything!!

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  7. Oh, I'm jealous. I love Tewkesbury!

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  8. Judi: Google Earth ... what a great resource. I'll bet that was fascinating research.

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  9. Libby: I know what you mean about readers resenting an error. I once received a letter about one of my Harlequin Intrigue books where the reader had taken exception to me referring to the Seattle International Airport. She felt the need to inform me that it was the Seattle-Tacoma International Aiport and it wasn't in Seattle, it was halfway between Seattle and Tacoma. I just shook my head as I read the letter because I never referred to it as the Seattle International Airport. I spent an hour agonizing over how to word it in my book because I felt that saying Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was long and wordy even though it was accurate. I finally ended up saying something along the lines that they were driving into Seattle (to do something) and were also going to the airport.

    The woman who wrote the letter lived in Tacoma and apparently imposed her personal concerns and agenda on what I had written. :)

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  10. Amelia: I certainly admire historical writers. They have so much research to do and readers of historical novels usually are well versed in those type of details.

    Even though the internet is easily available, I have several bookshelves full of research books, too.

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  11. Linda: Yeah, Virginia City was fun. And we got a lot of blackmail...uh, I mean RESEARCH material on that first trip when we chatted with the deputy. :)

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  12. Sharon: Ah, another historical writer. I hope you're able to travel to England some day. When you tour historical settings (castles, manor houses, even recreations of villages) what you are seeing is the truth of those times. You don't need to subtract those 200 years! :)

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  13. Danielle: Thanks for the welcome. It's a pleasure to be here and I thank Linda Wisdom for inviting me.

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  14. Sheila: I really enjoyed staying in Tewkesbury. I stayed at the Bell Hotel which is across the road from the Tewkesbury Abbey. The original part of the hotel dates back to the mid 1200s and there was a tunnel that ran from the Abbey under the road to the hotel. The hotel was expanded in the 1600s when the 'new' part was built. It backs up on the river and I think there was extensive damage done to the hotel during those bad floods in England a few years ago. At that time, their website said they weren't taking any reservations, but they are now.
    I'd love to go back there.

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  15. Welcome Samantha! What a great post. Your research is really interesting. I can't wait to check out your books.

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  16. HI Samantha!

    Someone mentionrd Goggle Earth which I think is a god send. Anothe thing is street masps of mosty major cities.

    I remember a book where they had someone hi a homer in Fenway Park in Boston where I grew up. They had it landing on a street that was no where near the park.

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  17. Robin: I think most research is fun, almost as fun as discovering some fact in a novel that you "know" is totally wrong. :)

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  18. Hi, Elaine. Good to see you again. It's been a long time.

    Makes you wonder why someone would be specific about the setting and then not bother to research about the name of the street outside Fenway Park.

    I've lived most of my life in Los Angeles and I used to be amused on the original Dragnet series (so many, many years ago) when they would give street locations and they used real streets but give intersections that didn't exist such as two north-south streets meeting at a corner which was impossible.

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