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Researching the Novel

What are you working on now--what author hasn't heard that question? When I first started writing fiction, one of my challenges was forcing myself to focus on finishing one story before beginning another in earnest. It's so easy, when you hit the Dreaded Middle of writing a novel, to want to move on to something different. And, to tell the truth, sometimes it does help to take a break and spend an afternoon playing with a different set of characters and their lives.

I'm currently working on another romantic comedy, hoping to build on Fire Me's following. Another rom com sits with our wonderful editor, Deb, waiting for her insights. Its title right now is (drumroll, please) My Own Personal Soap Opera: Looking for Reality in All the Wrong Places.

I love the fact that the title is "personal," the way Fire Me's title is. And I love that it has a subtitle that parallels Fire Me's (Scheming and Dreaming and Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places).

Like Fire Me, My Own Personal Soap Opera involves an off-kilter premise: a head writer for a failing soap opera deals with lots of work and personal problems (including choosing between two men who are crushing on her) while using the show's scripts and story breakdowns to work out her personal "issues."

For both novels, I did research. (Yes, even for Fire Me, I asked friends and relatives what strategies they would use to get laid off, or what behavior had they witnessed in other employees that would lead them to want to lay off that person!)

For My Own Personal Soap Opera, I was fortunate enough to find a former soap opera actor who put me in touch with some wonderful people at As the World Turns, including the head writer there. I also read several autobiographies of soap stars, gathering useful bits of information along the way.

Once I've done this research, though, I always feel like writing a disclaimer at the beginning of my novel: The work you are about to read is fiction and I have taken liberties with reality! LOL!

As a novelist, I'm building a world, and sometimes that world is a little different from actual reality. So in reality, a soap opera scene breakdown might not be as detailed as it is in my story, but the head writer in my story is....different. Once I create her "differentness," I have to hope that it creates, by extension, a different approach to the reality within which her story is told.

Does that make sense? I hope so!

Now that Fire Me is launched, and My Own Personal Soap Opera is in the editor's queue, I'm starting research on a third romantic comedy where the hero is a college professor and the heroine the owner of a car dealership. For the college prof, I'm getting tons of great info from my just-graduating daughter (who used to play a game with her dorm mates: Who Can Make Up theFunniest Dissertation Title?). But I need to talk to some car dealership owners to get the scoop on that I can take the truth and start to bend it to suit my story!

There was a time that I would have felt...funny...about interviewing real people for background material for novels ("I'm a novelist and would like to ask you a few questions about..." "Uh, come I've never heard of you?"). But I've learned to put shyness aside and forge ahead with my questions. I've learned, in fact, that a lot of people are happy to share the details of their work or knowledge--even if they've never heard of you or seen your books!

I'd love to hear stories of how other novelists approach research--whether they rely on books and articles or actually interview people for the stories they tell. And whether they've felt odd, like I have, about talking to real people for the research.


  1. Oh, have I ever felt odd! Try phoning a real live private detective and stating with that line, "I'm a writer, and I'd like to ask...". I've talked to a homicide detective and the owner of a ballooning company, among others.

    It never gets easier, but it's always worth it.

  2. I talked to a private detective once -- but it was an interview for a newsletter article. I've thought of interviewing others for fiction but never got around to it...

  3. Let's see - my guy Bob at the marina has been hearing from me for 3 years. Last summer we crawled all over the boats in their inventory looking for a place a mermaid could hide. And Bob, God love him, kept a straight face when a few fishermen asked him what we were doing. :)

    Bob's the bomb!

  4. Libby, great post!! :) And Judi, that is just too funny!!!! But I had a similar experience explaining to folks who live in Maine that I needed to know if wolves were sighted there, because I write about, ahem, werewolves. :) Everyone's been good natured about it. I've had some views of my website from Millinocket where the story takes place in part. :) Probably checking to see if I'm for real.

  5. I guess this is where my reporter training comes in. I'm so used to doing interviews for news stories that it doesn't phase me at all to do it for my books. My favorite bit of research was easily the ride-along with my cop buddy who made me a part of everything that happened during the night we spent on the streets. Amazing stuff!

  6. I can honestly say that I've never interviewed a real live alien, but all of the sci-fi I've seen or read could probably count as research. Who knew?
    Hmmm...perhaps that ticket to the new Star Trek movie is tax deductible....

  7. My research is almost all internet based. Thank the Maker for Google! Amen? I write in a past world, so hunting down historical facts is mostly what I do. Recently I searched high and low for detailed info on being presented to the Prince Regent at Court. That was fun, but rather difficult to find. The Victorians get more focus than those Regency folks!

    Anyway, the research is so fun. It can be frustrating, especially when you can't find precisely what you are looking for. Of course, then I just figure I can get creative because if there is no info then who is going to know if I get it wrong, right? :) LOL!

    I sure wish I had my own personal Bob to talk to. That would be cool!

  8. I've been kind of quiet because...I'm at Penn State today where my son was just commissioned into the Air Force. Big day.

    I do a lot of interviews for freelance writing but I always find it a bit more difficult to do it for fiction writing.

  9. You seem to have had some fun interviews. Maybe I should try it sometime - the only people I've interviewed so far have been my sons.

    I love Judi's investigation of boats. That wouldn't been fun to see.

  10. Hey Libby,

    Today was our Spring 2010 Editorial Launch and I was so excited to see your name on the list again :-)



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