Monday, September 19, 2011

A 2 Z: Research

Old West 1Research tends to be viewed by writers as either a necessary evil or a wonderful labyrinth of time-consuming knowledge. I fall into the latter category and love all the little facts I pick up doing my searches. One favorite of my own short stories is "Lo Ikwithltchunona, The Cloud-Swallower." The story idea began with a comment in a sermon about a missionary who prayed the rain would hold off until the  roof he was building was completed. I typed a few keywords into the search engine and stumbled across a fascinating Native American legend about a stone column in New Mexico.

The Zuni people believed the stone was once a giant named Lo Ikwithltchunona, that is, the Cloud-Swallower. To quote my story, "this giant had once roamed New Mexico, drinking of the clouds that drifted about his head and killing all men he came across. But the gods had grown weary of him and defeated him, tossing him over a cliff where his body turned to stone. Now the clouds dropped rain as the gods pleased."

That wonderful find led to learning about the Zuni's rain dances and native language. Their rich culture lent a backdrop to my story that was so much more wonderful than it would have been if I'd done no research and wrote only the simple story of a Christian missionary praying for no rain.

On the other hand, I've had times when research made me realize my premise was completely implausible. But I've learned even that can be used to my advantage. Indeed, when researching my current novel Reaching Sky I discovered a law was quite different than I'd thought. Instead of completely revamping the story, I let the main character have the same misconception I had--until almost the end of the book where a twist reveals the truth. I think it's strengthened the story and made it more realistic, without a tied up with a bow ending.

Another thing I've learned about research is that many busy professionals are much more willing to take time to answer my research questions than I ever would have expected. Certainly I've sent out some letters that were never answered, but I've been very surprised and pleased at some that were answered.

When researching that same novel, I filled out one of those automated online contact forms on the Washington State's Child Administration page (social services/foster care). I doubted I'd get any answer at all but within a few days I not only got an answer but was given the direct phone number to the woman in charge of the whole administration. She answered the call and spent thirty minutes talking to me, answering questions and giving a wealth of information I hadn't even known to ask for.

Likewise, while writing a historical fiction novella set during WWII in Ravensbruk, a women's concentration camp, I emailed a historian who'd authored of one of the books I was using for research. I asked if she'd be willing to read my rough draft to check for accuracy. She agreed and followed through, giving me feedback on my story.

So don't be afraid to go directly to the source by approaching professionals to ask for research help. Here's a sample of what a letter like that might look like. Note that I didn't just ask for help for myself, but mentioned how it might be beneficial to them, as well.

Dear Sir,
I am an author working on a novel about two foster children. Is there someone in your office who would be willing to take a few minutes to answer some questions about the foster care system in Washington? I would like to ensure the basic facts about the system and the way the children are handled in the book are true-to life. I can communicate through email or telephone, whichever is more convenient. I think the conversation would be of value to the Washington CPS department to help make sure the organization is portrayed accurately to the public, as well as being a help to me.
Thank you for your time,
Amy Michelle Wiley

Now I'm on to researching the next book I plan to write, Voices of the Dark, which is a little more intensive than for the last book. I've already been in contact with someone and gotten some of my initial questions answered, just in time to be able to revise my main character's role accordingly.

Have fun with your own research and as always, check out more "R" posts in the "From A 2 Z 4 U & Me" meme at and feel free to jump in with an "R" post of your own.


Rita Garcia said...

Research is SO important! Amy, thanks for sharing your experience and encouragement to be bold when it comes to research. Superb article!

Patty Wysong said...

Great R, Amy!! Research covers the whole range sometimes--from dread to enlightening to heart breaking and life changing.

I love how you used your research find as a twist at the end. =]

Barbara Lynn Culler said...

I've always loved doing research papers in school! Whole new worlds have opened up in the name of research!

Yvonne Blake said...

Yes, I'm learning to ask questions to people I meet. When you preface your question with "I'm writing a book, and I wondered..." their ears perk up and they become interested in your work.

Great stuff!

Shelley Ledfors said...

Great R, Amy! I enjoy research, and it is *so* necessary. I remember once reading a story in a major Christian publication where the author wrote that a dog was bred in August and gave birth in December. A simple search for "dog gestation" would have revealed it to be ~63 days. But the author didn't bother and made up something instead. I wasn't even writing then, and it bugged me. And, more importantly, since I couldn't "trust" the author on the accuracy of a simple fact, it also took away from the message of her story.

Joanne Sher said...

Great post, Amy! VERY neat how you got that info for Reaching Sky. I like research too - though love it might be a bit strong ;)

Diana Lesire Brandmeyer said...

So many times I've gone to people with questions and voice squeaks because I'm sure they'll be bothered by my presence. Hasn't happened yet. I find people like talking about things that interest them.

Marji Laine - Unravel the Mystery said...

I'm always afraid I'll come of as cheesy. Thanks for the encouragement!

Laury said...

Very good information, Amy! Thanks for sharing:)

Niki Turner said...

Excellent advice! And thank you for sharing your "request for information" sample.
We never knew into whose hands our writing will fall, or what they know, so it's important to have our facts straight! It's like journalism, in a way.

Jay said...

Great post! Researching is fun and is essential to our writing. Without research makes the writer look awful.
Steller Jay