Making Research Fun: Sandra Robbins

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Historical figures, timelines, vocabulary, police procedures, crime scene investigation, fashion–the list could go on forever. No matter what genre, every writer knows to craft a book that will hold the attention of readers he or she has to get the basic facts right. How a writer puts a personal spin on those facts is what makes good fiction.

A friend asked me the other day how I research my books. We spent the next few minutes discussing how the internet has changed the way an author researches a novel. With the library of the world at our fingertips, research has never been easier.

Later, I began to think about other ways research is done. Some of it occurs, and we don’t even realize it’s happening. For instance, when we go to the mall, we encounter all kinds of different people and visits stores with salespeople who exhibit their own personalities. At the cosmetic counter we may stop for a few minutes and watch the saleswoman apply makeup to a customer. Later a memory of her techniques and sales pitch may surface just when needed and find its way into a story.

If you’ve ever read any of James Michener’s sagas, you know the depth of his research. I read that he researched his novel Hawaii for four years and then spent three years writing the story. And that was before the internet. I can’t imagine how many hours he must have spent in the library. He probably didn’t include everything he found because writers of historical fiction don’t, but they make sure their books are immersed in the time period.

To me, however, one of the most enjoyable research techniques is to visit the place you plan to write about. There’s nothing to compare to walking the streets of the place where your story will be set, eating the favorite food of the area, and getting to know the people who call the place home. I had the opportunity to visit Okracoke Island before writing Dangerous Reunion.

You can find out all kinds of information on the internet about this tiny barrier island twenty-five miles off the coast of North Carolina, but it doesn’t start to compare to actually being there. Reading about Blackbeard the Pirate’s death just off shore doesn’t evoke the same response as hearing the story told by an islander. Neither does seeing a picture of the British Cemetery compare with standing at the graves of sailors aboard the H.M.S. Bedfordshire that was sunk by a German U-boat offshore during World War II. Taking in the sight of the beaches voted the most beautiful in the nation also reinforced the fact that research while spending time in an island paradise can be fun.

No matter what research techniques are used, a writer needs to make sure the story is grounded in truth. So, to paraphrase Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV series, “Get the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

Learn more about Sandra Robbins and her books at her website.

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