…and then Deborah asked me about genres and research…
DB: You’ve written period pieces as well as contemporary. What is your favorite time period and what advice can you give writers about research?
SW: I tend to fall in love with whatever time period I happen to be researching for a book, be it medieval Scotland or present-day Point Reyes, California. Some writers are content to stay in their niche, with books that take place in the same setting or era, again and again. I’m too restless for that.
Research advice–learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can, any way you can. This could mean searching the Internet, making a trip, finding someone to interview, reading travel books, memoirs, how-to books, biographies, interviewing people, riding along with an EMT crew, you name it. Do whatever it takes to enable yourself to build an authentic world for your story. Readers can smell a phony a mile away. But they want to believe you know what you’re doing, so do your best to fulfill that expectation. For example, in The Ocean Between Us, about a Navy family, I wrote from a carrier-based pilot’s POV: “At the approach controller’s go-ahead to dirty up, Josh pulled back on the throttle, lowered the handle, moved a lever down, hanging out his flaps, slats, gear and droops. Air screamed over the ailerons. Then he released the tailhook and scanned the panel again before calling in his landing checklist…”
I have no idea what any of that stuff is. But it’s from my e-mail correspondence with a carrier-based Navy pilot, and he approved it, so I went with it. The key is to sound like you know what you’re talking about so the reader feels the story’s authenticity. Find the sources that will give you that authentic texture.
Caution–don’t make the story a vehicle for research, to show how much you know about a particular topic. That’s boring. My pilot-gibberish above was quickly followed by big (huge) drama. I wanted the reader to feel certain she was reading about a pilot. Just because you can write forty-five pages about the flying field ambulances of Napoleon’s surgeon general, Dr. Larrey, doesn’t mean you should. Use only enough to flavor the story for the reader.