Have you ever read a book where the simplest thing took you out of the story in two seconds flat? If you’re from that setting or profession, it just takes one bit of misinformation to spark an internal argument with the author and start you questioning everything else in the story.
Because it’s one of my pet peeves, I invest the time to get the details right to preserve that connection with readers and research for authenticity. (It’s also one reason I’ve stuck to writing contemporaries so far. I enjoy historical novels, especially Regencies, as well as suspense and even the newer dystopians but I’m not ready to plunge into that level of research or preparation.)
If my aim is a realistic setting for my stories, what information do I need to know to bring that location to life? This goes beyond physical descriptions of locations and landmarks to nuances of weather, altitude, and even lighting at certain times of year. I also need to research the professions of my hero and heroine so that their actions ring true. What mannerisms or habits would they have? What career-specific vocabulary would they use? A few specific details in strategic places go a long way towards creating the illusion of a fully developed setting or skill.
So what does that research look like in action? For my soon-to-be-released debut Catch Of A Lifetime, the story revolves around a college football program. Since my husband is a high school coach and spent a year volunteering at the college level, I’d already had glimpses into game preparation and behind the scenes access to offices, facilities, and even the tunnel before and after a game. I knew the game and could describe the routine or buildings but I needed more information to bring the story to life.
First off, I needed to know if a football coach falling in love with a graduate student athletic trainer-tutor was even a realistic possibility. Because if the relationship was forbidden, then I couldn’t carry the story forward without violating my Christian values and would sabotage any foothold with CBA publishers and readers. So I emailed a family friend who coaches at the college level and just asked if it was even possible. To my surprise, he called me within an hour to brainstorm possibilities and point me toward then-current headlines about a similar situation. I knew I’d hit a sweet spot with an interesting conflict.
As I dove into planning the story, I then needed a timeline and framework for the individual scenes. While I knew I’d have a fictional college with a fictional fraternization policy, I started with the football schedule of a real school and wrote those games on a calendar/table spanning the five months of the fall semester before adding in the first day of football practice, of classes, and even finals week. Then I made up whether the team would win or lose certain games to determine the ups and downs of the season. With that hypothetical record, I researched what potential Bowl games the team might qualify for, where those games were played, and on what date. One Bowl game in particular became the one I wanted for plotting purposes, so I tweaked the win-loss record until it worked. As I wrote scenes in the book, I added them into squares on my calendar and could easily reference the team’s record at that point.
Since the heroine would be tutoring a player in biology, I needed to know how many tests or quizzes he would have to prepare for so my next point of research took me back to that real university’s website where I was able to eventually find a class syllabus. Bingo! Real dates went onto my calendar along with hypothetical scores to keep those tutoring scenes on track realistically.
But speaking of classes, my heroine would have her own courses to complete as part of her specific degree plan. Then how would she get certified as an athletic trainer when she was done? More research led me to additional dates to put on the calendar and even more importantly, a few plot twists. As scenes developed, I also needed to learn how to treat specific injuries as well as tape ankles because those were things my heroine would know how to do.
Research takes a lot of work but I hope the resulting authenticity yields readers’ appreciation. In fact, one early endorser had this to say about my debut: “Candee Fick brings the world of college football to life with vivid descriptions of the game, but that’s only the beginning. Readers will root for Cassie and Reed and the cast of secondary characters (well, most of them) as they tackle both personal and professional challenges in the games of love and life.”
That’s the power of good research.
What about you? What unique setting or situation would you like to see portrayed in a story? Do you prefer reading about situations you know something about or do you read to experience something new?