The Research Process

Sometimes when you’re writing, you need to do a little research. It’s why writers have notoriously strange search histories.

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However, this kind of research is essential because authenticity matters. Not every one of your readers is going to be a stickler, but for those of us who are neurotic and care, the lack of attention to detail takes us right out of the story. Which means, of course, that you need to make sure you do your research, either through your experiences or the experiences of others.

Family Pride

I co-authored a young adult historical fiction novel a few years back, and because it takes place in the 1920s, it required a LOT of research.

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Family Pride is based on the true story of when the famed MGM movie studio decided to fly their mascot lion from California to New York as a publicity stunt. They recruited a pilot from the disastrous Dole Derby and while takeoff went well, the powers that be had miscalculated the weight of the plane to clear the mountains in northern Arizona and the plane went down outside Payson, Arizona.

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Don’t worry, the lion was fine. He also survived a train crash and a sinking ship, earning him the nickname “Leo the Lucky.”

In order to make sure I knew what I was talking about, I had to do a ton of research about MGM, Louis B. Mayer, Payson, and airplanes. It felt daunting at first, but I knew how important it was so I scoured the internet and read books, taking notes along the way that I thought might be helpful. My method of research at the time was scraps of paper and post its stuck all over my desk like a conspiracy theorist, so I highly recommend getting a more organized system.

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It wasn’t my best moment.

Now, I keep everything in one notebook or, if I want to go digital so I can copy and paste specific paragraphs for reference, I use Google Docs so I can access it anywhere.

Travel and Talk to Experts

My co-author put me in touch with a pilot whom I interviewed to understand the step by step process that pilots go through when they takeoff and land. By talking to someone who knows what they’re doing, I saved myself days of research trying to figure it out on my own.

Because I happen to live in Arizona, my husband and I also took a day trip to Payson so I could get a feel for the town and do a little research about its history. Some things have changed, but other things have certainly stayed the same. For example, while I was there I learned about the annual rodeo that’s been happening for the last century that the pilot would have just missed when the plane made its unscheduled stop. This little bit of information enabled me to give some authenticity to the conversations the pilot had with the locals. I was also able to visit the local museum and learn about Payson’s most famous resident, western author Zane Grey, and see tons of historical photos from the 1920s. As a result, I felt I was able to do more justice to the town than I would have if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand. Traveling to your location isn’t always feasible, but I highly recommend it if you can swing it.

That One Thing

I’ve found that when I research, I often find myself with one detail that no matter how hard I look, I can’t find any freaking information on it. For Family Pride, it was secretarial equipment of the 1920s. I couldn’t find ANYTHING and it was driving me crazy.

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I know many places would be pretty analog considering the time period, but the secretary in question worked for Louis B. Mayer at MGM; Hollywood was going to have whatever gadgets were available. I wanted to create authenticity, but I also realized I was spending a ton of time researching equipment for two sentences out of the entire book. I finally found what I needed, but it ended up coming from an unexpected source. Which leads me to . . .

You Don’t Have to Be a Pioneer

Don’t be afraid to use the research someone else has already done. You’re writing an entire book, so work smarter, not harder. One of the best sources of information is going to be Hollywood. Film studios have teams of researchers to create authenticity in period movies, so why not watch a couple of those and pay attention to the details you need? You won’t necessarily get specific makes and models of everything, but you’ll see if a secretary is using an intercom or not. Go easy on yourself.

Have Fun with Research

If you’re writing a book set in a specific time period, then it must interest you to some degree, so have fun! Search for details that are indicative of the time but also pique your interest because chances are, if you liked it, someone else will, too. Not everything has to be dreary and tedious; you’re writing a book! Enjoy yourself! There’s enough time for self-hatred during the editing process.

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What are you researching right now? Let me know in the comments!


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