It’s true. In the great spectrum of history and the universe, my Bachelor’s degree does not hold up to the onslaught of information, facts, figures, and theories that make up all of humanity, nature, and what we do not know.
And that’s awesome.
I have only recently starting delving into the depths of necessary research to make a book feel real in the space it occupies. In the past, my stories have been shorter, among other things, and the need for in-depth research both wasn’t as pressing and wasn’t as enticing. As of late, my interest in the things I do not know, or would like to know more about, has increased rapidly, inspiring me to work on new books in topics I might have otherwise never touched – or never touched properly.
Research is a tricky subject for writers, not helped by the age-old adage, write what you know, that, in my opinion, is often wrongly shared. Write what you know, yes. Write the way it feels to have your heart broken by the one person who you always thought you could trust. Write the way spring rain feels on your cheeks. Write the burst of incredible joy at seeing an old friend, at kissing a new lover, at tasting a chocolate pie.
We are often told that phrase in a much more literal sense. But I am not a duchess (yet…) I am a not a Special Forces Operative, a Boston detective, a cat burglar or a virologist. I am not a teacher, advertising wizard or, and I regret this with my whole self, pirate queen. The point is, I am not any of these heroes or heroines I write about, most of us aren’t. My heroine in Protecting Your Sources, Sarina Mason, is probably the closest I’ll come to being the character I write about. She’s a reporter from Boston, where I studied journalism in college, and she drives an old Volvo. Checkpoints on the list – superficial checkpoints.
Sarina, just like all of my characters, is human first, profession/hair color/tragic past second. She is human, and I am human. I know all about being human, which gives me all the justification I need to be allowed to write her.
The truth is, I like writing about both what I do know and what I don’t. My art thief book draws on a lifelong love of art history education, much of which was done in the story’s setting of Amsterdam. Still, throughout the course of writing, I learned about new artists, specific movements, and the history of a city I loved spending time in, addendums to a working knowledge base.
By contrast, the next book in the series stars my virologist heroine – a career path I can honestly say I would be less equipped to follow than art theft. When I realized I was in over my head, I contacted an old professor, a working biologist, who helped me figure out the larger picture and the important details that would have stuck out to any scientist reading. (For instance, did you know that viruses can’t go through the water cycle. I did not. Plot change!)
Writers are, on the whole, curious creatures. We like telling stories, exploring worlds, creating people from thin air. That curiosity is powerful and capable of doing much. As a writer who used to shy away from deep research, I now understand exactly how important good information is to a book, how much richer a story can be, if the dates are factual, the recipes are real and the city’s geography is accurate. Even if I don’t use a single detail from what I’ve gathered, I am far better equipped to deal with my characters and my circumstances for simply having the knowledge.
I’m a giant nerd, always have been. Learning is a fun and exciting experience for me and, as a writer, it makes me feel more confident that I can do justice to my characters. There are many things that are my favorite about being a writer, but I have to say that research has a permanent space at the top. Making up stories, living the lives we always wanted to live, exploring the cities we only dream about and learning a thousand new things along the way – is there a better job in the world?