Research–Then and Now

I started writing in the ‘80s. My first books were basically “Write what you know” books: teaching, Santa Barbara, Michigan, a farm community, and a local township supervisor who made me angry. I did do a little research: I talked to the local (female) banker about how the men in the community were reacting to having a woman in that position (this was the ‘80s, after all), and I drove to an area in Indiana where I’d set No Room for Love.

By book three I knew I needed to do much more research, so I went to the library. Encyclopedias, National Geographic, how-to books, biographies, and librarians became my resources. This continued into the ‘90s, along with calls or visits to anyone who could give me information about a profession or location. (I even took guitar lessons while writing Sounds Like Love.)

However, by the end of the ‘90s the computer and the Internet were changing everything from how I submitted a manuscript to how I did my research. Now I could find information about (almost) anything by using one of the search engines. (I prefer  My biggest problem was learning how to ask a question so I’d get the answer I wanted.

In the last decade plus, the Internet has made research even easier. Now not only can I find information about a town, I can see the streets (Are they one way?) see the buildings (even in 3-d in many cases) and read reviews written by people who have been there. I can tap into on-line newspapers, watch videos, and hear interviews.

Does that mean a writer no longer needs to visit locations or participate in an activity? Yes and no. Yes, I can get a lot of the information I need by going on-line, but I still feel I gather much more information by visiting a place in person or actually trying to do something I have my hero or heroine do. What the computer can’t give me (at least not yet) are the smells, the sounds, or the feel of a place. (New York City vibrates with energy.) There’s the tactile sense of strumming a guitar that I needed to actually feel, the recoil kick of a pistol, or, for me, how difficult it is to pull the trigger on a revolver.

Skagway Railroad

Skagway Railroad

Right now, however, I am loving my computer. I visited Skagway, Alaska, back in 2007 so I could do some research for a suspense I was writing. That story was set aside, and I’m just now getting back to it. I remember how it felt to be there, (the beauty of the mountains, the port and the tourist shops, the layout of the police station, etc.) but so much time has gone by, it’s great that I can check and see what has changed and what’s the same. It’s a lot cheaper than going again (though I wouldn’t mind a return trip).

So yes, research is easier than it was thirty-four years ago…but if you want to pay for me to take a trip to Skagway, I won’t refuse.

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21 Responses to Research–Then and Now

  1. Connie Bretes says:

    I have to agree with you Maris that research now is quite different then it was in the 80s. I too do a lot of research on the internet and I use Google a lot too. The trick is knowing which sites to use that are reliable and accurate.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Connie, when I read something I always try to find more than one source (and hope that source didn’t use incorrect information, too). As they illustrate on one ad on TV, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Oui?

  2. Your experiences are very similar to mine. It is so easy to do research on line now that I rarely go to the library for that purpose. But I do like to get the feel of a place or occupation. Some things have to be experienced in order to understand. I don’t use everything in a story but I want what I do use to feel authentic to the reader.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Susan. We need way more information that we’ll put in a story, but knowing or having experienced something makes what we write more authentic.

  3. Elorise Holstad says:

    I’m a “google-girl” as well. When it comes to research, I use the public library, the books (too many) that I own, plus the internet, and my own senses: eyes and ears, etc. My biggest problem with research is the way I write/scribble things on Post-It notes, and later wonder: What the Heck?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Elorise, that’s another nice part of doing the research on-line (at home). If it’s something I want I can either print the article or do a cut-and-paste of the part I need and keep in in a file or print it out. Like you, when I write the info, I often find it difficult to read at a later date.

  4. Janice Hickly says:

    I am just starting to write, right now I am working on a story based on an something that I experienced first hand. I have pulled together several first hand encounters that I feel
    I know about, both the events themselves and all the emotions that were experienced by those involved, can be intertwined to create a story that I know many people have been threw. I don’t need to do much research because I lived it and lived where a lot of it happened. I do have to work at remembering the details accurately. I hope I can be as successful at writing as the rest of you, i guess my biggest challenge will be in learning how to get a book published.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Janice, the most important step for you is to get the book written. Only when you have your story finished will you need to learn how to get it published. Write it, edit it, and have others read and edit it. It’s amazing how many typos and misspellings the writer can miss. It often takes “fresh” eyes to see the errors. And what you think is clear, may not be clear to someone else. I ran into that just recently when I mentioned something in a book that I wouldn’t need explained, but my editor had no idea what I was talking about.

      I am glad to hear you are writing. I know you’ve had some interesting experiences. Keep me posted on how it’s going.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    Research has changed but so has the reader. Now many of the people reading the books have been to the places or knows as much if not more about the places as we do. I love that we can be close to family and friends even though many miles distance us… but I also love that we can get some first hand understanding of the past and of people’s experiences.

    I’m not going to hold my breath but if you find someone to send you on a vacation… and they want to spring for another person… call me!! Please!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, I’ll definitely call…but as you said, don’t hold your breath. As for people having been to the places we write about, that makes the need for accurate research all the more important. And that’s why I keep checking to make sure I am as accurate as I can be. Major problem with writing a contemporary novel (versus historical) is things change, often at a rapid rate. What is there today, may be gone tomorrow.

  6. Maris, I’m up for a revisit to Skagway! You’re right about the sounds and smells and such not being available through internet research. One of my first books, written in the 80s, sold in 2000 some, had my heroine walking through the reception area to her office amid – the clatter of typewriter keys. Had to change that one.

    • Maris Soule says:

      It is fun, isn’t it, Margo, to go back to some of our older stories and see how much things have changed. In the original SOUNDS LIKE LOVE I have them looking for a pay phone. When I released the e-book version, I gave them cell phones.

  7. Hi, Maris,

    I agree with you about research. So much has changed since I started writing as well. At one time I did tons of research in libraries; interlibrary loans were common for me. The internet has made that kind of research so much easier and more available. However, there’s no substitute for first-hand experience, particularly in creating setting.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, you are so right about the first-hand experience. I understand there’s going to be a TV series set in Battle Creek, Michigan. I wonder if the actors will comment on how often, as you drive into the city, the air smells like Coco Pops. There is a reason it’s called Cereal City.

  8. Diane Burton says:

    What’s an encyclopedia? LOL Google is my go-to for research but, as you know, we can’t rely on the internet solely. So much info out there isn’t true. Love visiting a place before I write. Now if I could just figure out how to visit another planet. LOL

  9. I’d love to go to Skagway too – in the summertime. The internet is wonderful, but as you say, it doesn’t capture the smells, tastes, and the energy of a place. My latest novella is set in a place I visited ten years ago – and I was able to tap into resources that weren’t available then. But my memories of the place helped me to describe the atmosphere.

  10. Lucy Kubash says:

    In the online class I’m taking someone mentioned going to You Tube to see how something is done, that there is a video for just about anything. I haven’t used You Tube for research, but I guess maybe I’ll start.
    Yep, I had a pay phone in one of my short stories that I wrote out. But I wonder if you can still find them somewhere?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Lucy, I used YouTube videos for A KILLER PAST. I needed to see how to use an Nunchuck. (It had been years–okay, decades–since I’d seen one used and held one.) Watching the videos really helped.

  11. Great article, Maris. I agree. There are wonderful resources in libraries and specialty libraries, and the internet resources are incredible. But there’s nothing like “having been there” – having actually experienced something so you can saturate it into your writing.

    I use YouTube, too. I just finished a middle-grade manuscript that required me to know what animal would beat out another animal in a battle. Tons of those “battles” are available on YouTube. Then I needed to know how to safely move a rattlesnake (who was sitting on top of a clue.) YouTube to the rescue again.