contemporary romance

Writing a novel: why research is vital in stories

This month the subject of our Round Robin is research. How much do we do as writers? Does it bother us if we come across inaccuracies in a novel?

My novels are all set in the present day, but they still involve a lot of research. If I make a mistake about something that’s current, it’s bound to be picked up on by an eagle-eyed reader and spoil the story for them.

Here are some examples of research I’ve undertaken:

helena fairfax, the silk romance, lyon
Vieux Lyon and the river Saone

My first novel, The Silk Romance, was set in the city of Lyon in France. One of the great ways to research is to write what you know. I spent several months in Lyon as a student, working as an au pair, and revisited the city a few years ago, so I have a good knowledge of it, and only needed to check a few facts as I was writing the novel. Although the internet is a massively useful tool, nothing beats the actual experience of living in a city to get a real feel for it.

Jean-Luc, the hero of The Silk Romance, owns a silk mill in Lyon. I worked in a woollen mill for a while in Yorkshire, where I picked up vital knowledge of the weaving process, plus an understanding of the likely customers the hero would have, and the stresses and strains he’d be under to make the mill prosperous. The passages that featured the silk weavers were fun to write and brought back a lot of memories about my own work in a mill. As extra research, I also read Liz Trenow’s The Last Telegram (reviewed here) which is set in a silk mill in England.the silk romance, novel, helena fairfax, france, lyon, romantic

Jean-Luc is a former racing-driver – and that’s one profession I have no direct experience of! This is where the internet, television and film really come into their own. I spent a long while researching various races online and watching films such as the excellent Senna, which is a documentary about the Brazilian racing-driver Ayrton Senna, a sporting hero, and an excellent role model for my own romantic hero :) In one scene in The Silk Romance, Jean-Luc takes the heroine, Sophie, for a trial run around a race track in a sports car. I watched a video of a similar event obsessively until I felt I could write it exactly as I’d seen it. Sometimes it’s inevitable that imagination has to take the place of direct experience, and this is where thorough research is vital.

a way from heart to heart, helena fairfaxIn A Way from Heart to Heart, I again chose as a setting places I knew well – London and the Yorkshire moors – but there were very many aspects of this novel that were outside my experience. I enjoy researching, though, and have become adept at finding sources of information. Sometimes you need to be a little resourceful, but in the main there is an absolute wealth of information to be found on the internet. One scene in the novel involves a character performing a parachute jump – something I’ve never done (and have no intention of doing. I’m terrified of heights!) I found lots of info about similar jumps on the net from various training schools, complete with videos from start to finish, and so it was very easy for me to imagine myself actually standing at the door of a plane with the wind rushing past…and being in an agony of terror :)

There haven’t been many occasions when I couldn’t find the information I need very readily. One time that that does spring to mind recently, though, was some research I was doing for a few scenes in my present wip. The

The Lake District
The Lake District

hero of my present novel is a diver in the Lake District. I’ve dived in the Caribbean (which was awesome!) but I have no idea how anyone gets kitted up to dive in a freezing cold freshwater lake in the north of England, or what the scene will be like below water. As try as I might, I couldn’t get enough information on this either on the internet, or looking for TV programmes, films, books – anything! I was stumped. Then I came across some information about a dive club in the Lake District area, and I emailed one of the members, throwing myself on their mercy. I was a little nervous about doing this – what would they think to a romance author looking for advice? Would they think it funny? Would they ignore me? But in the end, as so often happens, they were delighted to have the opportunity to show me how to kit up, and even took me to a lake and did a dive for me especially, so I could watch them and make copious notes. They also provided me with a CD of their underwater filming for reference. Perfect! I now have some excellent research material – plus new friends! So, research can be fun as well as necessary :)

And now on to the second part of the Round Robin: does it bother me when I come across inaccuracies in a novel? The answer is yes, most definitely. If I read something that isn’t right, it throws me out of the novel in a big way, and I can’t stop thinking about it. This is part of the reason why I devote so much time to research for my own novels, as I don’t want my readers to lose the thread of the narrative because they’re focusing on inaccuracies.

Even the smallest inaccuracy sometimes sticks in my mind. In a novel I read recently, one of the characters says that fashions in the seventies were all about long hair and short skirts. The author of the novel was in her thirties, and wouldn’t have direct experience of this decade. I kept thinking about her character’s statement for ages, because I don’t think it’s true. Perhaps at the beginning of the seventies, as a hangover from the sixties, but the fashions I remember from the seventies were flares, mid-length skirts and short hair. Just the opposite. And that inaccuracy is now the one thing I remember from that particular novel! So it just shows how important it is to do your research.

How about you? Are you a writer, and if so, how much research do you do? As a reader, does it bother you if you come across inaccuracies? If you have any questions or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

And if you want to hear the other authors’ take on this subject, please do drop in on their blogs and find out their perspective. Here are all the other authors in the Round Robin.

Margaret Fieland
Beverley Bateman
Skye Taylor
Rachael Kosnski
Heidi M. Thomas
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/
Anne Stenhouse
Connie Vines
Kay Sisk
Fiona McGier
A.J. Maguire
Judith Copek
Lynn Crain
Rhobin Courtright

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24 thoughts on “Writing a novel: why research is vital in stories

  1. Hi Helena, couldn’t agree more about throw-away remarks supposed to conjure up ‘shared’ cultural knowledge, like long hair and short skirts when you know they weren’t. Although I write historicals, I can walk Edinburgh’s streets and still be in places my H & H shared 200 years ago. gives me a tingle just typing that. Anne

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    1. Hi Anne, Edinburgh is a city that’s totally imbued with history. That struck me the very first time I visited, when I walked out of the station and saw the castle looming over the streets. The fact that you live there adds another dimension to your research and it shows in how you describe your settings. Thanks for your comment!

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    1. Hi blondeusk, sometimes writers get involved in the research and it becomes a way of procrastinating. I think this is quite common, and I know I do it myself! But better to do too much than too little. Good luck with completing the book!

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  2. Excellent post, Helena. I wonder if we, as writers, pick up on inaccuracies where readers who are not writers simply glide over them? Like you, I do remember inaccuracies, but I’m more tolerant than I once was. Even after extensive research, it’s difficult to write a ‘perfect’ novel.

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    1. Hi Joan, you’re right, it’s really hard to write the perfect novel. I’ve seen typos in mine after publication and that really bothers me, too! Perhaps it’s true that writers are the worst at picking up on other writers’ inaccuracies. Funnily enough I don’t mind them half as much in films and on TV as I do in books. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  3. Great post, Helena – it’s definitely better to experience as much as possible ourselves, but I love all the help you received for the diving in the Lake District!

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  4. I love research – both for my writing and as a leisure activity. And yes, it bothers me when I find inaccuracies in a book I’m reading. Looking forward to your next wonderfully researched, thoroughly heartwarming novel!

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  5. Wonderful post. How fun it can be to do research especially when there are others who love talking about what they do. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks so much for dropping in, Lynn. I so agree – when people are enthusiastic about what they do, it makes the research fun, and it also adds a lift to the story and characters you’re writing. Thanks for your great comment!

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  6. Interesting post. I enjoyed reading about the research you needed to do specific to your story. Yes,it bothers me with inaccuracies too. That one spot will jar me out of the flow of the story. A reviewer may point out the inaccuracy too and condemn the writer for it. But I figure, we are all human and make mistakes once in awhile. Now I’m off to visit some more robins in the round.

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    1. It’s true, we all do make mistakes, JQ. It’s strange, like I said in another comment, I can let inaccuracies go by really easily in films and TV (even though they have a vast team to check everything!) but in books, for some reason they stick in my mind. I’ll have to try and work out why that one is! Thanks for dropping in, and for visiting the other robins.

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  7. I have a couple of stories that didn’t require research, only because they were very short. Well, flash fiction. My first “book” (a novella) is contemporary, but I had never written a sex scene, so that required research. My current WIP, The Whispering House, which is scheduled to be released in a few months, is also contemporary, but it required some research as well.

    The challenge I have with research is getting sucked into the black hole, and I happily go. LOL

    And I am with you, inaccuracies irritate me, and I will put down a book and never read that author again.

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    1. That’s exciting news about release of The Whispering House, wildchild, Intriguing title!
      Authors try and iron out inaccuracies as much as they can, and their editors should really help spot errors before a book is released, but sometimes these things happen. It’s a shame, because it can throw you out of the story.
      Good luck with your release!

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  8. Wow, I feel so out-classed by the depth of your research! Making friends with a dive club, just for information? What a great idea, and how wonderful that you got more than you needed in information, as well as new acquaintances.

    It really is funny that people think that if you write contemporary stories, that you don’t need to do any research, because, duh, you’re living now, right? Yet they’re the first ones to holler and complain if they read something inaccurate. They have no idea how much some of us obsess over getting every detail correct.

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    1. Hi Fiona, thanks for dropping in! I think it’s true that readers sometimes don’t realise the amount of research we do, but I suppose in a way that might be a good thing. It’s good that our books flow along, without the idea that the author is proving how much he knows about a subject. I research everything I write about, because I do obsess over every detail! Thanks for coming by, and for your comment!

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