Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Guest Author Amie Kaufman: Six Ways to Make Researching Easier

By Amie Kaufman, @AmieKaufman

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Amie Kaufman to the blog today to chat with us about research--where to go, what to look for, and how to make it easier. Aime has some fantastic and practical How-To Tips to share, and I know first-hand that number three works great. I did exactly that while working on my last novel. I also used number six for a short story with wonderful success. If you research your novels, you'll want to keep these ideas handy.

Amie is the co-author of THESE BROKEN STARS, a YA sci-fi novel coming in 2013 from Disney-Hyperion. It's been described as Titanic in Space meets Blue Lagoon meets Lost, and required some very creative research indeed. Her co-author, Meagan Spooner, is the author of Skylark, which you can read right now without waiting for 2013 (and for real, you should, it's creeptastically awesome). You can find Amie at her blog, on Twitter or on Facebook. Amie lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and rescue dog.

Take it away Aime...

Like all writers, I have a vivid imagination. That means I’ve written about an awful lot of things I’ve never actually done myself, including some that would get me arrested if I tried. One of the challenges that faces a girl who’s never actually crashed a spaceship, dealt with a dead body or worn a crinoline is making sure I get it right, and that leads to the word for today: research.

Why Does Research Matter?

Research is good for far more than procrastinating on writing your actual book, believe me. For a start, if you get something wrong, every reader out there who knows something about your topic will instantly disengage. There’s a compact between a reader and an author—the reader forks over hours and hours of attention, and the author promises to do a good job. Break it and you’ll leave people let down, or even angry.

Beyond that, research is wonderful because the little details you turn up can help you create a vivid setting that will draw readers into your book and leave them with the sense of a very real place, and a very real story. You may also find, as I have, that in researching a particular time or place, you discover fantastic opportunities for plot twists you’d never have dreamed up otherwise! Here’s a list of my favourite ways to research the weird and wonderful stuff I write:

Creative Research Opportunities

1. Real, live people: Don’t underestimate them! I have a friend who’s a well known burlesque dancer, and a while back she said this to me: “These days so many girls just copy their routines off YouTube, and they miss the point. In my day, if you wanted to know how to dance the Charleston, you had to go to a nursing home, find somebody’s grandmother and get a lesson!” And I bet if you did this, you’d get some great contemporary stories as well. People are goldmines of information, and they love to be asked! I’ve quizzed physicists and doctors, demolitions experts and more. I always come away with something unexpected, and a few times I’ve been saved from writing myself into a giant, impossible hole. A great example of this method is the series of YouTube videos Depression Era Cooking With Clara. In these videos, 91 year old Clara demonstrates recipes her family cooked during the Depression and tells stories about everyday life during those years. Imagine if you could sit down with someone like this in person!

2. Non-fiction: There’s a wealth of great non-fiction out there. Writing a tropical location? If it’s real, grab a travel guide (I love the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, lots of pictures!) and if it’s fictional, think about an Earth equivalent, and grab that guide. Check your local library’s reference section for information on how those steam engines in your story work, or find yourself a documentary to see real footage. You won’t just learn, you’ll probably pick up extra details you weren’t expecting.

3. Quality historical shows: Now, Downton Abbey isn’t necessarily to be trusted as an accurate historical source, but great period TV shows can get you thinking about asking the right questions. If you’re like me, you probably know a lot about a few time periods, and you’re pretty hazy on others. Watching a good movie or TV series will get you noticing details—hey, that lunch doesn’t look like what I expected, I wonder what they ate—that can yield up great results. You might realize your character has opportunities or constrictions in his or her life that open up whole new plot possibilities.

4. Earth equivalents: Writing fantasy, science fiction, or something not set in the real world? I bet there’s something in this world like it. If you’re writing a European style fantasy, check out British historical sources. Writing about a community living in a fantasy cold climate? Research the lifestyle of snowbound communities here on Earth, and I bet you’ll learn about traditions and adaptations that will help you create a richer, more textured world.

5. Books and artefacts: If you’re writing about Victorian times, read Dickens. If you’re writing about an ancient culture, visit a museum and take in the items on display—what do you notice about size, color, texture? Could you include any of that information to add a really-there kind of feel? If you’re writing about the future, can you visit a science museum? If you’re writing about a library, any library, can you visit your local branch and see what unexpected details you can pick out?

6. Google street view: Maybe you can’t visit Boston (or wherever), but you can still walk down the street, get a feel for a neighbourhood, pick up small details that will add a layer of realism to your story. I once looked up a building I was using in a WIP, only to discover that there was an awesome park next door that would make the perfect escape route for my hero. I took a walk through it using Street View, worked out where he’d hide, and my story took a cool and unexpected turn. True fact.

This list has covered just some of the places I’ve looked for information to help me bring a touch of realism to my stories, work out where to head next or check I’m on the right track. What tricks have you used in your search for the right information? What’s the neatest thing you’ve found?

About These Broken Stars

Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen never should have met. She’s the socialite daughter of the richest man in the galaxy, and he’s a decorated soldier fighting back rebellions on newly terraformed planets. But when the vast luxury spaceliner they’re both travelling on crashes, they find themselves thrown together as the two sole survivors on an alien planet.

As they survive harsh conditions and dwindling supplies—not to mention each other—the two begin to uncover a mystery surrounding the abandoned planet that neither of them could have guessed.

The first in a trilogy, THESE BROKEN STARS sets into motion a series of timeless, standalone love stories that span galaxies—and are linked by their shared worlds and one mysterious enemy.


  1. Awesome suggestions for fairly easy places to research to be sure your story is accurate. Thanks for sharing the tips. And can't wait to read your new book.

  2. I have a European-based fantasy set in medieval times. Though I didn't watch Game of Thrones during the writing of it, I was able to catch a few things (that had just NOT occurred to me earlier)that I needed to tweak or delete after I had watched a few episodes.

    Also, I decided to use real-life places as templates for my fantasy kingdoms. One is similar to the Loire valley in France and the other, the Aosta valley in Italy. I used Google Earth and Google Maps to help me figure out distances and the walking rate between different "locations". They also helped with visual cues, such as the geography of a plain-built town vs a town squashed in a mountainous valley. And I also used some good, picture-heavy travel guides.

    Thanks for all the suggestions. These are great!!!

  3. Great post, Amie!

    My WiP is set in late Victorian England. While Google Maps and Google Streetview can't show me what certain rural areas once looked like, they are extremely useful for gauging distances.

    As I live in Tokyo, there are few opportunities to "talk" to experts or find books in English. Yet the Internet has bridged the gap in so many ways. I've contacted a museum in England and they've guided me as to how I should research certain areas or time periods. Blogs too, by amateur photographers or local residents are also great sources.

  4. Great tips! I love research. It's the very one thing that can get me out of serious writer's blocks, and every time it does, it's a feeling of being reborn.

    Something very weird happened to me once. I had thought up a completely crazy storyline in the spur of a moment, simply because it fitted and felt outrageously creepy. I thought it was just too much, that I couldn't do it to characters based on real people (who lived 500 years ago on another continent, but anyway). I just wouldn't get away with it.
    When I looked up a random fact about one of these people though, I found out that it had actually happened, and exactly that way, too. There it was, just like I had seen it in my mind, on the pages of several history books I had definitely never seen before (easy to prove because I had just learned the language they're written in).

    That was my little essay titled "How Research Made Me Find Out I Was Psychic". *lol*

  5. I can't believe I was using Google Street View and checking out actual locations I wanted to use in my story. It certainly gave me many ideas and made me discard some that would have been impossible. And then I read your article in which you suggest the exact same method. Wow! Wonder in what other ways we could use technology to write better...