Research — Pain in the @#%@# or a little bit of heaven?

horseheader1.jpeGood Morning!

Here we are at the end of March and I hope that March is going out like a lamb for you.  We’ve had a record winter all across the country, apparently, with heavy rains and snows that are hitting record highs in some parts of the country.   So before we begin our topic today, let me extend a wish that March will hold true to form and “go out like a lamb.”

mag_item1.jpgThere are many would-be historical authors out there who might grace our world with their voices, who yet aren’t doing so because they find the subject of research daunting.  So I dedicate this blog today to all those (including me at one point in my life) who have looked upon research as “beyond them.”  In the hopes of making this easier, here are a series of 5 lessons on research:

group-11.jpgLesson #1:  Do you have friends or acquaintances who tell you their problems from time to time — or tell you their adventures?  Have you ever gone to a dance, a bar,  an opera, a play?  Ever had tea with the elderly lady next door?  Did you know that this is all research?  Whenever I’m yearning for the solution to that next scene, one of the first things that I realize I have to do is go out and live.  A very wise writer once said that the whole world is a stage.  It’s also research material.

costa_rica_trip.jpgLesson #2:  Vacations.  Okay so I cheated a little and chose a picture with a hunky guy on it — but it’s a beautiful picture of a waterfall, too, isn’t it?  Did you notice or couldn’t you drag your attention away from the “center” of attraction?  Okay, all that said, vacations are great for research.  Want to write about the Old West, but live on the East Coast?  Convince your husband to take that vacation to the Old West instead of to that ballgame in Chicago.  There is nothing like vacations for research.  Because I write Native American Historical Romance, my husband and I usually vacation on a reservation.  We even honeymooned on the Blackfeet reservation.  So when you think vacation, think research.

imagestht-touch-of-mink.jpgLesson #3:  Do you like to watch movies?  Like to turn TV to that favorite channel?  One of the first things I do when I’m researching a book is to rent movies that cover the topic that I’m trying to write about.  For instance, in the book, THE LAST WARRIOR — a Berkley March 2008 release — the setting for the book is Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.  Imagine my delight when I discovered there were not on stacks of books with pictures in them, including his original schedules, there were movies taken of the show itself.  Paul Newman even starred in a movie about Buffalo Bill — can’t recall the name of that movie — but all this supplied a visual reference that was invaluable when writing this book.  Now you have to be careful,  because Hollywood versions of events aren’t always accurate historically.  But the visuals should not be overlooked as important.

cattle-drive.jpgLesson #4:  Experience.  If you’re writing about cows, there’s nothing better than going out and looking at cows.  If you’re writing about a cattle drive, there’s nothing better than going out and going on a cattle drive.  The next book that I’m writing (which is due to my publisher very soon) is about the Iroiquois.  Not only have I rented books from the library — which is usually the first place I go to for research — but in one scene there is a tree that plays a dominate role.  In order to visualize this more exactly, I got in my car and drove around the countryside until I found the tree that would be a perfect tree for my scene.  Well, not only was it important to see the tree, but I got out of the car, went and touched the tree, smelled the tree, and listened to it as it moved in the breeze.  When researching, there is nothing like real experience to bring your story to life.

adam-beach.jpgLesson #5:  Know what you know.  Okay, I admit the picture doesn’t go with the title.  But this is one of the handsomest Indians I’ve ever seen.  Be still my heart.  Okay.  Know what you know.  Anyone can write anything about anything.  That doesn’t always mean it’s true.  Know your source of information.  If it seems too sensational, or too unlikely, check other sources before you trust that information.  This is particularly important in researching Native America.  Many of the writers of Native Americans in our past have been, not Native Americans, but settlers, some of whom held prejudices stretching back generations.  Some of these writers even imbued their own unworthy characteristics onto a people who did not deserve them.  One of the best examples of this that I know of is that pertainging to the Native American attitude toward women.  Did you know that in most American tribes (not all of course) that the women held the balance of power in the tribe?  Did you know that the Iroquois could not take a move without the elder women’s approval?  That it was the elder women who could make or break those men?  This is true not only with the Iroquois, but with the Crow Indians, the Navajo — even the fearful Sioux traced their lineage back not on their father’s side, but their mother’s side.  And yet the stigma remains to this day that the “squaw” was misused and abused.  While there might have been isolated cases of this, it is one of those facts that is simply not true — not as a whole.  In an early meeting between an Eastern Indian tribe and the white settlers, the Indians asked the settlers, “Where are your women?  Where is your heart?”  It was unreal to the Indian that the white people might contemplate making treaties without the heart of the tribe being represented.  So this is an important point and is why I’ve listed it last.  Know your sources of information.  Know what you know.  If it seems too critical, too sensational or simply doesn’t ring true to what you know to be, go elsewhere, look elsewhere and remember, simply because it’s written down by someone doesn’t make it true.

 lastwarrior.jpgred_hawk_s_woman1.jpgWell, that’s all for today.  I’ve covered a few tips on research.  Do you know any more?  Or more importantly, what is your experience with research — is it a pain in the @#$@# or is it more like a little heaven — some thing that might actually spark the fires of imagination?  What is your experience?  And don’t forget I have two books out on the stands right now.  RED HAWK’S WOMAN, which was released in May of last year and THE LAST WARRIOR, which has just been released.  If you don’t see them on the bookstand, please ask your bookseller to order it in for you.

So come on in and let’s chat.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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24 thoughts on “Research — Pain in the @#%@# or a little bit of heaven?”

  1. Great blog, Karen. And thanks for the great Adam Beech photo–he’s a doll and a real Native American. Your information on the role of women in Native American tribes is wonderful.
    I love research myself. Only my short contract turnaround time limits what I can do. The internet is an amazing tool. Questions that used to take hours, days, weeks of searching in libraries can now be answered with a couple of clicks. But books are still the best.
    There are so many stories out there, all around us. People ask me where I get my ideas. I just roll my eyes.

  2. I traveled to Texas over Christmas. My WIP at the time, all finished, was set near Beaumont, in a rugged, hilly area. I was sure I found a rugged hilly area somewhere.

    Guess what…flat, swampy coastal plain.

    Now where did I get the idea there were mountains? What was I thinking? I try to save web addresses to back up anything I researched because my publisher asks questions and I need to be able to prove that yes, there COULD be a polar bear that far south, and here is the link to the site called “Rare Polar Bear Sightings”.
    But I couldn’t find anywhere among my saved file what tiny stretch of rugged land, along some bluffs beside some river or creek had given me my ‘proof’.
    So I had to move the book.
    Research, fascinating, maddening, engrossing.

  3. Karen, research is always around us for sure. Thanks for pointing that out and reminding me to keep my eyes and ears open. Also, I find your tidbits about Native Americans so interesting. You’ve shared information that I never knew. Yes, we should get our facts straight because we as writers wield a heck of a lot of influence on our readers. So we have a duty to get everything right.

    I’m like you, I have to walk the ground where a story takes place. I have to feel and smell and touch. I have to breathe the air. An amazing thing happens. It breathes life into the story and it feels it’s happening before my eyes.

    Thanks for the intriguing post! 🙂

  4. Hi Elizabeth!

    I know it’s hard to find the waterfall in that picture. : ) Now isn’t it interesting that I don’t use the internet for research. Do you have a couple of sites that you go to? I’m still using the good ole library and books — I think of books because I like the pictures and the feel of the book, itself. : )

  5. Hi Linda!

    Thanks so much for your post. “I have to walk the ground where a story takes place. I have to feel and smell and touch. I have to breathe the air. An amazing thing happens. It breathes life into the story and it feels it’s happening before my eyes.” I love this post, Linda. It brought to mind the book WAR CLOUD’S PASSION for me. This book was set in Kansas and in it I had the hero and heroine in an actual battle that took place. On my way through Kansas, I stopped at the battleground. It was just like what you said. I wanted to breathe in the air and think of all that took place. Thank you for reminding me of this experience.

    Very insightful.

  6. Hi Kay!

    Time to go out and make sure we all get a copy of THE LAST WARRIOR!

    What an interesting, informative blog! As yours always are, of course.

    To me, diving into research is a slice of heaven, ie, my characters are born out of my research. I write historical romance, thus far set in the West, and once I hit critical-research-mass I’ve done enough research for my characters to begin to take shape, and for their conflicts to begin to build. Once I find the historical thread to begin my story, and the hero and heroines’s unfolding love story, I tug and tug and tug. There’s always more research to do, and more to learn! I’m right with you in the accuracy department. If we stretch the credible bounds for our readers, whether by accident or on purpose, we’re on shaky ground, indeed.

    I need a sense of place, too. It’s so helpful to live where you write, ha ha. If not, we HAVE TO GO THERE, to my thinking.

    I love the resources to be found at any and all local historical societies. A wealth of knowledge for certain. I’m an internet history junkie, too. Google, google, google!

    For my second novel (and for which you gave me a blurb … thank you, again!) I visited the Pioneer History Museum in Colorado Springs. When I arrived, having called ahead with what I needed, they had everything set up for me in a special area, including ACTUAL LETTERS WRITTEN BY RANCHERS circa 1860! Of course I had to wear plastic gloves to handle them, but there’s nothing better than reading journals and letters written during the setting of our books. The devil is ever in the details.

    Kay, you continue to be our mentor and guiding light in this maze called the Historical Romance Novel. Much luck with THE LAST WARRIOR, though I’m sure you don’t need it. I just sold MEGGIE’S REMAINS, set in 1874 Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado Territory. This will be out next summer. If you ever decide to write about the Ute Nation, we’d all be the wiser for it.


    Joanne Sundell

    A…My Name’s Amelia, LP 8/08
    The Parlor House Daughter, 12/08
    Meggie’s Remains, 7/09

  7. My pet peeve is 1950s movies, especially Native
    American, South Pacific, anything ethnic! I do
    not believe that any screenwriter of the day ever
    did a smidgeon of research! There were so many
    errors in those movies that it is unbelievable!
    Another big-time error relates to the 1940s song
    (and I call it that under protest) called “Across
    The Alley From The Alamo.” Mr. Greene took a swing
    at both Texas history (the Alamo, for heaven’s sake) and the Navajos through obviously not doing a bit of research! I can’t believe the Mills Brothers, and more recently Asleep At The Wheel,
    recorded this abomination!

    Pat Cochran

  8. Hi Joanne!

    Congratulations on your recent sale! Wow! Away you go. I know you do your research carefully. I can tell that by what I’ve read from your books. What a thrill to be able to go and actually touch and research in the museum. What a wealth of information.

    Thanks for enlightening comments, Joanne! : )

  9. Hi Pat!

    Boy, I sure to understand your frustration. I can’t say as I’ve ever heard the song, “Across the Alley from the Alamo.” And I’ve never heard those recordings that you speak of either, so unfortunately, I don’t have an opinion on those, but I do agree with you on the 1950’s and the treatment of things ethnic. To a certain extent, I believe it is happening today, although perhaps not like it was in the 50’s. Thanks so much for your comments.

  10. Karen, I haven’t even read your post yet I couldn’t wait to tell you I GOT IT!!! from the same place i told you i called yesterday and she told me it wasn’t on her sheet figure that one out!!! but it was there i’ll have to tell you what i did after that. Love, Lori

  11. Dear Karen, great discussion. Research for me basically follows the path of interest or curiosity. It comes from being interested in the world and being curious about causes. In my view the ability to research, therefore, is an extension of our ability to study. Unfortunately, the grade factories we call schools do a good job of blunting our natural desire to study. Just ask a person how they feel about studying and you’ll have a good idea of their attitude toward research. So what’s can we do about it? There’s a booklet called The Way to Happiness (web site with same name) which gives the answer to that question in a wonderful chapter entitled “Competence.” Good hunting!

  12. Karen, always good information I learn coming here!! My research that I would find very helpful is No.2 lesson- on the reservation camp with N0.5- hottie in picture, WOW !! he is something that would reallt motivate my research, sorry Karen I’m just so excited!! Loved your post!

  13. I LOVE research….it’s the book-writing part that gives me hassles *ggg* I am sooo in need of a research vacation….unfortunatly my book set in Wyoming is due in a month, and my vacation to Wyoming is in June *ggg* They might hate me come copy edit time 😀

    Great post, Karen!!! Fun tips and practical advice 🙂

  14. Karen,
    I often tell people my long term goal is to write historical fiction but for now I am having to stick to writing about what I know. My first novel Endings, which was just released in November contains elements of all the things on which I claim to have some expertise: medicine, horseback riding, motherhood. I had to do a little research but most of it was written off the top of my head based on my own experiences.

    My novel in progress, The Wish will require a little more research, but since it is about football, I should be able to fire most of it off without spending too much time in the library. I’m a big football fan.

    It would be hard to spend a lot of time doing research and maintain my full-time job as an orthopedic surgeon. And I have no plans to quit my day job, so I guess I’ll have to retire before I can write that historical fiction. I look forward to having that time to travel, read and interview.

    BTW Karen. I just finished The Last Warrior and really enjoyed it. Speaking of research, I’m sure you had to do a lot for the segments on the Buffalo Bill show! That was a lot of fun to read about. One of the interessting things I’ve learned from reading some of your books is the difference in the English and American feelings toward American Indians. I look forward to reading more. I hope one day you can check out Endings and let me know what you think! I’d be honored to send you a review copy.

    Barbara Bergin
    author of “Endings”

  15. My dearest David!

    Thanks so much for visiting today — a wise man. And talented. For any of you who don’t know, David is quite a poet. In fact, lines from his poems fill one of my books, THE PRINCESS AND THE WOLF. : )

    Thanks again, David. The Way to Happiness is one of the best books out there.

  16. Hi Barbara!

    What a great post. You’re gonna love the research, Barbara. I think we all really get into it after a while and as a surgeon, it’ll be so different from what you usually do, that you’re just gonna love it.

    Thanks for your compliments on THE LAST WARRIOR — now that research was really fun, I must admit — learning the segments of what they did and ad libing a little. ; )

    I’d so love to read your book, ENDINGS — just let me get over the deadline I have facing me — book due May 1st and I have many pages yet to write. Deep sigh… We can talk about this privately, as well. I know you’re doing a lot of promotion for the book, which is always good.

    Thanks again, Barbara. : )

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