RISKY RESEARCH - GOING TO EXTREMES
By Gail Barrett
(This article appeared in the Romance Writers Report, March 2008)
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
My characters were traveling high in the Andes Mountains, so why not team up with a group of medical missionaries and experience their journey first-hand? I could visit remote villages, go way beyond the tourist path, gather details that would really make my story come alive.
So off I went to a brutally cold, dusty region of Peru perched at 13,000 ft. above sea level. I drank coca tea, learned Quechua phrases from villagers, sampled freeze dried potatoes the locals had mashed with their feet -- all great information for my book.
But I also came down with a terrible case of altitude sickness that nearly did me in. And as I huddled in my freezing hotel room (no heat, no hot water, no toilet seat, soap or towel), gasping for air as my oxygen-deprived brain swelled painfully against my skull, it occurred to me that maybe in my quest for authentic details, I’d gone too far.
And I had to wonder. Was I the only writer willing to risk her health for the sake of research? Do other writers go to such extremes?
So I asked. And it turns out that romance writers are not only committed to doing accurate research, but they are an amazingly intrepid bunch. They’ll try anything -- from the bizarre and funny to life-threatening and dangerous -- to find the perfect details for their books.
Why bother going to extremes to do research? Why not just use the internet or library when you need to look up facts? American Title and Golden Heart finalist KJ Howe explains. “The more you experience what your character goes through, the better off you are. Senses come into play and you can use all of them in your writing to paint a vivid picture for your reader.”
So when she was writing her novel Red Diamond, and had a scene where her ex-Air Force heroine flew through a storm, Howe imitated her actions. She convinced a pilot to take her up in a small plane during a blustery gale. Not only did the pilot let her take the controls, but he demonstrated what would happen if he let go of the steering arm in high winds. Howe says they landed “with lightening closing all around, and the rain pounding on the fuselage like bullets,” only to find that all planes had been grounded while they were in the air. But she found the experience “exhilarating,” an intensity she hopes to convey in her book.
USA Today Best-selling author Rebecca York (Ghost Moon, Berkley Sensation) agrees with Howe’s approach. “I often do things that scare me because that helps me write about my characters’ reactions to fear,” York says. Claiming she’ll do “anything for research,” she has gone down in a submarine off the coast of Grand Cayman (an experience she uses as her model for claustrophobia), ridden an elephant in Thailand, and swum with whales. She even tramped through the jungles of Guatemala, where she came face to face with a coral snake, the most poisonous snake in the world.
To lend authenticity to her medical-flavored stories, Larissa Ione (Pleasure Unbound, Grand Central Publishing) didn’t just learn about emergency medical technicians, she became one. “I tend to delve deep into research,” Ione says. “People are so often defined by their jobs, and they think like their jobs. I like to infuse that kind of thinking into my characters’ stories.” With that in mind, she went to EMT school, got her certification, and even worked on an ambulance as a certified EMT -- just to portray her characters right.
Harlequin Next author Kate Austin didn’t embark on a new career, but she did put her body on the line when writing about a character who got a tattoo. Austin began her research by asking the Hell’s Angels she saw on the street who did the best tattoos. “They all recommended The Dutchman,” she says. “So I went to his studio, checked it out, and then realized that there was no way I could write about getting a tattoo without getting one. So I did. And I still love it. And writing about that experience? I did it the same day I got the tat and it was a great scene.”
Melissa James (A Mother in a Million, Harlequin Romance) took the ultimate risk when she was writing about a heroine who was smothered with a pillow. The scene “seemed flat,” she says. So before she could change her mind, she got a pillow and shoved it over her face, pushing down as long and hard as she could. “I felt dizzy, disoriented,” James recalls. “My throat ached. I started panting, felt sick, and I literally did see bright spots in front of my eyes.” After she removed the pillow, she grew even dizzier. She couldn’t stand, and her voice croaked for over twenty minutes. But as soon as she could function again, she wrote a much more vivid scene -- so detailed, ironically, that an editor asked her to tone it down, claiming it was “too graphic and not quite believable.”
CONSULTING WITH EXPERTS
Not all research is life-threatening, of course. And a writer doesn’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of experts willing to share their expertise with an author.
Award-winning author Ann Voss Peterson (Wyoming Manhunt, Harlequin Intrigue Thriller), who believes research is “one of the best parts of writing,” has gotten a wealth of information by attending citizens’ academies. At a fire academy, she cut apart cars, performed ice rescue drills, rappelled down the fire tower, and went through live fire training in temperatures over 700 degrees. At a police academy, she learned to analyze a crime scene, handle firearms, and was handcuffed and held at gunpoint, all “great experiences” she has used in her books.
Still other writers tag along with experts to watch them in action -- although that approach isn’t for the faint of heart. Mills & Boon author Maggie Kingsley learned that when she accompanied a mountain rescue team in northern Scotland on a training exercise. “The four dogs and twelve beefy, burly men scampered up the mountain like goats, while I dragged behind wheezing and gasping,” she says. Her worst moment came when she needed to use the toilet, though. Not only was there no toilet, but there were no trees or bushes, it was blowing a gale and pouring down rain. The men clustered around her in a ring to give some protection, all steadfastly looking outwards. “I have never been able to look these guys in the face again,” Kingsley says. She suffered another embarrassing experience when she went up on a training exercise with an Air Ambulance and threw up all over the instructor.
Waldenbooks Best-seller Lilian Darcy (The Millionaire’s Makeover, Silhouette Special Edition) had a similar experience when she spent a night as the only woman aboard a commercial fishing boat manned by “six questionable guys. The skipper was a scary character who kept himself awake by taking crank, a mix of cocaine and speed,” she says. Once at sea, they locked the steering and went around in slow, tight chugging circles over the choppy waves all night -- not easy on her stomach. In hindsight, Darcy admits the situation could have been dangerous. “I shudder to think what could have happened to me if they’d been serious scumbags.”
Although it sounds glamorous and can certainly provide plenty of colorful and exotic details, traveling to a foreign location has dangers of its own -- as I learned on my trip to Peru. Sharron McClellan (Breathless, Silhouette Romantic Suspense) had an even scarier experience in Oaxaca, Mexico. She strolled outside one day in pursuit of coffee and found herself trapped in a political riot surrounded by thousands of people in mobs. “There were men carrying machetes and axes tied to sticks and clubs, burning cars, buses blocking the major roads out of town,” she says. The experience left her “shaking,” but it did spawn a story idea. “It made me wonder what it was like to be a journalist in this type of situation. What if they weren’t friendly to Americans? How would you get away if there was no way out?” Those questions led to her August Silhouette Romantic Suspense release, Mercenary.
GETTING IN TROUBLE
Another potential danger of doing research is attracting the unwanted attention of law enforcement personnel. When she wanted to make sure she had the logistics right for a scene set at Charles de Gaulle Airport, RIO Award-winning author Jina Bacarr (Spies, Lies & Naked Thighs, Harlequin Spice) pulled out her digital camera and started videotaping as much as she could of the terminal -- “the snack area, signs, roof, seating, departure/arrival screens, even soldiers in camouflage with their AK-47’s pointing everywhere as they ran down the concourse during a security scare.” She soon found herself trying to explain to a French security officer that she was an erotica writer doing research. “It wasn’t fun,” she says in retrospect. Only after getting patted down, wanded, and submitting to a thorough search by a female security officer, was she given her passport back and allowed to board her plane to go home.
Kensington author Irene Peterson (Kisses to Go) had a similar experience when she tried to find out how much damage a stick of dynamite could do to a cinderblock wall. She first asked the local police, then visited a small Marine contingent in town. After a lively discussion with the Marines, who were happy to provide the answer (it would blow a hole in the cinderblock about the size of a doorway), she returned home. “There was a cop car waiting in front of the house,” she says. “I had to show them my typewriter and the sheets of paper already typed.”
A border guard threatened to arrest Barbara Phinney (Keeping Her Safe, Love Inspired Suspense) when he caught her trying to find out how easy it would be to sneak over the border from the U.S. into Canada. He finally let her go, though. “I guess when my eyes lit up, he knew I’d relish the experience too much,” she says.
DRAGGING OTHERS ALONG
Canadian author Linda Ford, who writes inspirational fiction for Silhouette/Steeple Hill, wasn’t in any danger when she embarked on a research trip to the United States, but the wheelchair client she took with her was less than thrilled. He couldn’t produce his passport or birth certificate at the border, so the agents questioned them and searched their van. They only allowed them to proceed after a severe warning and entering the client’s name in their data base so that every crossing along the border had him on file -- an experience her hapless client said “certainly wasn’t much fun.”
Ford isn’t the only writer to involve unsuspecting friends and family members in her research escapades. Brava author Diane Whiteside once dragged her family on a “twelve hour drive, dodging wildfires in order to spend two hours in 110-degree heat climbing over pieces of cast iron and asking questions about period locomotives. I’m not really sure if my family has quite forgiven me yet,” she says. “But I had a wonderful time and The Northern Devil’s transcontinental train trip is the result.”
Harlequin Blaze author Dawn Atkins (No Stopping Now) found that her husband and friends were happy to venture into various strip clubs with her to gather information for her books. But then they bought her a lap dance, which she found “mortifying. I fought to keep from laughing,” she says. But the experience was still worthwhile. “I was very unsettled since strip clubs are so not my world, but it certainly gave me a feeling for the different personalities clubs can have.”
But even if family members are used to a writer’s escapades, they can still be taken aback. Realizing she had no idea how a hero really took off a woman’s bra, RWA Hall-of-Fame author Jennifer Greene dressed a straight chair with a bra, then tried to figure out how it unlatched, and whether her hero “could do it with one hand, or one finger, or if it was possible to rip it off, which it sure as heck isn’t.” Out of the blue her husband walked in to find her seducing the bra from the chair.
He wasn’t nearly as amused the time she bought a home pregnancy kit to make sure she could correctly describe it in her book. “My husband came into my office,” she says. “He saw the open pregnancy kit on the desk, and...well, he was all right. Eventually. And I learned how to treat shock.”
KNOWING WHEN TO STOP
But joking aside, there’s no doubt that some research can be dangerous. So what should a writer do? Is there a point when it’s best to step back and take a safer approach?
Multi-published author Kathleen Creighton believes so. Early in her career, she wrote a book about a Border Patrol agent set in Baja California. After interviewing a real agent (“and subsequently changing the whole story to better jive with reality”), she headed alone across the border to experience the setting first-hand. “I soon found myself in a no-man’s land of deserted concrete loops and desolate slums,” she says. Realizing she’d made “a horrible mistake,” she turned around and wisely finished her research in the library. “Let’s hear it for National Geographic!” she adds.
Kate Douglas (Wolf Tales, Kensington Aphrodisia), who writes “very explicit paranormal erotica involving polyamorous relationships between partners of the same sex and multiple partners,” relies on a number of online gay and lesbian groups to get her information. “The people have been more than generous and open about answering my questions,” she says, adding that the information has taken her “totally out of my own little zone, but I’ve found it to be absolutely fascinating.”
But whether it’s dangerous, adventurous, fun -- or somewhere in between -- most writers agree that nothing can match the benefits of doing first-hand research. “I research everything I write about,” USA Today Best-seller Cait London (A Stranger’s Touch, Avon) says. “A writer can’t write about life when all he does is sit behind a desk.”
To illustrate that point, she relates a powerful experience she had while standing in a wind blown cemetery on the Oregon Trail. “Far from everywhere, on a knoll overlooking miles of nothing, the sad little grave markers drew deep emotions from me. I absorbed and understood the absolute feeling of desperation, the struggle and bone-wrenching fatigue circling that cemetery.”
Maggie Toussaint, author of No Second Chance (The Wild Rose Press), agrees. To research her horse rescue book she spent time at horse farms, learning barn routines, smelling the sweet hay, and hearing the clop of hooves. “You can’t get that level of sensory input from a reference book,” she says.
2005 Golden Heart finalist TJ Bennett (The Promise, Medallion Press) echoes that sentiment. A chance encounter with a Gutenberg press at a museum brought unexpected details to her hero. “I realized after pulling the press arm to print the pages that my hero would have to be very muscular with great upper body strength, and would always have ink blotches around his fingernails. A bit of Kismet, that, and it helped make that scene so much more detailed than it could have been just from researching it on the net.”
So it turns out that I’m far from alone in my desire to search out authentic details. No matter how daring or risky the venture, romance writers plunge headlong into research. They climb through Roman sewers, hang out with snipers, eat pickled jelly fish -- even get married -- all to better write their books.
All right, maybe Julianne Lee (Knight’s Lady, Berkley Jove) didn’t actually get married for the sake of research, but she did meet her husband while gathering details for a book. When she interviewed him for information about the rock touring industry (he was a driver for Bruce Springsteen at the time), he was so impressed that she’d written a book that he invited her along on the tour. “Less than three months later we were married,” she says. Twenty six years later they’re still going strong -- proving that for a romance writer, even doing research (extreme or not) can lead to a happily-ever-after.
Award-winning author Gail Barrett writes for Silhouette Romantic Suspense. The first book of her Crusaders miniseries, Heart of a Thief, will be a May 2008 release. To Protect a Princess, the book that prompted her extreme research trip to Peru, comes out in November. You can find photos of her trip on her website: www.gailbarrett.com.