Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Write What You Know or What You Want to Know

Thank you again, so much for all your thoughts and prayers.  I've missed you so much while I've been taking a little time away.  Since I've been doing research for my novel in progress I thought I'd take a little time and talk about how I go about it.  They say write what you know which I don't think means writing always from personal experiences, although given some of my life events I can write from an emotional and an intellectual standpoint on many topics. This is a given that all writers bring to their work.  I think it makes our writing so much more authentic, be it a song, story, or non-fiction when we can write from our own hearts and understanding.  When we can empathize and not just sympathize, though there is merit there, as well.  Many painful experiences have taken me to place I never wish I had the opportunity to go, but such is life. I have learned that God doesn't waste our sorrows when we trust in Him. 

Now, about those physical places that I'd like to travel to do research for my writing. I love hearing about the on location research that authors conduct:  M. L. Tyndall as she visits Tall Ships From Coast to Coast, Geraldine Brooks' investigating the dark history of Eyam, England's Year of Wonders, Lori Smith's Walk With Jane Austen, or Liz Curtis Higgs travels in Scottland. How I long to travel to the locations of my stories in reality. As my imagination soars I am there already, but it requires knowlege the ground the stories. Mainers have a little saying, "Cahn't get theyah from heah.", which is often true for me. But thanks to the Internet I can travel anywhere I want to go. One the same token, I can "meet" people who I would never have had the opportunity to know.  My one little caveat is that not everything on the internet is true, so if "facts" are learned you will need to verify them.

It is ironic to me that I'm now writing about a place so far from my realm of thought, America's southwest, when I've spent years with my mind in other locales.  It has been a fascinating adventure so far. I'm really enjoying learning about this area and have now decided that Colorado is the place I would want to live if I ever had to choose to leave Maine, aesthetically speaking. Here's a little sampling of how I've conducted some of my research on my southwest novel in regard to learning about the location. This has been crucial for me since I've had to discover if some of the towns that would potentially be in my novel even existed at the time (in the process I've also learned that some no longer exist.) I've included some direct links and also sample links to some of my actual research.

Google Maps (San Juan Mountains) is one of my first stops on the web.  It is here that I can get a visual of my location, learn the area, check distances, terrain, even see photographs and plan my characters routes of travel.

Official Travel Guides (Pagosa Springs) are a great resource which you can usually get for free from a tourism website of the region or the exact town. One of the towns of interest in my book is Pagosa Springs and today I received my free travel guide in the mail.  What a blast it was to look through all the color pages and the great map that had even more interesting locations noted.

Internet Archives Texts  (History of New Mexico, 1891) and Google Books  (History of Colorado, 1898) both offer free public domain publications on on town and state histories, as well as all kinds of historical files. Since these sites provide comprehensive information I do a search on my specific topic, though I have been tempted to learn much more than I've needed to learn.
Town Website ( ) and Regional Websites 

Town Websites (Creede, CO)  and Regional Websites (Scenic Byways) A search to the exact town or region isn't always the most direct route so sometimes I start with Wikipedia (Creede, CO)which provides basic information and resource links. When I research for historical fiction it's crucial to learn if these towns even existed, etc. in the time period of my story.

Historical Societies (Silverton Historical Society)  (Animas Museum) - state, county, and town - are another valuable resource.  You can often access information online and inquire of the society to conduct some additional research for you (however, there may be a small fee). Some of these societies have their own museums.

Special Topics (Colorado Mining History) can also reveal facts about locations to help authenticate your work.

Transportation History websites (Stagecoach Lines of the American West) are also very revealing. In my research of stagecoache routes and railroads I learned much valuable information about the area of travel then and now.

New York Times Archives (Hayden Survey) has articles from 1851 forward.  This is one of my favorite places to get little known facts about an area or persons. This site is fascinating and probably very underused.

Please tell me what are some of your secrets for doing location research online or off.


  1. I'd choose Colorado too if I could ever get used to living in a landlocked state. I love it!

    Glad your research is going well!

  2. Carla, Soooo glad you're back! Your research sounds like it's really taking off. I'm doing the same right now, too, and am itching to visit my spot. Have put it high on my prayer list and hope to get there by His grace. So my thoughts are in Virginia/Kentucky right now. No surprises there, right:)?

  3. Welcome back:) I try to write about areas I know as research and I, well, we don't really feel the love:)

  4. Carla, great to see you back! I'm deep in the most intensive time of research right now too. Though it will continue throughout the whole writing process, in the beginning the writing is slow, with research taking up a lot of my time. Love it though! The Mohawk Valley area of NY is my current setting. Would love to visit and hope to but no plans as of yet.

  5. I would to travel to Rhode Island, my WIP is set there, and I can almost envision it.

    Research is the painful part of writing for me, but I believe in authentic writing.

  6. My novel is set in the Midwest, near Chicago. Since I've lived in this area most of my life, it's familiar enough that only minimal research is required. I'd love to use Virginia as the setting for my next book. We visited there a few years ago, and I fell in love with that state.


  7. I'm currently in a conundrum of trying to figure out if I can afford a trip to Jamaica this spring---to do research for the third book in the Ransome series. It's either there or England, to do research on my potential next historical series. I've been saying my whole life that I want to travel abroad. I'm really hoping this is the year it happens. I'm tired of just having to do research online.

  8. I'm fortunate I live close to where my novel is set. I've visited many times.

    Susan :)

  9. So great to see you all! How fun to hear where you'd like your research to take you, one way or another!

    Laura, so I figured. I do hope you can get back soon. My heart is so often in Massachusetts (where I was raised), but isn't it funny how there are so many things in your own (or your old) backyard that you never got to see?

    Lori, the Mohawk Valley of NY,what a gorgeous area! I visited the Adirondaks once when I was a kid and was afraid I'd run into Bigfoot!

    Hey Tamika! I grew up right on the border of Rhode Island and traipsed about there on many occasion. It's a lovely state with many hidden treasures. If you have any questions about RI, feel free to run them by me.

    Carol,you aren't alone in writing about an area near home. I think that is something special that writers can offer their readers. I'm mindful of this in my current story and hope to at least imitate the personalness that comes from truly knowing an area first hand. I've been through Virginia and it is lovely and have also read some novels with that setting - sounds like a nice place for your next novel.

    Kaye!!! You must! Oh, how you deserve to take that trip to Jamaica. You must visit Julia's plantation. I do hope you'll get to take this trip soon.

  10. Great to see you Kristen and Terri!

  11. Hi Susan, that makes it nice an convenient. I find that I really begin to appreciate my own area all the more when I'm writing in my own backyard.

  12. It's good to visit with you again, Carla! First off I have to comment on this: "I have learned that God doesn't waste our sorrows when we trust in Him." Love that insight...it's definitely something for me to ponder on.

    I've been reading a good deal of historical fiction lately and a lot of it has been set in the West -- Colorado too. I wonder why? Is it the 'wildness' of the landscape or the fact that society is a little rougher than back east? Whatever the case, it certainly has me yearning to go there for a visit because the authors I have read have made it come to life.

    Research is so important to a book. I really appreciate the effort and time it takes to get things right and, as a reader, am turned off by a writer who doesn't take the time. It definitely shows.

    Thanks for sharing your research sites.


  13. Research is good, but you can't beat visiting. I've been to Colorado several times since the mid-1980s and thought it was the state I'd chose to live in if we ever leave Michigan again.

    Then in May 2008 we went to Wyoming... and I scratched Colorado off the list. :) Can't wait to go back again!

    If only we had unlimited resources, eh?


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