Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Five Ways to Research by Melanie Dobson

My favorite part of “writing” isn’t the actual writing. It’s the research. I love exploring old houses and museums, tracking down experts, and reading diaries as I gather enough information to begin shaping a story. Below are five specific ways that I research in order to develop plotlines and add authenticity in both historical and contemporary novels.

Visit the Location
To research my first historical novel, I spent days exploring hidden places in Indiana homes that had once been stations along the Underground Railroad. In one house, I climbed the secret staircase hidden in a closet and crept over the exposed nails and boards to the room where the Quaker homeowners once hid runaways. I drove through the surrounding forest that night, and when I stepped out into the darkness, the owls hooted and the cloud cover masked the stars. My heart raced as I wondered what a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs.

If you can’t visit the place or places where your book is set, the terrain and photo features on mapping websites help tremendously with geographical details. If possible, though, I recommend experiencing the sounds, tastes, and scents in your setting as well.

Interview Experts and Locals
Because I write both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed experts about everything from how to sell stolen goods online to the technicalities of delivering mail in the late 1800s. I’ve spent hours interviewing about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and the details of rescuing a dilapidated house. The most important interview I ever did was with an Amana woman named Emilie. I asked her a simple question—what were Amana women passionate about in the 19th century? The answer to that question—friendship—shaped my entire novel.

Explore Museums and Landmarks
Living farms, museums, and historical villages like Williamsburg or Old Salem offer a unique and educational window to the past. For my historical novels, I learned how to run a printing press in a tourist village, cook on the open hearth at an old home in Indiana, and drive an Amish buggy at a museum in Walnut Creek. While landmarks and museums are open to the public, many will give private tours to writers. Friendly tour guides are often a seemingly endless source of information.

Invade the Library
One of my novels was inspired by a beautiful mansion in Ohio that had been built before the Civil War. As I tried to find information about this house, the town’s librarian uncovered a research paper written sixty years ago that included pictures of the mansion, historical detail, and folklore about a secret tunnel that ran—and maybe still runs—underneath. This one paper gave me the information I needed for the details of my fictional house and helped form my plot.

Newspapers, magazines, diaries, archived research papers, and of course, books provide basics like how people dressed and what they ate during a specific era as well as more abstract concepts like how they approached life and what world events shaped their thinking.

Surf the Web
How did writers write before the Internet? I ask myself this question almost every day as I search for specific words or facts online. The most effective way I’ve been able to use the Internet is to establish contacts where I can get additional information about a difficult research topic. In one novel, for example, I needed specifics on how a telephone would work in 1890, but I couldn’t seem to find this info anywhere. Then I found someone online who sold phones from this era, and we dialogued via email until I had my answers.

Once I have completed my research, I organize it and input it into Scrivener. Then it’s time for me to stop researching and begin using the research instead to write my next novel.


About Melanie
Melanie Dobson has written eleven contemporary and historical novels including five releases in Summerside’s Love Finds You series. In 2011, two of her releases won Carol Awards: Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa (for historical romance) and The Silent Order (for romantic suspense). Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana won Best Book of Indiana (fiction) in 2010.

She enjoys the research process that comes along with being an author of historical fiction so much that she often has a difficult time stopping the research on the history and locale in order to start the writing. Because Melanie visits each location she writes about, she’s been able to spend time in the beautiful and fascinating towns across the country that bring her stories to life.

Prior to her writing career, Melanie was the corporate publicity manager at Focus on the Family and a publicist for The Family Channel. She met her husband, Jon, in Colorado Springs, but since they've been married, the Dobsons have relocated numerous times including stints in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado, Berlin, and Southern California. Along with their two daughters, Karly and Kiki, they now enjoy their home in the Pacific Northwest. The entire Dobson family loves to travel and hike in both the mountains and along the cliffs above the Pacific.

For more about Melanie Dobson and her books, visit www.melaniedobson.com.

About Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan
As the Gilded Age comes to a close, Elena Bissette’s once-wealthy family has nearly lost its fortune. The Bissettes still own a home on fashionable Mackinac Island, where they will spend one last summer in the hope of introducing Elena to a wealthy suitor. But Elena is repulsed by the idea of marrying for money. Quickly tiring of the extravagant balls, she spends most evenings escaping back into Mackinac’s rugged forest. There she meets Chase, a handsome laborer who shares her love for the night sky. The two begin to meet in secret at an abandoned lighthouse, where they work together to solve a mystery buried in the pages of a tattered diary.

As Elena falls in love with Chase, her mother relentlessly contrives to introduce her to Chester Darrington, the island’s most eligible bachelor. Marriage to the elusive millionaire would solve the Bissettes’ financial woes, and Elena is torn between duty and love.

For details about a Kindle Fire giveaway for the Mackinac Island release: http://promoshq.wildfireapp.com/website/6/contests/259699

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