Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Write What You Don’t Know (Part One) by Melanie Dobson

When I first started writing fiction, I was often told to “write what I know,” but I quickly realized that I don’t know that much, at least not enough to sustain a career as a novelist. After the release of my first novel, I wanted to learn much more, so I developed a research process that works for me, using five resources to build my contemporary and historical story worlds.

Surf the Web

The ideas for my novels—twenty of them now—come from many different sources, but I always partner with Google in the beginning to explore dozens of possibilities. When I wrote Chateau of Secrets, for example, I wondered if there were any Jewish men in Hitler’s army. I discovered online that there may have been 100,000 Jewish men who served in the Wehrmacht, and this startling fact became central to my plot.

In the past twenty years, I’ve read countless interviews, watched dozens of how-to videos, tested my main characters on sites like, and connected with experts on a variety of topics. I’ve explored potential settings around the world through Google Earth VR and used social media to research the contemporary portions of my time-slip stories.

For my latest novel, Hidden Among the Stars, I searched online until I found the history of the Austrian lake castle that inspired my story and then contacted a violin maker in Salzburg who helped me create a character passionate about her violin.

The Internet is fantastic for connecting people and to verify a number of facts (on reputable sites, of course), but online research is just the beginning. To dig deeper, I have to go offline.

Explore Museums and Living History

When I’m writing historical fiction, I’ve discovered that museums along with living history farms, exhibits, and towns like Williamsburg or Roscoe Village are gold mines. Each place offers an educational window to the past, and at these towns and exhibits, I’ve learned how to run a printing press, escape through a mine, load a rifle, break into an ancient coffin, pan for gold, and drive an Amish buggy. Things that would have been difficult to learn through written references or a video.

The tour guides at living history landmarks and museums seem to have accumulated more information than a textbook. The hands-on experience and the opportunity to email guides later with more questions is invaluable.

Invade the Library
Top secret—that’s what was stamped across the folder in England’s National Archives. To research Catching the Wind, I spent a day scouring recently released spy files outside London to learn about British citizens who had spied for Nazi Germany. The information I found in these files shaped my entire book.

Clothing catalogs, research papers, personal letters, magazines, and diaries—reference materials like these can be found in archives or a library. For historical research, these references provide basic information about attire and food during a specific era as well as more abstract concepts like how people approached life and what world events shaped their thinking.

For each new novel, I work closely with my local reference librarian to find the exact resources I need, and she helps me find answers to any lingering questions—like how British spies developed and hid microphotographs during the war.

Thank you for joining me today!

Please stop by again next Wednesday (September 19th) for the last—and most important—resources that I use to research and write about what I don’t know.


From the award-winning author of Catching the Wind, which Publishers Weekly called “unforgettable” and a “must-read,” comes another gripping time-slip novel about hidden
treasure, a castle, and ordinary people who resisted evil in their own extraordinary way.

The year is 1938, and as Hitler’s troops sweep into Vienna, Austrian Max Dornbach promises
to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions from the Nazis, smuggling them to his family’s summer estate near the picturesque village of Hallstatt. He enlists the help of Annika Knopf, his childhood friend and the caretaker’s daughter, who is eager to help the man she’s loved her entire life. But when Max also brings Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman, to hide at the castle, it complicates Annika’s feelings and puts their entire plan―even their very lives―in jeopardy. Especially when the Nazis come to scour the estate and find both Luzia and the treasure gone.

Eighty years later, Callie Randall is mostly content with her quiet life, running a bookstore with her sister and reaching out into the world through her blog. Then she finds a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that connects her to Annika’s story …and maybe to the long-buried story of a dear friend. As she digs into the past, Callie must risk venturing outside the safe world she’s built for a chance at answers, adventure, and maybe even new love.

Writing fiction is Melanie Dobson’s excuse to explore abandoned houses, travel to unique places, and spend hours reading old books and journals. The award-winning author of almost twenty books, Melanie enjoys stitching together both time-slip and historical novels including Hidden Among the Stars, Chateau of Secrets, and Catching the Wind. More information about Melanie’s journey is available at