Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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

Last week I shared three of the resources I use to “write what I don’t know”—surf the web, explore museums, and invade the library. Following are the final two—and most important—research tools that I rely on to add authenticity, description, and emotion to each of my historical and time-slip stories.

Interview Experts and Locals

Many people love to talk about their childhoods or hobbies or area of expertise, and if I tell them I write fiction, they’ll often give me much more information than I need for the book. Or at least, more than I think I’ll need…

Several months ago, I had the privilege of meeting with a Dutch Jewish gentleman who had been hidden away as a child during World War II. I befriended his sister online after reading a local news article, and she and her brother graciously opened up their world to me over coffee, sharing many personal stories about their own journey and their mother’s struggles and determination living in a concentration camp. Encounters like this one provide me with an enormous amount of information to build my story.

Because I write both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed detectives, artists, Quaker friends, World War II heroes, and families of men and women who were part of the French resistance. I’ve spent hours listening to personal accounts about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and living in an England manor in the 1950s. Each person, each memory, redirects my plot and adds another layer of authenticity to a fictional story.

Visit the Location

When I researched Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana, I spent several days climbing secret staircases and exploring other hidden places in homes that had once been stations along the Underground Railroad. I drove through the surrounding forest at night, and when I stepped out into the darkness, the owls hooted and the cloud cover masked the stars. My heart raced, and I felt terribly alone—a glimpse of what a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs.

When writers evoke the senses on paper, describing what the characters smell, hear, or taste, we invite readers to step directly into our story world. It can be challenging for me to describe the sensory information from a distant location, so I always visit my main settings, meeting the people and learning their stories even as I explore old towns and castles and gardens, scribbling down all the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes along the way.

With each of my novels, I spend about a month slowly compiling the pieces needed to engage readers, typing all the information into folders on Scrivener. Because research has become my favorite part of writing, I have to deliberately set aside my mounds of background work after a month to begin putting my own words on paper. With the details now rooted in my mind, I’ll become completely lost in a story, and for the next three or four months, I’m writing about all that I’ve learned.


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