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Research That Has Nothing To Do With Google or Libraries or Trips to Historic Sites

By Victoria Bylin

I write historical romance, so I’m often asked about research. Do I like it? Do I prefer the internet or real libraries? Do I research and then write, or research on the fly? What mistakes should a new author avoid? All those questions are important, but today I want to look at a different kind of research.

You know the phrase, “Write what you know?”

We know what we live.

When I look at my books, there are several common themes. My characters often deal with grief. I did that research in 1996 when I lost my dad to heart disease. In my first book, when the heroine’s father has chest pains, the physical details and the emotions came from memories of my dad. It’s not always easy to write about things that stir up grief or loss, but real life experience is what makes fiction authentic.

Several years ago I worked for an ophthalmologist. To this day, my characters are prone to eye problems. In my latest novella, “Josie’s Wedding Dress” in Brides of the West, Josie’s mom is nearly blind from cataracts. The description of what she sees comes from how patients described their vision before surgery. Characters in my books have endured everything from vitreous detachments to conjunctivitis to just plain old poor vision.

The most physically uncomfortable research I’ve ever done involves Lyme Disease. I contracted it in 2009 while living in northern Virginia. I was extremely fortunate to be treated early, but I’ll never forget how sick I was. I used that experience in Marrying the Major when I gave the hero malaria. Lyme and malaria aren’t the same, but there are similarities. Being sick with Lyme enabled me to crawl (a bad pun if you know Lyme is caused by tick bites!) into Tristan’s skin.

There’s another theme that’s prevalent in my books, and I’m not quite sure how to pull this blog around to it. I became a Christian at the age of 22 shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley. I’ll never forget that moment–the freedom, the grace, the sudden awareness that yes, there is a God and He loves us. Everything in my life changed over the next few months–I met my future husband, got married and began a journey that continues to this day in all its glory. That journey to grace is at the heart of every one of my books. I love writing about characters who seek and find, and if they come from a dark place, so much the better. The Outlaw’s Return is one of my personal favorites, largely because the hero is so profoundly changed by his new faith.

Maybe next time I’ll write about the other kind of research–the hands-on stuff like visiting an eighteenth century mill or seeing condors in flight. That’s just plain fun! Until next time… what about you? Have you used personal experiences in your books?


Victoria Bylin writes about cowboys, outlaws and preachers. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons.

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6 Responses to Research That Has Nothing To Do With Google or Libraries or Trips to Historic Sites

  1. Beth K. Vogt says:

    Appreciated the glimpse into your life, Victoria — and how you weave that into your novels. (Sorry to hear you contracted Lyme Disease.)
    Yes, I’ve incorporated real life into my novels too — in little ways (my heroine drinks Jasmine tea like I do) and big ways (my hero breaks his knee cap, just like my husband did several years ago.)

  2. Hi Beth! Little details like Jasmine tea are what make characters distinct. For some strange reason, my contemporary characters all like Mexican food. Fun research :)

  3. Kristen says:

    I once wrote a fight scene where the hero got knocked off his horse, hit his head on the ground, and lost consciousness. Then I had a skating accident where I hit my head and didn’t lose consciousness. The people who were with me assure me that I was awake the whole time, but there’s a 15-20 minute gap in my memory. I decided that was much more interesting, so I rewrote the fight scene.

  4. Hi Kristen, Amnesia–even brief–is always fascinating. Glad you’re okay!

  5. When I was younger and I told my mom I wanted to be a writer I remember her telling me: Write what you know. I know Minnesota and I know the Mississippi River. I grew up and still live in my hometown (after a detour to Iowa in college!) and my books are set in the heart of this beautiful country, along the Mississippi. I love nestling my stories into this setting because I know the nuances of the summer sky, the drastic weather patterns, the flora and fauna, the raging water and the sweet aromas. I want my readers to feel it and come to know and love Minnesota the way I do.

  6. I’ve incorporated location into most of my books. Some from parts of Michigan where I grew up, some from Kansas where now live, and some from places I’ve visited and loved like Kentucky.

    Personal preferences and experiences also play into each books, sometimes more than I realize.

    And of course, there is the faith element. I’ve recently made a personal commitment to include in each book one character who models the life I want to live in addition to those who model life the way it is most often.