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Research Can Be Fun

by Lena Nelson Dooley

Does researching a subject sound boring to you? I used to feel that way, too. Now research is a mainstay of my writing, whether I’m writing a contemporary or a historical novel.

When I started writing Maggie’s Journey, book one of my McKenna’s Daughters series, I had a hard time picturing Seattle in 1885. That hindered my ability to proceed with the story. I picture the events happening and transfer them to paper. All I had was what I call Talking-Heads-Bare-Stage writing.

I searched for websites and books that could help me, and I wasn’t having much success. After I first started writing professionally, I spent a lot of time volunteering at the local library. So I knew a lot about how they work. Consequently, I contacted the Seattle Public Library and connected with the adult research coordinator.

After telling this person that I didn’t want the library personnel doing my research for me, I asked for suggestions about books and websites that could be trusted. And I told them what I needed.
When this person contacted me back, I received a treasure trove of information.

Books I could look for, the text of one historical book written in my time period and about my time period, and a link to thousands of historical photos the library had digitized in 2000. They were saved by decade, and each page had details at the bottom telling who took the picture, what streets were in the picture, the names of businesses, and many times the names of the people. I pored over the pictures and picked out the ones that helped me create in my mind the city of Seattle in 1885.

Later in Maggie’s Journey, when the characters are on the way to Little Rock, they had to stop and stay overnight in St. Louis, Missouri. I stumbled upon, quite by chance, a map of St. Louis in 1885. Exactly what I needed.

I’ve found similar help for other books. And sometimes, I chance upon something that really tickles my funny bone. We all need a laugh once in awhile.

When researching Mary’s Blessing, the second book in that series, I found a book of historical photos. A couple of them were humorous.

The bank in Oregon City installed a huge round vault in this time period. They had a big celebration. They thought the round vault would be harder for crooks to rob. I never did find out why.

One picture from Portland showed white shaggy goats harnessed much like the dogs are in Alaska to pull sleds. They were training them in Portland, which doesn’t have weather at all like Alaska, and planning to take them to use instead of dogs in Alaska. I also never found out if they were successful with that endeavor. But these two brightened my day.

So next time you need to do research, look at it as an adventure. You might find a real treasure for you to use.

Award-winning author, Lena Nelson Dooley, has more than 675,000 books in print. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and immediate past president and current treasurer of the local chapter, DFW Ready Writers. Lena loves James, her children, grandchildren, and great grandson. She loves chocolate, cherries, chocolate-covered cherries, and spending time with friends.

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5 Responses to Research Can Be Fun

  1. I love research! When the characters from my first novel (still unpublished) ended up in Plymouth Sound, England, I looked up info on the area. A memorial there for Smeaton Lighthouse, a lighthouse first built in the 1700s, became a significant symbol in my story of the importance of basing one’s faith on a solid foundation. This is just one example of how research has provided an unexpected detail that enriched my writing.

    Thanks for sharing your research expertise.

  2. Paula says:

    My parents have been particularly interested in our family history recently. A discovery of a shoot out involving my great grandfather and grandfather in 1903 has spurred more research as well as a novella.
    Don’t ignore your own ancestry – you might find some real story gems like I did.
    Thanks for the encouragement, Lena.

  3. Mary F. Allen says:

    I don’t like the idea of research, but in fact when I’m doing it, I have to work hard to stay on track because I find so many interesting things and I do love learning. I once started research on whether women could hold real estate in France and got lost in student riots and political unrest of the day. Thrilling stuff I’d never heard before.

  4. Lena,

    Up until about two months ago, I felt the same way about research. I avoided it by writing about things I already knew something about, so research wasn’t really research. It was expanding existing knowledge in areas that I already had an interest in.

    Then I was given a ‘reading assignment’ and devoured those three books and everything else I could find on the subject and related subjects. I was captivated by what I was reading and learning. It was a brand new experience.

    I am looking forward to writing this story, which is set sometime in the future.

  5. Thank you for sharing, Lena. I love the research that goes along with writing a novel!