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Research For Writing Novels, by April Henry

It bothers me when I read something in a book that I know is wrong. Wrong and able to be Googled by readers. I started writing before the internet, or at least before a widely available internet, when it was not quite so easy to check things out. Fifteen years ago, I felt more comfortable just guessing or making stuff up. No longer.

So in the last few days I have spent time finding out:

• Do red-tailed hawks eat road kill? (If fresh, yes).

• Does Oregon pay for braces for kids in foster care? (No.)

• What time are trial advocacy classes at the University of Washington? (Late afternoon.)

• What testimony did the original grand jury hear in the Phoebe Prince case? (Actually, I couldn’t find that, which makes sense. Grand jury testimony is sealed. Still I would like to know more.)

One of the absolute best parts about my job as a mystery and thriller writer is doing research. In the last year, I’ve:

• Pulled out everything from underneath my kitchen sink, crawled into the space and taken a picture to prove to one of my editors that yes, a body would fit under there.

• Asked my kajukenbo instructor to drag me across the room, his hands underneath my arms, so that together we could figure out how a character could fight and get away. (You can see what happens in The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.)

• Talked to a bioweapons expert about how my bad guys might infect hundreds of people with hantavirus. (Again, for The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.)

• Faced down armed muggers, home invaders, crazy people and robbers – all while armed with a modified Glock that uses lasers instead of real bullets. I did this at a firearms training simulator facility (the only one like it in the world that is open to civilians) which, lucky me, is just 20 minutes from my home. You interact with life-sized scenarios filmed in HD. The scenarios change depending on what you say (for example, “Hands in the air!”) and where your shots hit (a shot that disables versus one that injures). Meanwhile, the bad guys are shooting back. If you choose – and I do – you can wear a belt that gives you a shock if you’re shot. The facility even offers a simulation that is nearly 360 degrees, so you feel like you are standing in the middle of, say, the convenience store or the parking lot. This teaches you to look behind you for that second or third bad guy.

I’ve attended the Writers Police Academy, which is held once a year in North Carolina at a real police academy. I also graduated from the FBI’s Citizen Academy, which is taught by real FBI agents and included a stint at a real gun range where I shot a submachine gun. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and my local chapter has experts speak every month (the blood spatter expert was particularly interesting). I’m also an online member of Crime Scene Writers, which has lots of retired or even active law enforcement personnel who answer questions.


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The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGirl, StolenThe Night She DisappearedShock Point     Boys without NamesHappyfaceDeadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)

Writing Teen Novels

On Research For Writing Teen Science Fiction, by Sam Hawksmoor

The best thing about writing is often the research and it can be heartbreaking how little of it makes its way into the book you are writing.  Of course, you can get side-tracked by research. There’s always so much more you could read about a subject but there’s that voice at the back of the class saying ‘BORING!’ So you have to remember that the action must move on. Teens are impatient for the next hill to climb, the next piece of action with a short pause for a kiss before that bullet ricochets off the bed and they jump out of the window…

I’ve been doing research for a virus novel I’ve been writing on and off for a while: how the virus spreads, how quickly it can kill, who is the most vulnerable and how you can prevent getting it.  There’s a lot of stuff I could get in but it remains on the cutting room floor.  Of course, I left all the icky bits in.  That’s important.  There’s nothing like a virus that boils your lungs to gross someone out.

I researched teleportation for The Repossession.  I felt I really had to have Marshall (the ex-scientist) explain stuff. I just didn’t want my characters to accept it as fact and move on.  Too often you see this in teen fiction or movies. Here was an opportunity to work with one of the characters who had been developing trans-matter and been burned badly by it. I had these kids who were going to be volunteers, whether they liked it or not, and I wanted to play with the consequences and morals of science as much as the technology.

You don’t have to knock a reader over the head with facts but a small pause to reflect on how things work will appeal to some readers and show them a little respect.  Others will skip over this to the next bit.  (In the same way I skipped over all those awful poems and songs in The Hobbit.)

I’ve been working on a time travel novel too. The great thing is what you learn in the research process.  Perhaps you can’t use it in the novel you are writing but it can spark more ideas for later.  No research is ever wasted, no matter how trivial and there is nothing worse than getting it wrong.

Although many readers might not know (or care) about particular details, your duty as a writer is to get them right.


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The RepossessionThe Hunting     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2SparkRooftopShock Point

Writing Teen Novels

Research For My Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing historical fiction for teens begins with imagining a story that brings history to life, and research is key to creating compelling characters in an engrossing setting. Research: the very word has a musty sound to it. Once upon a time I spent hours wandering through the library stacks, searching through book after book in hopes of finding precious nuggets of information and glittering gems of detail that would lure teen readers into the story and keep them there. Now it’s all just a few keystrokes away.

My first stop is usually Wikipedia for a broad overview of characters and setting; then I follow the links and wander down unfamiliar paths, making note of the books referenced at the end of the most useful articles. I check the online catalog of my public and university library to locate library copies of promising resources, then order those I want to own. Researching Cleopatra Confesses, I acquired a half-dozen biographies and reference books. Nine online sites are listed in the bibliography, but in fact, I browsed through many more sites, chasing down details about food, markets, architecture, furniture, boats, music, dance, dress. For The True Adventures of Charley Darwin I read Darwin’s autobiography and made extensive use of an online collection of his many letters to and from family and friends, especially during his Beagle voyages.

Whenever I can, I travel. I’ve visited Marie-Antoinette’s rustic farm and opulent Versailles, cruised down Cleopatra’s Nile, listened to a concert in the Viennese church where Wolfgang performed before I started In Mozart’s Shadow. I’ve poked around Darwin’s childhood home in Shrewsbury, England, toured the school he despised as a boarding student, visited the home of the girl he loved. I wish I had visited the Galapagos Islands, but that was more than I could manage. Of course, it’s possible to make historical fiction real and exciting for teens without leaving home. A virtual online tour of Versailles can be very helpful and helped to job my memory, but for me nothing takes the place of an actual visit.

Research is so much easier than writing, and it’s tempting just to keep on doing it, postponing the time when you simply have to start telling the story.

A much more dangerous temptation is to use all those marvelous bits of information you’ve gathered, stuffing the novel with the details you’ve grown to love. When you’ve gone to so much trouble to find out what the queen was wearing or what the king was eating and what kind of dance step they were executing, it is painful indeed to cut, cut, cut.

Painful, but necessary. Good research makes your story authentic. The right details help to draw teen readers into the story, take them out of the here-and-now and transport them to another time and place. But loading the story with too many details is like throwing too many herbs and spices into a stew. Over-season your fictional stew, and young readers will yawn – and then they’re gone.


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Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryMarie, Dancing     My Brother's ShadowSektion 20Across the Universe

Writing Teen Novels


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