Historical authors tend to be research geeks—if you’re a regular reader at Word Wenches, you’ve probably noticed that. <g> We collect research libraries, and when another writer talks about a great research book, we lust after it. A main reason I bought my present house was because I ran out of space to put books in the old house (and now I’m running out of space again, but that’s a tale for another day.
But wonderful as books are, they are no substitute for actual experience. Susan King has flown falcons, I’ve worn an eye patch when I wrote a hero who’d lost an eye, Pat Rice and her husband drove the remnants of Route 66 when she was researching a contemporary road romance—the list goes on.
And then there is the other form of harvesting direct experience: Talking to people who have lived what we need to know. Besides wearing an eye patch, I talked to an NAL copywriter who had lost an eye in an accident. She described her experience and put me in touch with the Texan who made her glass eyes (“the finest gentleman on earth.”) He was terrific—he got into the business after losing an eye in Vietnam, and he took exquisite care to match the subtle patterns of the glass eye to the healthy eye. He also told me how losing an eye made him a better shot, a talent my hero got to use when he needed it the most. (This was in Veils of Silk.)
I started thinking of these kinds of research connections when Anne Gracie talked in her blog last week about the joy of walking a real labyrinth, a subject she’d learned about by reading my book, The Spiral Path. I was delighted that the book had introduced her to something so new and interesting.
But I had to learn about labyrinths in the first place, and it was my writer friend Ciji Ware (www.cijiware.com ) who introduced me. We were visiting Ciji and her husband in San Francisco when she told me about labyrinths and how they were a wonderful tool for introspection and meditation.
So after dinner on Nob Hill, we walked a few blocks up the street to the magnificent Grace Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral with a breath taking view over San Francisco. It was a female cleric at the church who began the modern American interest in labyrinths. Grace Cathedral had an inside labyrinth, and also an outside one in their garden that could be walked by anyone at any hour of the day or night. So we walked the labyrinth (the meditative experience was somewhat inhibited by several noisy young walkers), and I knew this was something that had to be part of my next book.
There are many, many cases where information from friends has enriched my stories. When I wrote Silk and Secrets, which is set in Central Asia, I was referred to an American woman whose husband is an Afghan whose family had left the country during the Soviet invasion. The two of them were great, and I sat on piles of oriental carpets and sipped tea while asking questions about life in Central Asia. As a young man, Qadir had played bozkashi, a sort of horseback riot where men fight over possession of a headless goat. I’d read about the game and seen pictures, but some of the most vivid details came when he talked abut his experiences playing the game.
It’s a writerly gift to absorb the experience of other and turn it into words. (This is why it’s dangerous to mess with writers!) Qadir and his wife very generously read the manuscript to see if I got things right. She told me her husband had asked, “How does she know these things?” as he read about the bozkashi match.
“Because you told her,” his wife replied. And she was right.
One of my most useful examples of getting information was when I was writing The China Bride. While planning and writing the book, every time I got a reader e-mail from a woman with a Chinese surname, I would said, “Thank you, and would you mind reading this manuscript to check it when I’m done?”
They all very generously said yes—and not only did they read the manuscripts, every one of them copyedited my typos. <G> One woman even wrote Chinese ideograms for different words down the edge of the page where the heroine was showing the English hero Chinese writing. Lovely!
Another of this group of fact-checkers lived in Malaysia, and was able to help with information about information about the East Indies when I wrote the last book in the series, The Bartered Bride.
Do you sense a theme here? It can be dangerous to contact a writer. <G> When an Indian American writer I knew slightly from the New Jersey Romance Writers asked me if I could read and perhaps quote on her upcoming book, I not only accepted with alacrity (she’s a fine writer and has a new book out in a few days, www.shobwanbantwal.com), but asked her if she would read the ms. of Loving a Lost Lord, which features a half-Hindu hero. She did, and I used her comments about the scents of a Hindu temple, among other things.
Writers are fortunate that so many people are happy to share their expertise with us. I consulted several lawyers and a retired federal judge when writing my wrongful conviction contemporary, Twist of Fate. One, a public defender, wrote a mesmerizing e-mail monologue about the need to defend the accused and keep authority honest. With his permission, I incorporated a fair amount of it into my story.
Honorary Word Wench Laurie Kingery, an ER nurse of vast experience, features regularly in the acknowledgements of my books as I bang up my characters in various gruesome ways. Australian writer Fiona McArthur, a midwife, helped me with a critical scene in the second Lost Lords book.
Have I mention how much fun it to talk to such people? Not only do I get information, but a different worldview, which enriches my life as well as my books.
Of course, it isn’t only writers who benefit from this kind of interaction. Who have you met that had knowledge that enlarged and enriched your life, even if it was only a fascinating conversation with a seatmate on an airplane? How often have you learned of something from a friend or acquaintance and thought, “I have to know more about this!"