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Research That Rocks


What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:

  • To Catch a KillerYouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence AgencyAccording to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource. “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!”

Benino and the Night of Broken GlassIt was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

Temple Mount by Keith Raffel A Fine and Dangerous SeasonFor his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction.

The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

Paper HeartsHer only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook. “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began

detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book. “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!

Library shelves

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Creating Unlikable Protagonists Readers Can Love

Please Like Me

Please Like MeC’mon, admit it. Don’t we all wonder sometimes about how well we’re liked and if people really listen to what we say? In real life, we may never know the answer. But in fiction, when it comes to creating characters, popularity is measurable and important. Writers must make readers care about their protagonist right from the opening scene.  If we fail to do that, we risk losing readers before we’ve had a chance to win them over. The trouble is, a protagonist is more likely to be “unlikable” at the beginning of a novel when she’s only just figuring things out. Character transformation is a gradual process; it takes time to mature and change. That means she needs to make mistakes before achieving success. Be a coward before becoming courageous or cruel before learning to be kind.

Unlikeable is, of course, a subjective term and also a matter of degree. But what does the word really mean? A trait that turns off one person may be something another admires. Don’t we all have friends who don’t like some of our other friends? Admirable attributes can tip toward the negative when taken to extremes: conscientious may turn into obsessive, confident into arrogant or worse. We also dislike people who embody qualities we hate or fear in ourselves. So, characters who reflect the weaknesses we’re ashamed of can be particularly off-putting to readers. Finally, many of us feel contempt for other humans simply because they’re different from ourselves. Look at all the people on our planet who are at war with each other just because their skin color, religion, diet, etc., is different. We tend to abhor what we don’t understand. And yet, this leaves writers with a unique opportunity to use unlikable characters to open readers’ hearts and minds. Many authors have done a brilliant job of showing us how to love unlovable people. A few of my favorites are featured below:

In middle grade novels, check out Gilly in Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins; Jackie in Lindsey Stoddard’s Just Like Jackie; and Julian in Palacio’s Wonder.  Julian’s chapter wasn’t written until after the first novel in the series was published. Up until that point, Julian was just another loathsome bully who didn’t seem to have any redeeming traits. When Palacio got into his character’s head, however, I was stunned and moved by what she taught me.


In YA, there’s Andi Alpers in Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, who’s popping pills and acting out because she’s weighed down by a guilty secret; Summer Barnes, alcoholic and suicidal, in Ann Jacobus’ Romancing the Dark in the City of Light;  Devon Davenport, accused of her baby’s attempted murder, in Amy Efaw’s After; and Keir Sarafian, charged with date rape, in Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable. And yet these characters, despite self-destructive tendencies and reprehensible deeds, all inspire empathy.

But first, a caveat. Although stereotypical gender roles are changing, I feel it’s still harder to write unlikable females in literature than it is to write unlikable males. Another writer and I were talking about this as we brainstormed how to portray her novel’s strong-willed, do-gooder female protagonist. I felt the character came across as too off-putting and combative, but the author wasn’t so sure. “Difficult female characters often get a [more] virulent response than those who are male,” my friend pointed out. “Women who live outside the boundaries and act impulsively scare us more than men do, because everyone expects men to be flawed like this, while we still hold out that women [should be] dependable and not erratic, kind and not cranky.”

If we want to create real, complex, multi-dimensional characters who get under our skin and evoke strong emotions, we can’t minimize a protagonist’s unattractiveness or whitewash her inner demons. Fortunately, there are ways to portray characters truthfully AND help readers see the good in the bad. Writers just need to keep these three basic strategies in mind:

First, soften a protagonist’s harsh words and bad behavior by flipping from exterior actions and events to interior thoughts and memories. Allow your character to say and do anything horrid thing she wants, but immediately afterwards jump inside her head and show us her vulnerability by contrasting her angry words and actions with the hurt, fearful, insecure person she is inside. Tell us what she really thinks. This helps us see why the character behaved this way and, most importantly, who she really is.

Second, use backstory and personal history to shed light on your unlikable character. Maybe her parents are divorcing, a sibling has cancer or a cousin is a sadistic bully. After’s protagonist, Devon, endures poverty and neglect. Although Devon’s smart and a soccer superstar, the brick wall she eventually runs into is the deep psychological damage caused by the actions of her single, sleazy mom who brings men home late and night and the absent father she’s never known. Author Amy Efaw uses this to explain how her character could commit a horrific crime. In another instance, when a writer friend added an anecdote to her novel that showed a nasty character rescuing a puppy when he was young, it helped me see that he wasn’t always a jerk. When she made the boy’s father even more of a monster than the son, I understood how the character’s ugly attitude had been shaped. Backstory gives us a reason, even if it’s not an excuse.

Third, examine your protagonist’s relationships. If she’s the youngest child in a family of epic overachievers, maybe this character is insecure, feels less than, or doesn’t believe she can ever measure up. Figuring out how family dynamics and relationships factor in to your character’s behavior is a terrific tool for deepening understanding. In Romancing the Dark, the father that Summer Barnes loved is dead, and her unloving, too-busy-for-her-daughter mother ships her off to various boarding schools, all of which Summer gets expelled from. This lack of love, stability, and parent role models causes her character to become depressed and self-destructive. She drinks too much, thinks about killing herself, and keeps everyone—even the people she cares about—at arm’s length.

Some characters, of course, can’t be redeemed. Like Darth Vader, they choose the dark side, but if we can see them waver and get a glimpse of their vulnerability, it’s an exercise in compassion and tolerance.

Palacio summed it up best when she said, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I believe our job as writers is to show that battle—especially when we’re depicting a jerk. And creating a story where readers can have empathy for people who are difficult or just different from ourselves, might just be one of the greatest gifts we can give.



This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.