Monday, February 11, 2008

Some Call It Research -- Anne McAllister

Right after "Where do you get your ideas?" -- which often seems a mystery to those who read but don't feel inclined to put words on paper -- comes the question, "Do you do research?"

And the question is inevitably accompanied by the worried looks and wrinkled frowns that imply that research must be pretty distasteful. Doesn't it mean having to sit in a library all day and read dusty non-fiction tomes written by dead people?

Well, yes. Sometimes.

But it also means getting to go to Ireland or Fiji or the Bahamas or wherever your little heart wants to set your next book (provided you can afford to get there), and soaking up the local color and then reliving the experience through the eyes of your characters for the next few months.

It means getting to interview really really interesting people you might never get a chance to cross paths with otherwise.

Before I wrote books I never would have considered calling up the head athletic trainer at a Division 1 university and asking if he would mind talking me through the rehab of a major league pitcher.

Before I wrote books I had no idea anyone built sand castles for a living, much less would be delighted to talk me through the construction of an 11 ton Victorian house built of sand.

Before I wrote books I had only a passing acquaintance with the life of a rodeo cowboy. I certainly never expected to have one volunteer to design an itinerary for my fictional cowboy who needed to 'go down the road' from the end of May until the first of August.

Nor did I expect him to call me at one in the morning when he was fogged in at the Santa Barbara airport so we could discuss it!

Let's just say that my horizons expanded exponentially when I began to write.

"Doing research" does sometimes involve dusty old tomes -- but seen through the eyes of my characters, they very often become vitally alive and interesting. More often, though, "doing research" involves me in the lives of others -- trying to experience the world as they do, see what they see, say what they say, perceive reality a bit -- or a lot -- differently than I do when I look at it from where I normally stand.

A year ago this very day I was getting on a plane (in the middle of a blizzard) to head to Ireland where I was going to try to walk in the shoes of Flynn Murray, my here-today-gone-tomorrow hero in One-Night Love Child. Flynn had been a bit player in an earlier book of mine, The Great Montana Cowboy Auction. Back then he was a footloose journalist, a fish out of water in the Montana I know well. So I didn't have to do much research for him in that book.

But in his own book, he was no longer wandering the world in search of a story. He was the earl of Dunmorey and heir to a 500 year old castle that was crumbling down around his ears.

What I knew about the Irish aristocracy was zilch. What I knew about old Irish houses at that point was what I'd read in books.

What I had learned by the end of my visit was that Flynn was going to have his hands full. Covering a war might be easier than being an earl. And that was only part of his problem. This was, after all, a romance. He had a heroine to sort out -- er, to woo and win -- too

What did I learn on my trip? Lots about manor houses -- that's Ballyvolane House in Cork, by the way -- lots about rain, lots about what it takes to make a house earn its keep. And happily, I reconfirmed some things I did know -- like the fact that little boys with train sets and dogs with wet paws are the same the world over.

Mostly, though, I got details. Specifics. All the things I needed that I didn't know I needed, but which, when I got home, gave life and detail to the book I sat down to write.

I also met wonderful people while doing my research.

These folks aren't in my book. But they did answer my questions and became my supporters and my friends. One of them, fortunately, was a man who spoke Irish. I really needed a friend who spoke Irish. And this one gallantly spent an evening and a morning translating all the Irish I thought I would need. And before he left Ballyvolane House, he gave me his email address and said whenever I needed any more Irish translations, be sure to write him.

Believe me, I did. When I needed a family motto -- in Irish -- not to mention several other phrases that came up along the way, I emailed James.

Can you tell that for me "doing research" is probably the most fun part of the book?

It gets me out of my office into parts of the world that I don't normally get to. It introduces me to people I would ordinarily never meet.

It enriches my writing. Even more, it enriches my life.

Anne's upcoming book, One-Night Love Child, about formerly footloose Flynn Murray, now the Earl of Dunmorey, is a March release from Harlequin Presents and an April release from HM&B Modern. She'd like to know what you think of research? If you're a writer, what's the best time you ever had researching. Hers was going to bull-riding school!

And if you're a reader, have you ever read a book that has made you want to explore some other career or place or way of life?
Which book? What have you been inspired to do? Did you do it?

Leave a comment and win a copy of One-Night Love Child. Anne's dog, Gunnar (in March he'll be going by "O'Gunnar" -- or as Anne says, "Oh, Gunnar!") will pick a winner from all the comments left before Tuesday, February 12th.

And don't forget to drop by Anne's blog, Kate Walker's blog and Liz Fielding's blog for a chance to win copies of all three of their latest releases in their second annual Here Come The Grooms! contest this month.


Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Anne, pick me, pick me! I'm desperately in need of inspiring Irish earls! And it's the EARL-y bird who catches the worm!

Great post. Actually research is one of the fun parts of this gig. I get to find out all sorts of amazing facts. I get to view life through other people's eyes. I get to explore life in all its joys and difficulties as it has been lived through the ages. And yeah, dusty tomes can be amazingly fascinating when you have a reason to read them! Great post!

Margaret McDonagh said...

Fingers crossed - Blogger ate my first attempt at leaving a comment!

Great post, Anne.

As for research, I often find it is so involving that you spend far too long absorbing and go off on interesting tangents! But then I'm the mistress of procrastination!

I have found that the majority of people are very helpful and keen to answer questions. Many years ago I had a glorious day at a fire station. They were brilliant. They drew a plan of my fictional train crash, explained how they would go about their work to rescue those trapped and then pulled all the equipment of one of the fire engines to show me how it worked.

But research can lead you into dangerous territory, too. I was blessed to find one very helpful gynaecological consultant to help with some research. He was so enthusiastic that I learned far more, in gory detail, than I ever wanted to and was exceedingly glad I was talking to him on the phone and he couldn't see my red face!

I loved meeting Sarah and Flynn when they first appeared and now cannot wait to read their story.

Mags xx

JC said...

I've always found the best part of writing anything (a paper, a story, whatever) to be the research. Best part hands down. There are so many interesting twists and turns and directions you can take as you really delve into a subject.

Kuddos to you for loving that part, and having the dedication to want to do that research.

Anne McAllister said...

Anna, it isn't me you need to talk to about picking you. It's O'Gunnar -- the master of all the little slips with names on them (on account of treats, you understand).

Glad to hear you like research, too. Somehow I suspected you did! I wrote one semi-historical (well, it was a time travel) novella. And the research for that was completely absorbing. I felt like I was living in Dodge City, Kansas in 1878 all the time I was writing it. Fortunately it only took me three weeks because I was so absorbed!

Anne McAllister said...

Mags, I wonder if it's really procrastination or if it's allowing your mind to engage with all this wonderful stuff you're learning, and just letting it go and play amongst all this interesting info and seeing what it comes up with. (Well, it's a good rationalization, anyway).

But I find that I need that time inside the research to really come to grips with who my people are and find their attitudes and approach to life.

Your trip to the fire station sounds like my long conversation with a stunt coordinator while trying to put together how my hero, Luke's, best friend and actor buddy, Keith, died doing a stunt. It was fascinating to learn all the things that go into the development of these things.

Re the gynecological info -- better you than me. I haven't had to go there yet (in a book at least. The rest I know well enough from personal experience!)

Anne McAllister said...

JC, you're right. It is the best part. And having all those 'facts' to support whatever direction your imagination takes you is great. Sometimes I consider the research info the 'hangers' on which I hang the rest of the story. Without them, the story often ends up in a heap at the bottom of the closet!

Gigi said...

Hi Anne,
you make research sound like so much fun. Sign me up.

I know I can really tell a difference in a story where the author has done lots of research (traveling and experincing the local flavor of the settings). I appreciate all the research that you do for your craft.

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Gigi
I'm glad you appreciate the 'effort' that goes into research. But as I explained, it's not generally a hardship. It's by the far the most enjoyable part of the book -- for me anyway.

rebekah said...

Research sounds like fun, but I love what I do and wouldn't want to change it. I'm a medical transcriptionist and I find it fun, in my own way I help people by helping the doctors and that feels great. Reading books has shown me tons of places I would like to visit though. Scotland, Ireland, and so much more. There is such beauty around the world and I would like to experience it first hand. Very time I read a book it is like my destination dream list grows.

CrystalGB said...

Your research sounds fun. It sounds like you have had some amazing experiences through your research. Thank you for sharing with us.

Anne McAllister said...

Rebekah, Medical transcriptionists are absolutely essential. I have a couple of friends who are writers and also medical transcriptionists. I wonder if it's a career that breeds writers?

I'm glad your list of places to see is continuing to grow as you read. I hope you get to visit some of them. I've always wanted to follow the Silk Road, myself. So far I haven't -- and I haven't written a book set along it, either. Not sure one would work in Presents, but maybe. Who knows!

Anne McAllister said...

Crystalgb, I'm delighted to have shared some of my research experiences with you here. There are parts I never get to use in books, but which are fascinating nonetheless. And it does show me what a varied and interesting world we live in. It's a privilege to write about it -- and to share the experience.

Jane said...

Hi Anne,
Research can be tedious but more importantly it's interesting and educational. I would like to a National Geographic location scout like the heroine in Amy Fetzer's "Come As You Are." I've been a subscriber of Nat Geo for several years and the pictures and stories are fascinating. It always makes me want to visit those places they feature.

Estella said...

You make research sound very rewarding.
I would love to have a copy of your book.

Maureen said...

Many books have made me interested in their settings, giving me quite a list of places I'd like to visit someday.

Nathalie said...

I remember reading a book by Gillian Bradshaw by the medical practice in Alexandria and it was a motivator for me to do some work in hospitals... and in the end I loved it and applied to med school :)

Traveling must be great when researching :)

Cherie J said...

Research sounds like fun. I can't think of any book that has ever attracted me to a specific career. I have been influenced by books in the past to want to visit certain places. For instance, New Orleans. I finally got to see it seven years ago after reading about it in so many books. There are a list of other places I would love to see.

Anne McAllister said...

Jane, A National Geographic Location Scout? Is there such a thing? Wow, that would be such a great job! I'll have to check out Amy's book and find out more. I had no idea . . .

Thanks for the tip!

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Estella,

Research is rewarding -- and as I said, not just from a writing standpoint. I feel like I've had so many great opportunities to learn more about how different people experience the world through my research into their lives, occupations, lifestyles, and the places they live.

Anne McAllister said...

Maureen, I hope you get to visit lots of the places on your list. I have a list, too. One of the troubles with mine is, once I've been I almost always don't cross it off because I want to go back!

Anne McAllister said...

Nathalie, what a great story! I'd bet Gillian Bradshaw would be thrilled to know she inspired your career. I remember a couple of books I read when I was in junior high school that inspired me in choices I made later in life, too. It's amazing the power of story, isn't it?

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Cherie,
So glad you got to visit New Orleans after reading about it in so many books. I did, too, and it lived up to the hype. I really enjoyed going out for a day on the swamps in the area and getting a feel for that. I wish I could think of a story that I could set there. I'd love to go back and do more research!

Cryna said...

Researching sounds fascinating. You can always tell when an Author has been there or the research has been thorough. I have read so many books and the places have come alive in my mind while reading and I have thought what a fascinating place that would be to visit, Ireland, Scotland, Australia to name just a few. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Cryna
I agree -- I had a whole list of places I wanted to go based on the books I'd read. And now that I've seen some of them, my appetite for travel has only grown. And even though I've made it to Ireland a couple of times and Australia once, I still want to go back.

And every time I read a Robyn Donald book -- or when I used to read Essie Summers's books -- I want to set out for an extended stay in New Zealand. Four years ago I got to go there, and I fell in love with it. I wish I had lifetimes to live in all these great places.

Pat Cochran said...

Research for me is usually done to help my daughter with classwork (She will graduate from college in June)
or to help any of my grandchildren
who need further information for
reports and such. I try to guide them so that they do the majority of the work. Usually I get caught up
in the subject and do more research
for my own edification.

Pat Cochran

deseng said...

Oh Anne, research isn't the word! It is time consuming research! Oh gosh, I can sympathisize with you on that score! I have had to do so much research for my BS degree in Construction. Geesh! You would think I was going for the bar exam to be a lawyer! Well, it is done and over with!

I love to read and have written reviews. I have never had the opportunity to write a book though. I must say to do research for a book what be a lot of fun! Especially if it involved trips! I have heard of authors going to the places they write about to get the right feel to the scenery and atmosphere of the story. Oh wouldn't that be fun! Ooo la, la!

I am envious of you authors! Want to trade professions? Just kidding!

Michele L.

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Pat,
Isn't that always the way? You get someone else started on their way to learning something and you get caught in wanting to know more, too!

I think it's wonderful when it happens because it means I'm engaged in the process and I really am curious and want to know more -- and more.

And as you've pointed out -- research doesn't just happen for those of us who write books. People do it in all walks of life.

Anne McAllister said...

Hey Michele, No I don't think that at this late date I want to trade professions. But I wouldn't mind interviewing you sometime about what it takes to get a BS in construction. Sounds like a lot of work that I'd have to struggle to master. But it would be fascinating because it's so not what I do all day.

Sebastian and Neely, my two current main characters are both architects. I've been spending a lot of time picking the brain of a couple of architects I know -- one a guy and one a woman. It's interesting to get their take on things architectural -- and about life and their profession.

They would probably understand what you had to do for your 'construction' BS far better than I would.

Anne McAllister said...

O'Gunnar has picked a winner -- GIGI! So, Gigi, if you will email me at anne.mcallister(at) with your address, I will see that you get your very own copy of One-Night Love Child!

Thanks to everyone who took the time to make a comment. I really enjoyed our conversation. I hope you'll look for Flynn when he comes out -- or drop by my website at and enter the "Here Come the Grooms!" contest there and maybe you can win that copy of his book.