Friday, July 6, 2012

Guest Blog: Author Judith Stanton on Researching

Before the Internet revolution I did academic research in major archives and rare book rooms in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. Archivists became my best friends. Then I published six historical novels, and loved researching them too. For my seventh novel, a contemporary equestrian suspense, I thought I knew the sport of three-day eventing. But now that it’s done, I could footnote several things I found or verified by research on nearly every page. Research is like a mine shaft, and you dig down to find your diamonds. A few carets (or carrots if you want to feed the horsey):

First, JFGI—Just Google It. Google brings a world of knowledge to our fingertips in the blip of a picosecond. If the answer’s not on the first page, you probably need to refine your key words. But powerful as Google search engines are, be sure to keep an open mind. Late in my new novel, an emergency medical helicopter lands in a pasture to evacuate a gravely injured rider. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp the rotors go. Very dramatic. Googling helicopter landing behavior, I found that their “sliders” touch the ground on landing. I popped in the word, proud to have uncovered a term of art. Not so. In a final proof before publication, one of my readers, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, gently told me they’re not “sliders” but “skids.” Sliders are horizontal gizmos on the control panel that allow the pilot to adjust for trim.

Second, do old fashioned research. Release your inner OCD. Check out books. Subscribe to magazines or on-line blogs for in-depth history and up-to-the-minute research. If your gig is fashion, hook up with the fashionista blogs, the fall and spring designer shows, Vogue, W, Elle, whatever. If you’ve got guns and hunting in your story, a plethora of blogs, ezines and conventional magazines can bring you up to speed. You might end up subscribing to Guns and Gardens. (They pay for articles.) I subscribe to three horses magazines and follow a couple of forums and several seriously informative blogs around the world.

Third, do field research. Go where the action is. I volunteered as a jump judge and dressage scribe at competitions, met experts, made friends. I regularly visited big competition barns and soaked up competitions, the heartbreak and breakdowns, the victory and defeat. I stood around at horse trials in March when it was 40 degrees tops all day. Then a cold rain started, I’d not packed my slicker, and the best horse-and-rider teams I’d come to observe were yet to run the course. In June, I’ve stuck it out in 104 degrees with no shade on the arenas. Or in April, I raced home with tornadoes touching down and torrents of rain slowing me to 15 mph, no other idiot in the road. All true!

Nearer home, my new best friend is my wonderful county sheriff. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask local experts what you need to know. You may well be the first novelist they’ve met, and wow, do they love to answer your questions and tell their stories.

Fourth, let the action come to you. Honestly, I can't recommend this. I didn't need for my horse to throw me midway the novel’s third draft for me to better polish a scene where face meets dirt! Despite my state-of-the-art safety helmet, I was knocked out cold. Didn't need the doctor to diagnose a concussion. The 4-day headache told me all.

I didn't need to pulverize my left ankle to learn firsthand how many days it would take for purple bruises to climb my calf almost to my knee and seep down to my toes. (About a week, if you're serious about verisimilitude.) Then the green and yellow transmutations--about a month in all.

Nor can I recommend the intruder episode just after Christmas, when I went for night check at the barn to find a stranger frozen in a fetal position under my mare’s feed trough. Dead, I thought, and ran to the house--pulse racing, check, mouth dry, check, knees watery, hands shaking too hard to dial nine-one-one—check, and check. Can use all that in the book. Right. It was only a short wait. A deputy sheriff's cruiser drove up our long driveway, and then the EMTs.

They were incredibly solicitous as they took notes and milled around me, not questioning my story. "You sure you're alright?" "Yes,” I said, “but I ran." "You did the right thing." I was, after all, the good guy, the rational citizen, who’d been startled in the night.

The deputy was fearless too when he took out his gun and canvassed the barn, feed room, tack room, the loft, then called into the darkness, "This is Chatham County Sheriff's Department. Come out of the woods." It almost didn't matter that the “dead” dude was long gone.

And then there was that giant box of an emergency vehicle, sitting in my driveway, engine purring, waiting to rescue me, or my intruder, twice as big and white as any I ever passed on the road. But it's all in my book, the vehicle's size, the EMTs support and courtesy, the relief, when you're the one who’s done no wrong guy, that they're there for you, larger than life, but regular people too.
- - -
Judith Stanton
Horse Woman, Author, Editor, and Lecturer
Coming Summer 2012–“A Stallion to Die For: an equestrian suspense"
—Qualifying for the Olympics can be deadly for woman and horse.


Karen said...

With those experiences, no wonder your novel is so realistic! Nice post, Judith - can't wait to read the book!

Shelia said...

Research is a fun part of writing for me, but even McMurtry in Lonesome Dove didn't know the price of horses in Texas and don't get me started on Spielberg's "Into The West." When the mini-series came out I'd just published "Auspicious Dreams" and my research was spot on--his was far from the truth. But look who's the billionaire!
Can't wait for your final product, Judith! Best of luck with it!