Monday, August 05, 2013

Guest Post by Laura Nance

Joe sez: I'm going to be taking a blogging break during August, but I've got twelve guest posts scheduled this month, so they'll appear as slotted.

Today it's Laura Nance...

Why I LOVE research! (And how it helps me plot...)

First of all, thanks to Joe for coming up with such a great way to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research and promote writing at the same time. And thanks for allowing me to post on your site.

As a nurse practitioner in a retirement community, I treat patients with Alzheimer’s every day. It’s a horrible disease for both the patient and the families. I hope research will soon find a way to prevent this illness.

I’d like to talk to you about research of another sort. If you’re a writer, you should already know that it’s important to get your facts and figures right. Readers come from all sorts of backgrounds, and someone will eventually notice if you slip up on even the most obscure piece of information. One or more of them will give you a one star review for missing a fact, even if they loved the book. Trust me, I know.

So, I try to be very accurate and thoroughly research any topic I’m not familiar with. I also have my husband, an engineer, as a technical advisor. Although it’s hard spending time away from your story to look up things like what would happen if a hydrogen leak is lit, or what would be the physical effects of cyanide poisoning,  I’ve found that I almost always come across something that fascinates me and helps with my plot or descriptions.

I’m probably preaching to the choir on the importance of research to you guys, but I wanted to share the interesting stories I found while researching my latest mystery, Murder in the World Below, and how it helped me plot my tale.

If anyone is as old as I am, you may remember a TV show in the 80’s called Beauty and the Beast. It was about a deformed man who lived with other outcasts in the tunnels and sewers of New York City. He rescues a woman from a brutal attack and nurses her back to health, then helps her every time she’s in trouble in her job working as an assistant D.A. fighting crime in the Big Apple. Remember that one?

I loved that show. I loved the atmosphere of the world created from castoff items and trash. I loved the characters and the sense of community they developed. All this happened right under the feet of busy New York citizens.

What if a world like that really existed? I started thinking of writing about a similar place. The idea bounced around in my head for a couple years. I had to have a reason for people to go underground that would make sense. One day, as I was researching old insane asylums for another book, Memories of Murder, I came across a story about Willowbrook.

Willowbrook State School was a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities located on Staten Island in New York City from 1947 until 1987. It was closed due to deplorable conditions that included everything from overcrowding to illegal testing done by infecting patients with hepatitis and then trying medications on them.

At the time, it was the largest state supported institution of its type. It was built to house 4000 children but at one point in the 60’s it held over 6000 people.

In 1972, a young, mostly unknown Geraldo Rivera went undercover there and wrote an exposé, entitled Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace,  which garnered national attention and won a Peabody Award. He exposed the horrible living conditions, as well as the physical and sexual abuse of the inmates.

Despite attempts to upgrade and reform the school it ultimately closed in 1987. Following its closing, there was another interesting story associated with the school. A man named Andre Rand, who had worked as a janitor at the school, was suspected and later convicted of being involved in the kidnapping/disappearance/attempted sexual assault of five local children. There were rumors that he hid in the basement of buildings at the old abandoned school. Parents scared their children to stay away from the deserted campus by telling them this tale, which was never proven.

In 2009 a documentary style movie was made of this incident called, Cropsey, which is sort of a slang term for a boogie-man. It’s supposed to be pretty scary, but I haven’t seen it yet. As of now, Andre Rand is serving time in a New York prison in case you’re wondering.

As soon as I read these stories, the idea I’d been mulling over took shape immediately. I already knew I wanted an underground world. I decided to use a similar idea to Willowbrook. My story takes place in the Shenandoah area of Virginia, which is known for underground caverns. These subterranean areas, combined with forgotten basements and tunnels below an old institution, form the world of Haven where my outcasts live.

Then I dove into research for ways murders could happen in that area with substances that would be available to the underground dwellers. I can’t believe I never knew that rat poison is actually a drug I use every day to treat people who need their blood thinned. Warfarin, or the brand name Coumadin, is used as rat poison. Hmm.

Now, by research, I know the signs and symptoms of poisoning by rat poison, cyanide and arsenic. Hopefully not something I’ll ever see in my clinic! Not much I could do for them anyway except dial 911.

To add an urgent situation of impending doom to my underground world, I decided to create an energy problem. I had to research what would be the most likely source of power for my community and then a reason why it would be challenged. I decided on coal-fueled steam furnaces. Of course I had to figure out how this type of system would work and then a possible solution to the dilemma of its loss. I also realized you really can’t buy enriched uranium for a nuclear power source on the Internet. Ooops. That, along with my search for types of assault weapons for another novel, probably have me on some CIA watch list. Yikes.

So, here’s the blurb for my novel. Now that you know the story behind it, you’ll see where my ideas came from.

Murder in the World Below

A sprawling facility for handicapped children closed in 1960 amid findings of deplorable conditions, illegal testing and sexual abuse. Sixty-one years later, the academy is a community college in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia.

Unknown to the upper world, refugees from the old asylum live in a secret world they’ve built in the tunnels, caverns and basements beneath the old school, hiding their differences and fear of those above ground.

Haven, as the residents call their underground home, is a happy, thriving community until they learn their source of power is about to be cut off. A resourceful young woman named Awen sets out to find an alternative source of energy. But someone in Haven is murdering people and sabotaging her efforts.

Aided by a professor from the college, Awen races to expose the killer and hunt for a source of energy that will save Haven. Unfortunately, the murderer now has their sights on Awen as the next victim, and time is running out for the world below.

As a writer, when you become stumped with a plot point or writer’s block, try digging into some research on something related to your WIP. You might find it leads you in a new direction that adds complexity and depth to your tale. For sure you’ll make certain all your facts are right, and at the very least you’ll learn some interesting information. (Possibly something you’ll use in another story...)

As a special treat, this week I’m pricing Murder in the World Below at only 99 cents for the Kindle version. Here’s the link: I hope you’ll check it out and let me know how you like it. You can connect with me on my website: where I post other tidbits of research on my novels that I found fascinating.

What are your stories about research? Have you ever been caught in a wrong fact by a reader? What’s the most interesting fact you came across when researching a novel?

Joe sez: The problem with research is it can become its own procrastination technique. You search for something necessary for your WIP, and four clicks later you're reading about the ecological issues facing Guam (and I hope they get that coconut rhinoceros beetle infestation under control.) 

It is incredibly easy to lose focus on writing and go on data quests that lead to nowhere. Here are some tricks I use.
  • Turn off the Internet while writing. 
  • Type "research here" where you need research in your book, then keep writing and come back to it later. 
  • Use a desktop timer and don't leave your WIP for more than five minutes before returning.
  • Write what you know rather than what you have to learn. For example, if you know Glocks, give your character a Glock. Why give them a Sig, which you've never shot before?
Also remember that it is very tempting to infodump when you learn about a subject you find interesting. Resist the urge. Long, blocky paragraphs of information aren't interesting to anyone other than the researcher, and showing off by regurgitating everything you learned abut a particular subject tends to make readers skip those parts. Good for you that you learned how to build a nuclear submarine. Unless that's essential to the plot, pare it down to what info is absolutely necessary to move the plot forward.

Anyone else have research tips?


Walter Knight said...

Laura, I noticed your books are available in audio. How is that working out for you? I'm thinking of doing the same.

Lara Nance said...

It's actually working very well. I'm in the process of having all my books made into audio. I use The Killion group for production and it's very economical, then we split the profit.
THanks, Lara

Lara Nance said...

Thanks for letting me blog with you, Joe. :) Lara

w. adam mandelbaum said...

Anyone else have research tips? Yes. Research can be used to find plot ideas by combining unlikely words in google. For example, if we combine "peace keeping mission + sex trafficking" we get some interesting stuff. Playing with this concept can create a whole slew of plot ideas. Use words that have built in controversy and drama.

Lara Nance said...

I love that idea, W. Adam! Love playin on Google. Thanks for sharing. Lara

STH said...

"Anyone else have research tips?"

Technical, and particularly historical background can definitely be interesting too. I love to use it and to read it when it’s used well.

Just make sure the information you are giving is 100% germane. They will only be interesting in the book if they directly forward the plot.

When a lot of background information is needed (like, say, in the Maltese Falcon or Da Vinci Code), to avoid those big blocks of info all at once, look for ways to spread out the reveal at different points in the book. Act 1 info can be just enough to start a mystery. Further detail can help to ramp up the intensity or up the stakes in later sections.

Nancy Beck said...

The problem with research is it can become its own procrastination technique.

This is so true - I'm a research junkie. What seems to work for me is to guess at whatever will need to be researched later. Probably not the best thing, esp. considering I sometimes have to rethink/rewrite something here and there, but it gets me to finishing the novel (tho I do some very small preliminary research IF I can find something quickly on the Internet - it it takes too long, I put it aside after I'm done).

For instance, in the first of my new series which takes place in 1929 Manhattan, I'd been wanting to incorporate my love of pro sports by having Babe Ruth do a little walk on, with the MC meeting him somewhere in Manhattan. I didn't have him anywhere else in the novel as originally planned.

After leaving notes about research in bold in the ms., I decided to buy a bio about him, and in an inspiration, during a scene where my MC has to run away from someone she loves (she really doesn't want to die), I send her off to his apt. I found out he did indeed live in Manhattan with his second wife (didn't know his first died tragically earlier that year), that he said, "Keed" instead of "kid" when he talked, etc. (See, I'm already getting wrapped up in it, lol.)

But I used those facts judiciously. As much of a research nerd as I am, even I don't want to read an infodump - takes me right out of the story.

@Lara, this sounds fascinating to me, so I'll definitely pick it up.

Good luck! :-)

Lara Nance said...

Thanks, STH and Nancy!
Yes, Info-dump=bad
Big blocks of boring text= bad

Learning to spin the important information throughout the story is vital to keep from boring readers.
I liked Joe's tip of keeping a timer when you go away from the manuscript on a hunt.
@Nancy, your idea for the story sounds interesting, too!
Thanks for sharing, guys. Lara

Stella Baker said...

Different strategies work for different people. I absolutely cannot continue with the writing until I've dropped in accurate details I have to get via research. Maybe that's because I became a reference librarian about the time Ronald Reagan took the Oval Office and my brain is trained to nail down facts/details before it lets go. So unlike Joe, I MUST have a browser open and on Google while I write. I do police myself though, and limit my Googling to finding bits of detail. If I need a lot of detail about an important aspect of the plot, I'll set aside non-writing time to do significant research.

Aside from the Google tips that everyone knows, don't forget Google Image and YouTube if you need visuals for description. Also, use (willing!) friends/family to gather details if possible. For example, my niece who lives in DC visited a 'scary' DC metro stop so I could accurately describe it in my first book (she emailed me photos and a written description of the smells and sounds.) Cheaper than an airplane ticket to DC! And don't forget your friendly local librarian for things you can't Google down.

As to infodumps...yup...story killers.

Nancy Beck said...


Totally agree that different strategies work for different people. All that matters is that the story is entertaining and that you get to The End! :-)


Thank you. I look forward to reading your book!

Lara Nance said...

@Stella. Agree, I also have to have Google open. But I limit myself to finding a specific item on each hunt. If I find something Interesting that's off subject, I bookmark it for free time fun later. LOL

Another great tool is Google Earth. I wrote a scene recently about the pier at Santa Monica. I'd neer been there, but with Google I was able to get a 360 degree view and move along the pier. It was so helpful for writing descriptions of surroundings.

@Nancy, thanks, girl! Lara

Merrill Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Merrill Heath said...

Nice article, Lara. Your post, especially the part about Willowbrook, was interesting. But I feel like the blurb for your novel could be better. I really like the first two paragraphs. That all sounds very intriguing. But my enthusiasm waned with the last two paragraphs. I'm not sure why, exactly, other than perhaps you got too much into the plot and the mystery of the first two paragraphs was lost somehow.

Personally, I think writing the blurb is harder than writing the entire novel in some cases. And it's such a critical part of the presentation. But it's very hard to get it right. I know I could use help with that. Maybe one of our guest posters will write an article on writing blurbs.

At any rate, best of luck with your writing. It looks like you have a lot of books available. I assume there is a Haven mystery series in the works.

Alan Tucker said...

"…showing off by regurgitating everything you learned abut a particular subject tends to make readers skip those parts."

I know some big time authors that should have this tattooed on their foreheads. *cough* Tom Clancy *cough*

STH has it right. Does the information help move the story forward? That's the key question to ask.

Terrific post, Lara! Thank you!

Paul Comstock said...

One thing I've found about facts and history to be careful of is perceived fact versus real world fact. When doing research, it's all fine and good to find out things that really happened or are really true or how they work, but if those things are less believable than what readers have come to believe is true, then reality is less believable than the common fiction. Sometimes it's better to go with what readers think is real rather than actual reality. It's a believability issue.

Karen Clayton said...

Yes, I've been researching information for my latest book. A spin off series from my Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers series. I have way more information than I'll ever use, but it is still fun.

Lara Nance said...

@Alan LOL - so true!

@Paul Very interesting point - Any examples?

@Karen LOL, yes,very fun. Good luck with your series.

@Merrill - yes, blurbs are the hardest for me. I continue to tweak them FOREVER. SO hard to get across the amazing nuances of your work in a couple paragraphs! LOL.
Thanks for the comments on the article. Lara

JRWoodward said...

Bought the book! It sounds great.

About research: I have set books in areas I have visited, but do not know well. (currently, the Ventana Wilderness in Monterey County, California; previously, Pickens County, GA and Little Five Points in Atlanta). I accumulate books on these places and then spend and hour a day keeping track of them in blogs. Since my daily research time is limited to an hour, it doesn't interfere with writing.

If I know roughly what each day's scene is going to cover, I can usually get what I need in advance. I am currently spending an hour a day researching yoga/Zen, surfing and green architecture. Those are demanding subjects, but I'm getting by on used books (mostly used) and blogs. I can always fix problems in the re-write, and I sometimes do use tricks like INSERT-STREET-NAME-HERE.

Lara Nance said...

@JR Thank you so much!
Okay "yoga/Zen, surfing and green architecture"
I'm dying to hear what this story is about! Thanks, Lara

Geraldine Evans said...

Very interesting post. One particularly applicable to me as I can only too easily lose myself in research.

It's not my fault! The world's TOO fascinating!

Lara Nance said...

@Geraldine, Thank you!
Yes, so easy to lose yourself. But I always feel good about what I learned even if I do. I'm a repository of useless knowledge, unless I end up on Jeopardy one day.... Lara

Merrill Heath said...

I'm a repository of useless knowledge, unless I end up on Jeopardy one day.... Lara

LOL, Lara. My head is filled with worthless information as well - primarily obscure movie lines. I could win one category on Jeopardy, but that's probably all.

Eric Christopherson said...

I once read that readers read fiction for three primary purposes: entertainment, education, and enlightenment. That makes sense to me. I do try to do adequate research to provide the education, but sometimes research is required to entertain to, because you have to have enough convincing description to immerse readers.

Lara Nance said...

Okay @Merrill I'm trying to think of an obscure movie line.....
How about this (Anybody can play):
"Yes, yes, he vas my boyfriend!"
Imagine a German accent. Hint: Frau.....

Lara Nance said...

@Eric, Yes! I have always learned from books I read. I knew where the Elgin Marbles came from in the 12th grade, not from school but from books.
Yes, you are right! :) Lara

McVickers said...

Depends on your genre. If you're reading a Tom Clancy book, you WANT (nay, you NEED) those details. A Stephen King book? Not so much.

Hairhead said...

To Lara: It was Frau Blucher (whinny!whinny!) played wonderfully by Cloris Leachman.

From Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder.

Paul Draker said...

Lara, your world below sounds fascinating and creepy. I'm definitely going to check it out. Just finished reading Chuck Wendig's The Blue Blazes, which has a very different take on an underground world :)

Research is fun--it's a lot like an iceberg, though. 90% of what we learn doesn't surface in the story, but the 10% we do include feels more authentic because it's shaped by the other 90%.

Google Earth can give you a street-level view of the most obscure places you might set a scene--Torreon, Mexico's rougher areas for example. Unfortunately, they haven't dispatched the Google camera trucks to Antarctica yet, so for my WIP I'm having to spend a lot of time piecing it together from books, videos, and still shots.

Cheaper than flying there, though... ;)

Lara Nance said...

@Hairhead, you win! Yes, I think I know every line from Young Frankenstein. LOL Very good!

Lara Nance said...

@McVickers yes for Clancy, you got to know how that nuclear sub works so you can sabotage it!

Lara Nance said...

@Paul, thanks! Is that your bird on your shoulder in the picture? OOoooo Anarctica...every time I'm on a blog, I'm blown away by the creative, smart people writing books and their ideas. Stay warm while researching! Lara

Matt said...

I love research as well. There's always that extra detail that I discover that can make my story better, more interesting or authentic. I started researching my novel with some paper copies of Civil War records. They were wonderful for tiny details.

Michelle Mogil said...

My particular research was cause for worry among my family members. My son-in-law happened to glance at my laptop screen when I was in the midst of researching which veins could be punctured and not result in a complete exsanguination. He looked at me and said "Should I be worried for my safety?" I responded, "Always."

leonard kennard said...

Far from being a "research junkie" I don't do research. If it ain't in my head it doesn't get written. These days I find that some historical novels read more like text books on the subject.
Thrillers that tell me all about forensics and PM processes are ineffably boring. (to me) I never watch hospital dramas on TV for the same reasons.