After a too-long hiatus from my blog, I am delighted to be joined today by Sherry Knowlton, author of DEAD OF SPRING (2017). I asked Sherry to talk about how she researches her novels, and below she shares some terrific insights into how she balances authenticity and readability.
(Basically, how to keep your reader entertained while being accurate at the same time!)
In popular culture, authors are often portrayed as brooding figures who seethe with creativity. After long, pensive walks along a cliff (or dock, or meadow), the authors return to their garrets and type pages and pages of inspired prose.
For me, it doesn’t work quite that way. You’re more likely to find me writing in my sunroom in winter or in the gazebo on a nice summer’s day. And, I like to take walks, but I work out most of my plots in the car while I’m driving to yoga. Yes, there’s certainly a large element of creativity and inspiration involved in writing my Alexa Williams suspense series. But, much of my process involves a more mundane – although often fascinating-- task: research, research, research.
Some genres of fiction might not require much, if any, in-depth research. (Certain fantasy novels spring to mind.) But, I write contemporary suspense, and each of my novels also include a historical story that parallels and intersects with the main plot. So, I want the background details in both stories to be as accurate as possible to enhance the novel’s “believability” and credibility. Plus, I don’t want my readers to drift away from the suspense, distracted by a historical anomaly or incorrect fact. (Wait a minute. Would that Depression-era character really have said, “Awesome, dude”?)
I rely on some of my own experiences and knowledge of a topic or place as I write. But, often, I need to do further research to refresh my memories or obtain more specific information. My research follows two broad paths: learning from written, video and audio sources; and, interviewing experts.
My new book, Dead of Spring, deals with fracking and politics. The historical story takes place during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. The setting for the contemporary story is Southcentral Pennsylvania, but my protagonist, Alexa, also travels to Tuscany and Umbria. I live in Southcentral PA. I worked in Pennsylvania state government. I’ve been following the politics of fracking for years. I lived through the Three Mile Island crisis. And, I’ve spent time in Italy. Still, that experience was not enough. I needed to review a lot of source material to fully capture these topics in my book. These sources ranged from technical articles and regulations on fracking to news clips and newspaper articles from the Three Mile Island event to Italian justice procedures.
I might be able to get away with just delving into books and relying on the Google for my information. But, experts always add so much depth to my understanding of a topic. The acknowledgement sections in my novel are quite long because talking to experts has become a key pillar of my research process. And, I’ve been lucky to find subject matter experts on a wide variety of topics who have been very gracious with their time and expertise.
For Dead of Spring, I relied on a State Police trooper and several other law enforcement officers, a judge, a historian responsible for the preservation of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, staff from Pennsylvania’s Lt. Governor’s office, a regulator in the state’s Department of Environmental Programs, gun experts, and more. One of the most helpful experts I interviewed was a landowner in northern Pennsylvania who leased his land to a hydraulic fracturing company in the early days of the state’s fracking boom. He took me on a tour of both his lands and other fracking sites at different stages of development. He also walked me through his personal experience by showing me his photographs of the transformation of his property. A beautiful woodland that step by step by step turned into an acre of gravel and machinery. Pristine drinking water that now requires constant filtering just for showers and bathing. Battles with the energy company about compensation for various problems. His fracking tutorial was eye-opening.
Of course, research is only one aspect of the writing process...
The best-researched book will fall flat if the reader doesn’t embrace the story. The main focus of Dead of Spring and my earlier novels, Dead of Autumn and Dead of Summer, is suspense and mystery. I want to keep my readers on the edge of their seats as the plot unfolds. At its most effective, the research should disappear into the background of a book, so it doesn’t interfere with the hair-raising suspense.
It might take a village to help create an accurate and believable fictional world. But, in the end, it’s the author’s job to design and color that world, bring the characters to life and craft an engaging and compelling plot. Perhaps I should start looking for that garret.
Sherry Knowlton is the author of the successful Alexa Williams series of suspense novels: Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer and Dead of Spring. When not writing the next Alexa Williams thriller, Knowlton works on her health care consulting business or travels around the world. She and her husband live in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania. Check out her website at http://www.sherryknowlton.com/
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.