Thursday, October 18, 2012

Just Enough

by Alan

How much research do you do for your books?

The short answer is: just enough to get the job done. I’m not one of those research lovers who pores over old books in the stacks or delves deep into the details. I do just enough research to allow me to depict the settings, situations, and characters in my books with verisimilitude.

But, on occasion, I will venture out of my writing cave to do some research. Here’s a summary of a recent research excursion I took for my work-in–progress:

DSCF2134The last few scenes of my book take place in Washington, D.C., on the Mall (The National Mall. You know, the place with the Capitol and Washington Monument). So I put myself in my protagonist’s shoes and drove to the Vienna Metro station where I boarded an Orange Line train (I’m a Northern Virginia suburbanite—it didn’t take long).

Then I made notes about what I experienced (saw, heard, smelled (yuck)) as we paralleled I-66 before diving underground. At Metro Center, I changed trains, but not before darting from platform to platform, trying to shed imaginary followers (as my protagonist does). I kept track of which escalators I took and where I doubled back and what the whoosh of air preceding the trains into the station felt like. If anyone was truly following me, I must have looked quite confused (and/or suspicious)!DSCF2193

When I got off the subway—where the protagonist in my story gets off—I pulled out my camera and began to take pictures as I walked. In many cases, I didn’t even slow down as I pressed the shutter button, because I was timing how long it took me to reach certain landmarks. (In all, I took 221 pictures.)

I continued this for the next hour or so, snapping more pictures and traipsing along the Mall. Then I visited a couple of D.C. “attractions” (which shall remain nameless for the time being), to do some research for two particular scenes. At each place, I took a guided tour, again snapping pictures and asking questions where necessary (the questions had more to do with the buildings’ layouts, than the collections, which I’m sure made my guides suspicious. Thankfully, no one called security on me).

DSCF2040When I got home, I revised my draft to include all the new material I’d learned. I need to make another jaunt into town to shore up a few more details, and then it’s a wrap!


Meredith Cole said...

I made a similar trip to DC (longer train ride) to do some research for a book as well, Alan. Although I used to live there, I had to brush up on some details. And I got to ask a park ranger exactly how deep the tidal basin is near the shore, and if someone who ended up in it could walk or would have to swim. That's the kind of stuff they never have on the websites!

Alan Orloff said...

I know, right? Plus, the tour guides never really have a good answer to the question, "If someone killed a person here, where could they drag the body without anyone noticing?"

Catriona McPherson said...

Um,Alan? If that's not a lot of research what exactly would be?!

Barb Goffman said...

That's why personal trial runs are so important, Alan. Sometimes you just have to find out for yourself.

Alan Orloff said...

Catriona, I figure I can spend 4 or 5 hours per year doing research. I mean, it's (literally) the least I can do.

Barb, I think I should have my characters go on fancy vacations or drive expensive cars. Those I'd like to experience...