No part of our lives is wasted. Thoughts on writing and research.

I had the hardest time picking a major in college.

Everything interested me.

(Well, except for math.)

Truly.

Everything.

Just ask my roomate from back in those days.

From medicine to literature, political science to genetics, journalism to plant biology…there is so much wonder in the world…and so much to wonder at…how could I possibly choose just one thing to focus on for the rest of my life?

While I used to feel inadequate about my indecisiveness, I’m finally realizing I’m wired this way for a reason, and that writing novels is the ultimate and wonderful culmination of all my passions.

When I write a story, I can be whoever, wherever, and whenever I want

I can live on a pecan farm in Alabama (How Sweet the Sound). I can be a nationally renowned jewelry artist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or South Haven, Michigan, or a Jewish boy escaping Eastern Europe in 1904 (Then Sings My Soul). I can be a dairy farmer or a pastor and live in a small town (Lead Me Home).

And all of that takes research.

Glorious, wonderful research in libraries and online, in documentaries and journals, and even in my own back yard.

I have books on pecan farming and I’ve spent hours watching pecan farmers on YouTube. 

I have binders full of lapidary design and stacks of books on rocks and minerals.

I’ve spent hours at my cousin’s dairy farm and I even hauled my family north to South Haven, Michigan one spring break when they’d have much preferred to go south.

And now I’m at it again.

I can’t say a whole lot about the current novel I’m working on, but here’s a stack of some of the reference books I’m using. The fiction ones you see are there not because of the subject, but because I’m studying those authors’ writing styles. You’ll also notice books on the writing craft, wildlife, and more.


Last week I even went on a wonderful field trip to spend a couple of hours interviewing a woman who is a wildlife rehabilitator. (So much fun!!!)

I hope you’ll be able to see the fruits of my current research sometime in 2018. Until then, I’ll share bits and pieces like this.

Mostly, I wanted to encourage you today to know that even though some seasons of our lives don’t make sense, no parts are wasted. Not even the painful parts. 

I agree with Carrie Fisher, who said to, “take your broken heart, and make it into art.”

All things work together, after all. 

That truth is more evident the more I learn, whether studying the life cycle of a pecan or the intricacies of a gemstone; the incredible instincts of rabbits and squirrels to care for their young; the way monarchs migrate for miles and across generations; the birds of prey and ducks who mate for life; and the ability of nature to heal itself. 

We live in a pretty amazing world, don’t we?

So, this is a glimpse into my writing life and what I’m working on at the start of 2017. 

It’s great fun.

It’s a lot of hard work.

And most of all–best of all–the results are a gift to you, dear readers. 

What about you?

What are you working on this year?

If you are a writer, do you like research? Why or why not?

Dear Reader: Tell me something I don’t know.

IMG_7413Last week, the local librarian raised her eyebrows as I approached the circulation desk with a stack of books up to my chin.

“Can I leave these here for a few?” I asked. “I gotta run downstairs to get some more.”

Thankfully, they have baskets to borrow too, for people like me.

My third novel, Lead Me Home, is in the thick of the editing process, which frees up my time to 1) get my teenagers back to school and 2) start my fourth book.

I’m not precisely sure what this fourth novel will be about–at least not enough to talk much about it yet. But I do know a few things, like setting (somewhere in Appalachia) and time (late 1940’s-50s).

The other day I was talking to a friend about this story.

“Have you ever been to Appalachia?”

I hesitated.

“I’ve driven through it on the way to the beach,” I replied.

To date, all of my books are set in vastly different times and locations. How Sweet the Sound was in rural, southwest coast Alabama. Then Sings My Soul had dual locations of Ukraine and South Haven, Michigan. Lead Me Home is set in my home state of Indiana. Some of these places I’ve been to, but (except for Lead Me Home), I’ve never spent more than a few days in any of them.

So no, I’ve never been to Appalachia.

And I wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye in the 1940’s/50s.

Sometimes I have a lot of fear and angst about writing about places I’ve never really lived. My greatest apprehension is that I won’t be able to do a place or a people justice, or that I’ll misrepresent them. When that happens, I rely on a lot of prayer…and my beloved editors.

So by and far, most of the information about the setting and places of my novels is from research.

Books.

Periodicals.

The internet.

Phone interviews with locals.

Video documentaries.

And more books.

By the time it’s all said and done, setting becomes a sort of character of its own within my books. 

One of the most unexpected places I’ve discovered for great research is the juvenile section of the library. Often, I just need a nugget of information to spin a chapter or a scene, and the in-depth, “grown-up” books have too much information to sift through. But books targeted to elementary aged kiddos often have the basics, explained in basic ways.

Perfect stuff for a novelist.

Here’s the stack I came away with last week.

***  ***

As I type, I’m watching a three-disc documentary about Appalachia. Johnny Cash is crooning in my ear. Time-lapsed video of mist rising over and above the Blue Ridge Mountains catches my eye. Old photographs with the black eyes of people who lived generations ago stare at me from the screen and haunt me and I know…

…I have to tell a story.

I’m sure not every novelist does so much research. I’m sure James Michener did reams and reams more. No doubt, the amount of research depends on what each individual writer feels called to write.

As for me, now I know why it was so hard for me to choose a college major. I loved–and still love–learning about everything…biology, geology, politics, sociology, psychology, food, music, history, and did I mention food? The world is an amazing place.

Writing is an amazing way I get to keep on learning.

And to write about it, to boot.

***

   ***

What about you, dear reader?

Do you like research?

Did you like to do research when you were in school?

Would you rather read a history book or travel guide, or would you rather read a novel based on those things?


newsletterthanksDear Reader is a series I post on every week. If you’re a reader and have an idea or question you’d like me to write about, relating to books or writing or editing, etc., jot me a note and I’d be much obliged to take a stab at your request. Also, if you’d like to read all the Dear Reader posts, click here. If you like insider information into my books or writing life, be sure to sign up for my author newsletter by clicking here.

What’s a cat food factory got to do with it? On research and novel writing and a sample of How Sweet the Sound

I must’ve switched majors at least twenty times when I was in college.

I wish I was exaggerating for my poor parents’ sake, but I just couldn’t settle on one subject.

I liked them all.

Politics and history, literature and poetry, pre-med and genetics and microbiology and plant biology and even organic chemistry. (Except math. I hated math.)

Eventually, I finished (!) with a bachelors in nursing (which I also love to this day). And while at the time all that major switching felt confusing and uncertain and even dizzying to my roommates and family (for the love, Amy, just PICK something!!!), now that I’m a novelist, I know why I had such a hard time settling in to one subject of study.

For every page of a book of mine you read, you can be sure there are at least ten pages of research behind it.

And I love every second of the research I do for my novels.

In fact, research might be my favorite part of novel writing. Take How Sweet the Sound. It’s set in 1979 and 1980. In one scene, the protagonist, Anni, is at the beauty parlor flipping through a Seventeen magazine. I had to research who was on the cover of Seventeen that month. That led me to eBay and vintage magazine web sites.

Moreover, the entire book is set on a pecan orchard, which I had no clue about except for driving past them on the highway on the way to the Alabama gulf coast. I bought books on pecan cultivation, watched YouTube videos on pecan harvesting, scoured agricultural websites and read tens of copies of newsletters published online by pecan growers all across the South.

I researched cars of that era, top ten song lists, foods, clothing, hair styles, cotillion rules, square dancing, the biology and weather patterns of Mobile Bay, plants of the region, birds, dialect, the history of the Freedom Riders, and so much more.

My second novel, Then Sings My Soul coming March 1, 2015, takes place partially in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution, and partially in 1990’s South Haven, Michigan. I won’t even begin to tell you how much research that one took!

As another example of novel research and a special treat, I thought I’d share the first few paragraphs of How Sweet the Sound with you, and in particular, I want you to notice the mention of the cat food factory. It was a real place, and it really did provide ice to folks back when Hurricane Frederic hit the area. You can click here to read the website from which I gleaned this information: Remembering Hurricane Frederic : The Alabama Weather Blog. (Make sure you read Tom’s comments on that page.)

So see, for those of you who suspected I was a great big nerd, now you know for sure!

*****

How Sweet the Sound

CHAPTER 1

I thought I’d lived through everything by the time I was thirteen. Hurricane Frederic nearly wiped the southern part of Alabama off the map that fall, and half of our family’s pecan orchards along with it. Daddy said we were lucky—that the Miller pecan farm down the road lost everything. The Puss ’n Boots Cat Food factory supplied our whole town of Bay Spring with ice and water for nearly a week until the power and phones came back on along the coast of Mobile Bay. Anyone who could hold a hammer or start up a chain saw spent weeks cutting up all the uprooted trees and azaleas, pounding down new shingles, and cleaning up all that God, in His infinite fury, blew through our land. Like most folks who lived along the coast, we’d find a way to build back up—if we weren’t fooled into thinking the passing calm of the eye meant the storm was over.

If I’d only known this about Hurricane Frederic—that the drudging months leading up to Thanksgiving would be the only peace we’d see for some time. Weren’t no weathermen or prophets with megaphones standing on top of the Piggly Wiggly Saturday mornings to shout warnings of storms and second comings to us.

The only warning was the twitch of my grandmother’s eye…

*****

Want to read more of How Sweet the Sound? Visit your local, independent book seller, or click one of the retailers on the sidebar here to get yourself a copy. I’d be much obliged. And besides that, you never know what else you might learn from all the research embedded in this little tale!

 *****

P.S. Here’s a really old Puss ‘n Boots cat food commercial: