For far too many writers the word ‘research’ brings up unpleasant images of slaving away in dusty library stacks taking notes or endless hours at the computer tracing down esoteric and difficult to find sites. Some love both, but most don’t. Far too many novelists don’t like research at all, which is a pity, both for the reader and for the writer.
Research can bring new knowledge, new friends and some fantastic adventures. When I was doing THE EGYPTIAN FILE (written by my Janis Susan May persona) I needed some exact information about a graffito in a tomb at the necropolis of El Kab. I had been there some years earlier (which is how I found out about the graffito) but could not remember in which tomb it had been.
I appealed to Dr. Dirk Huyge, the Director of the mission to El Kab, and he very kindly answered my questions and – after finding out just what went on the tomb in my story – gave me permission to invent a new tomb. Thus began a friendship. After a while he suggested that I set a story in the dig house of the El Kab excavation – formally known as Bayt Clarke. The house was built in 1906 by an English Egyptologist named Somers Clarke for his home in retirement. He loved his home, to the extent of being buried in the courtyard. There are many recorded sightings of his ghost, too.
Dr. Huyge then suggested that The Husband and I come stay at the dig house so I could research the book. Believe me, civilians never get to stay at dig houses – Dr. Huyge had to work his way through three levels of Egyptian bureaucracy to get us permission to do so, but he did and so we went. The result is A KILLING AT EL KAB, written by my Janis Patterson persona. It was released on 20 March (a year almost to the day from our stay there) and is a book I am so very proud of.
But adventures in research don’t always end in trips to exotic locales; in fact, I wish that happened more often! Usually the results are closer to home. I’ve observed an autopsy (not for the faint of heart, but nowhere near as gruesome as I had feared), gone riding in a helicopter, shot several incredible weapons, danced to the music of the waves on the deserted prow of a moon-washed cruise ship in the tropics, been up to my knees in mud while rockhounding, driven a car at horrifying speeds on a test track, sat in a WWI era plane (on the ground, darn it, though I still cherish dreams of flying in it), piloted a float in an enormous parade, driven on a tiny rocky path through a Mexican jungle… well, you get the idea. There’s almost nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.
But, I can hear you saying, how do I get to do these things? There aren’t any rules – many times I haven’t even had a story in mind when these adventures come up, but that doesn’t stop me! The poster that says “It’s all research” is very true. In fact, some of my books have come from some of my adventures – THE EGYPTIAN FILE being a case in point. That book’s genesis came from a simple tour of Egypt The Husband and I were making with friends.
The secret? It’s not really a secret, but people are fascinated by writers. I remember at El Kab sitting at the dining table (all the office desks were filled) working on the book when two of the archaeologists walked behind me. One whispered to the other, “She’s writing a novel while we watch!” Now I was in awe of these young people – so well educated, so good at their difficult jobs – but it was a shock to discover they were in awe of me, and just for writing!
You don’t have to go halfway around the world to do research either… or to use your writerly credentials. Need information about a gun? Go to your local gun shop or shooting range, or the police information officer or – if you have one in your town – the local ballistic lab. Explain that you’re a novelist and like to have the information in your books accurate, then ask if they can help. Most people in any field will be delighted to help, though you might run into a curmudgeon or two. Don’t let that slow you down; there are lots more people enthusiastic about helping a writer than those who turn you down.
And the best thing is, your books will be accurate, which is always a good thing! Research can be fun.
Janis Susan May is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups. She founded and was the original editor of The Newsletter of the North Texas Chapter of the
which for the nine years of her reign was the international organization’s only
monthly publication. Long interested in Egyptology, she was one of the founders
of the North Texas ARCE chapter and was the closing speaker for the ARCE
International Conference in Egypt
in 2005. Boston
Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.