How Research Can Save Your Book

barclayI’m funny about doing research for my novels. If I’m not collaborating on a project, I like to wing it with what I can pull from my subconscious memory, on the first draft at least. Then I go back and fill in the missing holes. It’s fun to cover a fresh printout with sticky notes and make lists of what I need to know. But I’m kind of geeky that way.

The Poughkeepsie Train Station. In a novel I read, the author gave it blue plastic seating, like a Trailways bus station. Research, people!

The Poughkeepsie Train Station. In a novel I read, the author gave it blue plastic seating, like a Trailways bus station. Research, people!

For Sliding Past Vertical, the novel that’s coming out toward the end of the summer, I thought I had it made, as far as knowing my locations. Part of it is set in Boston, part in Syracuse. I lived in Boston for five years and in Syracuse for the whole of my undergraduate degree. I thought I knew what I was writing about. But something nagged at me when I read my drafts. I needed another dose of both places to make sure I was remembering correctly. Memory can be a strange beast, and I’d be mortified if the book came out with glaring errors that could have been avoided with a bit of research, or, even better, a trip.

Syracuse was the hazier memory of the two, so I took a few days off, booked a hotel room, packed up my manuscript, and drove the four hours to the university area. I walked the streets my characters walked, felt the broken pavement under my shoes, smelled the smells, and made notes about the architecture. I had my particular fond memories of different parts of campus. For instance, most of the quad proper sits on a drumlin. Basically, a drumlin is a giant mound of debris left behind by a retreating glacier. Much of upstate New York is peppered with them. They make handy places upon which to build a college campus, although climbing all those stairs to get to the top grows old after about three days.

The edge of the SU drumlin that faces the city of Syracuse is a fairly sheer drop. A wooden stairway had been built into the side that took groaning students some 100 steps from the Brewster/Boland dormitories to the level top of the quad. One of my favorite places was a small, grassy ledge just to the side of the top stair. When I had a late class or team practice, I’d sit for a while and watch the sun set. In fact, I’d written this into the book. Much to my dismay, when I toured the campus this time, the stairway was covered with Plexiglas domes and the ledge, my lovely ledge, was gone, an expansion of the law building now in its stead. I don’t necessarily begrudge the law department an expansion (okay, yes, I do), but why did it have to be built on my ledge and screw up my book?

I grumbled about this all the way back my hotel room, where I furiously scribbled on my manuscript. Then it came to me. Why not use these changes, and these tricks of memory, to my advantage? So when Sarah revisits her alma mater some eight years after graduation, she can react to the changes. She can bemoan the loss of her ledge as well as the lovely overstuffed chairs she remembered from the basement coffee house of the campus chapel.

Sometimes, you just need to use change to your advantage. Take that, law department.

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9 thoughts on “How Research Can Save Your Book

  1. acflory says:

    Loved this post Laurie. I’m kind of anal about research too, and I love the fact your own, personal return to the past led to an even better outcome.

    I’m with DVB – love the title, and am really looking forward to the new book. I’m amazed you’ve written it so quickly. Seems like yesterday that you announced the old one was kaput. Clearly that decision was a good one. Now just hurry up and get Sliding Past Vertical published. 😀

    • laurieboris says:

      Thank you, AC! This is one I wrote a while ago but put away for further revision. (Although I’d love to say I could write that quickly!) After the last manuscript bit the dust, this one pulled me and I found I had more to say about it.

  2. laurieboris says:

    Current inventory: Two written a while ago and unpublished. Three NaNoWriMo first drafts waiting for me to make them into actual books. Sliding Past Vertical. And I’ve just started the first book of (what might be) a trilogy. But I’m not working on all of them at once. At the most, three, in various stages of development. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing.

  3. melparish says:

    The Poughkeepsie Train station is beautiful, but I guess that author hoped not too many readers would have been there to know it didn’t have blue plastic seating! One of the reasons I like to make up fictional towns is that you can’t be caught out with something like this. Plus you don’t have to worry that people in the town will be offended by the characters that you populate your novel with (especially the less likeable ones!) – like the corrupt official or the ineffective detective, etc.

  4. Jen Daniele says:

    It definitely pays to do your homework because I feel like the readers who know better won’t forgive you for messing something up when there’s Google at your fingertips. I’m up to my eyeballs in research right now, which I don’t really mind so much (big nerd, right here). I just want to get it all right. Can’t imagine what nonfiction writers go through.

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