Jun 19, 2013

Research - for fun and profit! Annie West

Paris Square
It was only after I was first published that I realised the importance of research. I discovered there is always someone who knows, (or believes they know) what you've written about in detail. Sometimes that knowledge is a source of pleasure and leads to a friendly discussion between reader and author, and maybe a sharing of reminiscences. If you get the detail wrong, its a source of dissatisfaction to a reader.

Desert sunset
As a contemporary author I'm lucky. I don't have to remember the intricacies of social mores in another time period, but there are still things to trip up an unwary author.

My first book was set partly in Wollemi National Park, NW of Sydney. A friendly reader contacted me saying they'd enjoyed the story but letting me know I'd erred in mentioning a Death Adder in the bush there. She'd lived in the Sydney region all her life and said Tiger Snakes and Browns were the ones in that area. Fortunately I knew that there were also death adders as I'd seen them when I'd bush walked in the same area as my characters. But that experience reminded me that readers DO care what they read and they care about whether you get it right.

Blue Mountains
Over the years I've had to research a range of topics - on the net, in person and via email. I've rung strangers in embassies to check on the likely prison sentence for a conviction of manslaughter in Italy. I've discussed the treatment illnesses with people who've experienced or treated them. I've visited a gun shop to have an in depth discussion on the use and abuse of certain firearms. I've chatted with people about their families' favourite recipes from their country of origin, learned about scuba diving near the Arabian Peninsula, watched programs on underwater archaeology and interrogated experts on the preservation of books and old documents. And that's just a taste of my research.

Alpine sleigh ride
Along the way I've discovered the research I enjoy most is the sort where I get to experience things first hand. In order to write my stories I rely on a strong sense of place. The location for my books must be vivid in my mind for me to proceed. I write based on places I know or places I've created in my mind, based on localities I've visited.

Here are a few places I've visited specifically for my writing. Paris has appeared in a couple of my books now and I love setting scenes there. Visiting that gorgeous city provided inspiration for quite a few scenes in my books and I know it's going to crop up again.

I've written quite a few sheikh romances but it was a while since I was in the Middle East so on a trip to Europe a few years ago I made a point of stopping and visiting some of the places I wanted to write about - including the desert at sunset and the souk (particularly the spice markets and the jewellery stores). The pictures I took are a source of inspiration but so too are memories of how it felt to be there and even the scent of the place.

Sleeping in a castle
'Undone By His Touch' was set in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Declan watched his brother fall to his death while climbing on a sheer cliff there and he still bears the scars. Walking in the mountains, and climbing those cliffs (albeit on stairs cut into the cliff rather than by rope) helped me visualise the location and write those scenes.

military uniform
Then there were the royal stories, set in an alpine kingdom that owed a lot to Ruritania. The first of these stories included a romantic sleigh ride through fresh powder snow in a gorgeous mountain setting. Yes, I could have written it without riding in a sleigh, but wow! Writing the scene was so much more vivid for having experienced it myself.

And if you're writing a royal story there's something to be said for visiting a castle. Not just visiting but staying there. I was lucky enough to spend a night in a castle overlooking the Rhine on a wintry night near Christmas. The skies weren't blue but the place was almost deserted because it was off season. As a result it felt as if we had the place to ourselves - just what you want if you're trying to imagine living there. And being a Cinderella story there was the question of uniforms. My Prince Charming needed an old style dress uniform for a ball - a perfect reason to check out a local historical museum for the finer points of dressing my alpha male.

Garden at Clos Luce
I'm including a photo of Clos Luce in Amboise, France. This is the garden surrounding the lovely old manor where Leonardo da Vince lived out his final years. After spending an afternoon there I had a stack of ideas for my book 'Defying Her Desert Duty' (which, despite the title is set mainly in France). I set several chapters in the house and the beautiful gardens, which inspired a pivotal scene I hadn't planned till my visit. It was being there in person that helped me work out, not merely the location, but the direction of the story.

I'm hoping to do plenty more research for future books, hopefully with a little travel thrown in and definitely with a chance to chat with interesting people.

How about you? If you're a writer what's the most interesting thing you've done in the name of research? If you're not a writer, what would you like an excuse to research?


  1. Annie, I hope you do travel a whole lot more because I could just gobble up your photographs. :-)

    Staying in Hobart for a couple of weeks last year became the inspiration for my book that will come out this October. That was certainly fun. One of the most interesting things I've done in the name of research was go on a dolphin watching tour where I was able to grill the tour guide not only about dolphins, but about the day-to-day running of the business and the style of boat we were on. He had so much to say he hosted me to a whole second tour. :-)

  2. I travelled to the Amalfi Coast in Italy to research a book a few years back.
    Oh my.....it was fabulous! And I was so inspired by their regional food I came home and started to grow basil!
    And now I'm definitely going to have to spend the night in a castle overlooking the Rhine! It's now #1 on my to-do list - thanks Annie for the inspiration :-)

  3. Ooh, Michelle, I remember your book about the dolphin watching! So good...

    Laughing here as, when I read your comment, my eye caught on 'grill' then 'dolphins' and I was thinking: no, no!

    I'm looking forward to finding out what you've done with the Hobart setting with your upcoming book. Isn't it fascinating, the way places inspire us?

  4. Amy, that research trip to the Amalfi Coast sounded fantastic. It's on my list and has moved higher since your visit. How nice to start growing herbs as a result. I love the smell of basil!

    I can recommend the Rhine castle and I'd definitely recommend a winter visit even if the skies are grey. Then you get that sense almost of ownership because you can wander around without being disturbed - magic!

  5. Annie, what a fab post. I'm envious of all those wonderful experiences you had seeing all those beautiful places and things. Particularly taken with the uniform - that's how I pictured your lovely Prince Alaric and Prince Raul when they were all dressed up! One of the many things I love about your books is how vividly you write settings - I can always picture exactly where all those passionate scenes are taking place!

  6. Fab post! I love your pics :) How lucky to travel all in the name of research!!

    I've always been fastidious about my research however, with my current WIP my hero is a superstar. It's a little hard to make contact with one to check details when they have millions of fans ;)

    I was lucky to recently chat with the lovely Jess Dee who's written a (fabulous) series where the heroes are rock stars. She was a huge help - thanks Jess :)

  7. Hi Annie

    Great post and pics!
    One thing I love about writing is that we can travel far and wide in the name of research :) And it sounds like you've done just that.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.


  8. Wow, Annie, you've certainly gone the extra mile for your research! Sadly I mainly google places and things for my books- although I'm always on the look out for any opportunity to travel and count that as research!

  9. Anna, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Wasn't the uniform terrific? There were others too and I had a marvellous time imagining my princes wearing old style uniforms (much to their annoyance).

    I know you do lots of research for your historicals. I find it's often the tiny details that bring a place or a scene alive to me, though often I don't get to put a lot of it in the writing.

  10. Joanne, research can be tricky at times, can't it? Good on you for finding a way around that particular difficulty to get more info! I've occasionally found people quite close to home who can help me with tricky research points.

  11. Hi Michelle,
    It's definitely one of the perks of writing. my last two trips were tailored around research, though I'm glad to say I also fitted in a little private time too. I'm still amazed at how much I've drawn on the information I got on those trips, even down to inspiration for particular scenes.

  12. Louisa - isn't google wonderful? I've been researching all sorts of little bits and pieces on the net - often just niggling things that I need to sort out in my own head before I proceed. Some of the travel books with lots and lots of photos are marvellous too.

  13. Great post Annie. I don't know if this is my most interesting but my favourite bit of research so far was visiting Venice. It was wonderful to be able to include lots of detail about the city in my story. I'd also been on a reality TV show which was the inspiration for my second book.

  14. Annie, I love all those photos - thanks for sharing. I've added a couple of things to my bucket list too. :)

    My second book, The Blackmailed Bride's Secret Child, is set in New Zealand, in and around a winery. I was staying with Barbara DeLeo when I was creating the characters and story, and she not only brainstormed it with me, but she took me around to see the local scenery and the wineries. Her husband even gave me a tour of the behind the scenes of his winery and Barbara let me sample lots of the wines. Hard research, I tell you. ;)

  15. Jennifer, being on a reality TV show would be such a font of information and inspiration for stories, I'd imagine. As for Venice - yes, please. It's an amazing place, isn't it?

  16. Rachel, I'm glad you enjoyed the pics. There were so many to choose from it was hard deciding which ones to include.

    What a marvellous experience, visiting Barbara and the vineyard and getting the low down on it all. That's one book of yours I haven't read. Must search it out. Good to see you worked hard in support of your writing!

  17. Hi Annie, I'd love to do some research (as a reader) of the fantastic locations that are always written about in the books, I've never been further than Australia and I'd love to go see England, France... the US... basically anywhere in Europe. Since I had my kids in my 20s I'm hoping I can do this later in life :D

  18. Hi Tash! This way you've got it all to look forward to. You'll have to plan a couple of big trips. My problem is there are always so many places I want to visit and not enough time.