Author and writing coach Christine DeSmet is an expert at doing research. With a background in journalism she brings to her fiction writing that perfect combination of curiosity and know-how needed to conduct primary—or first hand, in-person—research. The kind of research that bring characters, place, and story alive.
Christine understands that many writers are intimidated by the thought of doing first person research and readily admits that writers can conduct the bulk of their research on the internet. But, she says, "the Internet is not the same as planting your feet on the actual soil of a place and visiting with local people, or sharing a laugh."
If you are someone who shies away from doing first person research, check out these words of advice from someone who doesn't hesitate to let people know she's a novelist looking for information to give her books that authentic edge.
MCW: You are a screenwriter, playwright, and novelist. What role does research play in the fiction you create?
Christine: Research creates my stories. I start out a story with a sketchy outline, and I know in general what the story will contain, but then after I do research I find many, many new angles and facts that change or deepen my plot, characters, and setting. There are also many facts that go into writing fiction; you have to get the facts right. My protagonist in First-Degree Fudge (Book 1, The Door County Fudge Shop Mystery Series) for example, enjoys chemistry and science, though she has no college degree in science; she’s just fascinated by what makes the world run. But to write about fudge in a scientific way, I interviewed the head of research and development at DB Infusions Chocolates in Madison, Wis., for example, and watched their process of making chocolates. I asked questions about how to handle the “crystals” that make up chocolate. That crystallization information became a clue in my mystery plot.
MCW: What about the old adage, "Write what you know about?"
Christine: Rubbish. Write about what fascinates you (Tip #1). Research is the lifeblood of writers. We’re explorers who set out constantly to find new worlds and discover new things so that we can bring back that new information to our readers and communities. When I started my series on fudge, I knew almost nothing about fudge except that I liked to eat it. I wasn’t sure there was all that much to learn about fudge. Boy was I wrong! And what fun it’s been to delve into its history, for example. It was popularized in this country in the 1880s when the women students of Vassar College thought the chocolate treat would do well at a fundraiser. Indeed, it did. Other colleges copied them, creating their own fudge recipes.
MCW: Isn’t it possible to write an entire novel without ever doing any research?
Christine: Yes, it is possible. Fiction has no rules. People leading interesting lives or who have interesting thoughts can sit down and write a novel just from what they know and that book can be successful.
MCW: In the age of the Internet, can't writers find whatever they need to know on the World Wide Web?
Christine: They can usually get 75 percent of what they need, but then there’s that 25 percent of extra work you still need to do. Internet information is often wrong, so you have to verify everything you read there (Tip #2). We journalists and writers always know you want three credible sources for everything. What’s more, the Internet is not the same as planting your feet on the actual soil of a place and visiting with local people, or sharing a laugh. If I relied just on the Internet, I would have missed meeting and talking with wonderful people like Al and Theresa Alexander of Brussels, Wisconsin, who gave me an amazing tour and insider information about the historic Belgian church, St. Mary of the Snows, in Namur, a tiny village in Door County, Wisconsin. The Internet couldn’t show me all the hidden areas from the basement to the belfry of that church, which will come into play in my mystery series.
MCW: When you do in-person research, how do you prepare for it?
Christine: I prepare a list of preliminary questions (Tip #3) of things I need to know based on my character’s profession, the plot, setting, and the crime. (I write mystery books.) I might have ten to twenty questions at first. I also do an Internet search on the person I’m going to interview (Tip #4), just in case something interesting pops up about them. I then scan the Internet for more general information about the subject matter, and look for books I might need at the library and bookstores. I also touch base with family or friends, just in case they come up with a question I might not have thought about. I focus on “Why” and “How” questions (Tip #5). I skip easy questions such as “What year was your church founded?” because I can find those facts in resources online. When I’m with a person in-person, I want to know “why” they do what they do and “why” it interests them and “how” they came to live where they do. Those “why/how” questions tend to yield a goldmine of information you don’t expect. I’m always attuned to letting the person surprise or shock me with their information.
MCW: Do you let people you are talking with know that you are researching for a novel? How do they react to that?
Christine: Yes, I’m always honest and upfront (Tip #6). They’re pleased that I take the time to do good research. There’s respect for you doing a professional job. I’ve found that once they find out I’m a writer they go overboard to point out other sources of information for me to pursue. A natural partnership develops with your interviewees.
MCW: Do you just drop in on people, or do you set up appointments?
MCW: I do both. I set up appointments (Tip #7), always, with experts or people who may have crucial facts or information for me and who are very busy. I always respect a person’s time. But of course I also take advantage of people who expect you to drop by (Tip #8), such as bartenders, store clerks, wait staff, hotel clerks, local cops, and so on. When working on my novel research, I made a point of stopping at out-of-the-way restaurants and bars in Door County that I knew the average tourist wouldn’t find or bother to visit. I talked with locals and listened to them talk to each other (Tip #9) about issues important to them in their daily lives in their own backyard. I also write down in a notepad whatever I see (Tip #10) in their office or environment, things such as fliers about local events, types of décor, the type of equipment or furniture they use, and anything else that’s there. I know exactly what color and kind of chair you sit on if you’re arrested in Door County and will be talking to your lawyer in jail!
MCW: What is the most important thing writers should know about doing research for their book?
Christine: Don’t be afraid to ask people your “why/how” questions. (Bonus Tip!) And no question is too dumb or insignificant; ask away! People love to be asked questions about what they do, where they live, and how they came to live there. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about your character and setting, too; people will feed you facts that will deepen what you write.
A writing teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christine specializes in one-on-one coaching of writers and offers an online novel-writing course. Her first published novel, Spirit Lake, was an award-winning, best-selling novel for publisher Hard Shell Word Factory/Mundania Press. Also a short fiction writer, her humorous romantic mystery series set in Wisconsin appears in two volumes: Mischief in Moonstone and Men of Moonstone from Whiskey Creek Press as well as in several anthologies.
Christine recently landed a three-book deal with Penguin's New American Library/Obsidian imprint for her Door County Fudge Shop Mystery Series. First-Degree Fudge is her series debut.