When you do book research, hitting the trail to interview sources will open your eyes and inspire your writing much more than surfing the Internet.
Yes, my friends, I can now say with authority that steers are much larger than they appear from the safety of a car window. I have tramped through cow pastures — and the inevitable patties — to make sure I got my facts straight. And not just the historical ones!
That's why I know that the Internet has its limitations where book research is concerned. Websites won't let fiction writers experience the twang of a Texas drawl. Nor will websites get a twinkle in their eyes when they spin yarns about forbidden forays into Farmer Evans's watermelon patch.
Fiction writers who habitually shy away from an interview with sources are doing themselves a disservice. Chosen carefully, a reliable source can cut book research in half and give you more time for writing. Good interview sources don't fall out of trees, though, so you'll have to do some legwork to find them. That's when community relations folks and public affairs people become your best friends.
I was raised in Yankee Country, so I needed to do some intensive research on Texas history in order to write my first three historical Romance novels. For Texas Outlaw, I worked my way around the switchboard of the Texas Department of Public Safety to get an interview with a Texas Ranger. I was finally paired up with a blessedly patient sergeant named Rocky, who spent three hours answering all my research questions, including the inane ones, such as, "Which side do you pin your badge on?"
Rocky was full of valuable information, including the fact that Texas Rangers are forbidden to wear black Stetsons. For the good guys, only white or light gray hats will do.
Unfortunately, Rocky could only speak with authority on modern crime-fighting, so I drove to Waco's Texas Ranger Museum to research Ranger operations, circa 1875. I learned that these law fighters were dubbed "Rangers" because they were originally hired to range across Texas. This news forced me to re-think my plot: in order to remain historically accurate, I realized I would have to make Texas Outlaw's hero a Deputy U.S. Marshal, not a Texas Ranger, because I wanted him to track my lady train robber across state lines.
Fortunately, I eventually got to use my Waco research. In Texas Lover, the second historical Romance in my Texas Trilogy, I turned the hero, Wes Rawlins, into a Ranger. I'm sure I amused quite a few museum docents when I referred to Wes's double-holstered rig of Colt .45s as "pistols." (Oh yeah. Gun aficionados in Waco remember me.)
Fortunately, there were plenty of well-informed historians on hand as interview sources. They explained that Texas Rangers in the Old West called their revolvers "Peacemakers" or "Equalizers," and that Texas Rangers were not likely to use a shotgun (a.k.a. "scatter gun") because Rangers needed long-distance firing power. Thanks to my interview sources in Waco, I now understand why the Winchester rifle was the "gun that won the West."
Since the third historical romance in my Texas Trilogy was more about cattle ranching than outlaw-chasing, I had to hit the trail again to do book research for Texas Wildcat. At the Texas Department of Agriculture, I got into a lively discussion about pork-on-the-hoof and the less-than-docile nature of swine.
This delightfully off-topic conversation lead to one of those shining “ah-ha” moments that I never would have experienced if I’d sat at home, following Internet links about Texas cattle ranching across a gazillion websites. Thanks to my interview sources' anecdotes about the pork industry in Cincinnati (which 19th Century farmers and ranchers dubbed Porkopolis) I got one of the brightest ideas in Texas Wildcat’s plot: I created a comical account of pig-herding for a contest in my rodeo scene.
My friends at the Department of Agriculture then sent me to Blanco County, where my next source was a goat, sheep, and cattle breeder, who could trace her ancestry to the original Austin Colony. Coni Ross also happened to be the first woman ever to win the national Soil Conservation Rancher of the Year Award.
But I knew I had a real gem in this source when Coni confided that she read historical Romances. Coni's familiarity with my genre gave her insight into the book research process. She was able to volunteer important facts, like, "You don't want your heroine lambing out on the prairie, Adrienne. Those animals will need a sheltered environment. Put your heroine's sheep pens inside a box canyon."
Watching Coni at work with her Border Collie, Fran, I quickly lost my notions about the romance of ranching. Coni and Fran single-handedly worked four ranches in three counties. No drop-dead gorgeous cowboys were waiting by the barn to help Coni whole 50-pound bags of feed to the livestock pens. Coni had to haul that those loads by herself, one at a time, on her shoulder.
Coni was a refreshing combination of straight-forward talk, no-nonsense business, and feminine charm. I knew I had to model Bailey, the heroine in Texas Wildcat after her. My interview with Coni saved me hours of additional book research because she was an authority on screw worm, ear-notching, and veterinary procedures.
As for the animals, I admired the feisty Fran as she herded the goats, despite the threat of two guard dogs that out-weighed her by 100 pounds.
My favorite animal research came from the goats, though. I watched, mouth agape, as a kidd climbed a tree to munch its leaves. Needless to say, that delightfully eye-opening experience found its way into Texas Wildcat.
Let's face it: book research can be tedious. But if you drive with Texas Rangers or ride with Texas cattle ranchers, you gather emotional insights and a treasure trove of anecdotes.
So venture into the field! Enliven your book research with anecdotes from interview sources and give your readers and authentic slice of life in your fiction.