I don’t know about you, but I love books. Yeah, I guess that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? I’ve got stacks of books for every occasion, but the tallest stacks are the “research libraries” for my various WIPs. (Yes, some of these stacks are temporary since I take full advantage of my local libraries.
Too many research books can weigh you down, though, and lead to the dreaded state of happy paralysis: Research Rapture. The only sure cure for this condition is to put the books away and get back to the writing, but a healthy alternative is to get your boots on the ground for a bit.
There’s nothing like experiencing the world to inform your writing — especially if you happen to be writing about real places. Travel’s expensive, though, and many of us have demanding day jobs and loving families that make it hard to take that month-long safari to Africa you need to research your novel.
If you have the time and money to plan a thorough research trip then by all means, take advantage of the opportunity! But if you have only a few days and a limited budget, there are things you can do to make the most of an ad hoc research trip:
1) Take advantage of upcoming trips. Look for opportunities to combine research in work travel and family vacations. The primary purpose of these sorts of trips is rarely going to be research, but you may be able to shave a few hours from the agenda to inform your current or future WIP. I was recently back east to take care of some family stuff and knew I’d have several days on the road heading westward. Could I take advantage of that long slog back to LA? Turns out I could.
2) Drive. Even with the price of gas these days, driving’s generally cheaper than flying even, if you factor in a night or two at an inexpensive motel. It’s also easier to meander a little off the beaten path. While driving can take time away from research at your destination, consider that the trip itself may be the destination! My current WIP takes place partly in the Dust Bowl of 1930s America, so with a few deviations from my route home, I spent some worthwhile hours soaking in the feel of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.
3) Eat Local. It’s tempting to eat only at convenient chain restaurants along the interstate, but if you’re going to stop for an hour or so to eat, why not find a Mom & Pop diner? Chatting with the server in one Texas town, I got a better sense of life out there on the plains than reading about it would have given me.
4) Look for the local museums. Sometimes there are little museums on town history or even tiny exhibits in one room of the courthouse. These places often operate on volunteers and donations, but may give you an invaluable glimpse into the character of a town and its people. I wasn’t researching the history of ranching per se, on my Panhandle trip, but in Dalhart, Texas, I discovered the XIT Ranch Museum, and this city boy got an eye-opening education on the balance between ranching and farming and how they utilize the resources of the land. Plus I got some good cowboy stories.
5) Talk to folks. This is sort of a no-brainer, a given. But people like to talk about where they live. Ask them. One of the docents of the XIT Museum was only too happy to talk about his own Dust Bowl experiences. Wonderful stuff.
If this post is starting to sound suspiciously like “how I spent my summer vacation,” then maybe it is. But I was able to turn a sometimes stressful but necessary trip into an invaluable research project.
You can too.