What About Research?
In a previous blog, I shared my belief that one of the great pleasures of genre fiction is a story’s background. Its setting. That can include local or even personal history, career and workplace information and more…
We’re all aware of the research that’s gone into the books we read (or hasn’t gone into them!). The question is, how much research is too much, how much is too little—and how much is just right? Obviously this is going to vary from book to book (historical fiction being a case in point).
Too much makes the story a pretext for what is essentially a documentary or a travelogue; too little means it lacks context. Just right means the research is well-integrated and creates the kind of authenticity—of character, plot, background and conflict—that a novel requires.
I’m going to discuss the matter of research and its relationship to story with several authors—all of them award-winning.
ELIZABETH HEITER is a critically acclaimed and award-winning author who likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her novels have been published in more than a dozen countries and translated into eight languages; they've also been shortlisted for the HOLT Medallion, the Daphne Du Maurier award, the National Readers' Choice award and the Booksellers' Best award and won the RT Reviewers' Choice award. You can learn more at www.elizabethheiter.com
·Elizabeth, what specifically attracted you to law enforcement & the FBI?
As a mystery writer, one of the things I love about law enforcement heroes and heroines is that they have a legitimate, immediate reason to get involved in a mystery – and to follow it through to the very end. With the FBI, I’m able to give my heroine cases that aren’t tied to a specific geographical region or type of crime. The heroine of my Profiler series is an FBI profiler, something that drew me in because I could approach crime scenes from a different perspective. FBI profiler Evelyn Baine doesn’t look at typical motives or suspects; instead, she goes to a crime scene where the motive is uncertain and the suspects are either nonexistent or way too many. She looks at that crime scene and pulls out the behavioral evidence that tells her what type of person committed a crime. I loved the idea of approaching suspense novels books from a psychological perspective instead of a purely procedural one.
Which came first—the background/research, the characters or the story?
For my Profiler series, I knew from the moment I read a book by a real FBI profiler that I wanted to write about one. From there, it was a matter of figuring out who she was. After reading in-depth about the kinds of cases profilers see day after day, I knew I wanted a heroine with a very personal reason to enter the profession. I decided it was the loss of her best friend when she was twelve – and never knowing what had happened to her – that drove Evelyn into the FBI. From there, I started exploring plots that would allow me to bring Evelyn to life and contribute something fresh to the genre.
Could you give us some detail about the kind of FBI research you did (and I know it involved firearms training and location visits)? I’d like to add that we get a good sense in this series not just of FBI agents involved in various cases, but also the relationships between departments, what the office is like and so on.
I believe strongly in making my books as realistic as possible. So, while I started the research process by diving into dozens of books written by former agents and by talking to a friend who works for the Bureau, I also wanted to go deeper. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to agents in various specialties and visit an FBI field office and the training facility at Quantico. At Quantico, I had the chance to walk through places like Hogan’s Alley (a mock “town” where New Agents in Training practice tactical scenarios), talk through real FBI cases, and shoot all the weapons the Bureau uses (from the Glock pistol typically given to Special Agents to the MP-5 sub-machine gun used by tactical units like the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team [which also plays a role in my series]).
For outside perspectives on the FBI (and what happens when they consult with other agencies), I’ve been able to talk to police agencies about their experiences working with the Bureau. This is useful because, as a profiler, Evelyn spends a lot of time consulting with other law enforcement agencies who’ve requested her assistance (but where the officers may not always want her there).
Your book Seized is the third in The Profiler series. How did that add to the challenge—for instance, of figuring out what FBI-related topic to choose that would tie in with the plot, the background and the characters (particularly your major protagonist, Evelyn) without repeating elements from the previous books?
Writing a series is challenging. I love it for the same reason I think readers enjoy them – because I get to revisit characters again and again, watch them change and grow. The challenge comes in because each book needs to stand alone, and I believe every plot has a “right” character and vice versa. The more you’ve established a character through a series, the harder it becomes to tie him or her directly and personally to the plot. By the time I’d written Seized, I’d already resolved the driving force in Evelyn’s life (and the reason she joined the FBI) – figuring out what had happened to her best friend all those years ago. So, in Seized, I knew what she’d be struggling with in her personal life was her very identity – who she was now without that driving motivation. Did she even want to be in the FBI anymore? Who was she without that personal mission?
I knew I needed a plot that would tie in to the same theme of identity – but one that was very different from my first two books (which revolved around a serial killer and kidnappings, respectively). I’d already done a lot of research into cults and terrorism – originally intended to be parts of two different plots. But as I continued to dig, I realized what they had in common was how they recruited: both stripped down people’s identities and rebuilt them for their own cause. This tied in perfectly to Evelyn’s own struggle, so I decided to have her taken hostage during a routine investigation into what initially looks like a relatively harmless cult. But when it turns out to be connected to a terrorist threat, Evelyn realizes she has to get word to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, surrounding the cult’s fortress-style command center. She needs them to breach its walls to stop the attack, but if they do, she knows she’ll probably be the first casualty.
I think we’d all agree that there’s a correct and necessary balance between research and story—that, in fact, they should inform and support each other. Obviously, there are different kinds of research—including close observation of people, as well as historical, geographical and psychological research. I’d also include self-awareness in that list. (I recently came across a very apt quote from the great French writer Flaubert: “Writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”) Self-knowledge and an awareness of others help an author determine plausible and coherent actions and reactions.
LINDA CARDILLO has a special skill with works of historical fiction. Her latest is Love that Moves the Sun, set in the Italian Renaissance and focusing on the life of the 16th century poet Vittoria Colonna and her relationship with Michelangelo. You can reach her at her website:
Linda, please tell us about the various kinds of research you did in preparing for this novel.
I originally discovered Vittoria Colonna in an art catalog for an exhibition of Italian women artists mounted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Not a visual artist herself, but someone who wielded influence as a patron of the arts, Colonna intrigued me as a possible heroine and I set out to learn more about her.
My early research focused on details of Colonna’s life and her poetry. Thanks to the assistance of enthusiastic research librarians at my local library, I found a couple of biographies, books of her poetry and scholarly analyses of her work. With those books as the foundation of my exploration, Colonna’s story began to take shape in my mind and I delved into bolstering my knowledge and understanding of the period in which she lived. I expanded my research to include both general histories of 16th-century Italy (to give her particular life context) and more specific subjects, such as Italian military history (her father, brothers and husband were all military leaders); papal politics; the role of women in society; the explosion of artistic expression; and the upheaval in religious practice as the Reformation spread throughout Europe.
To enrich my “book learning,” I visited museums to see firsthand the works of art that Michelangelo had created for her. I was fortunate that museums in both Boston and New York, cities which are easily accessible for me, held special exhibitions that included not only Michelangelo’s work but also Vittoria’s letters and gifts for him.
The final element in my research was travel to Italy. I explored the castles and palaces in Ischia and Rome where Vittoria lived; the Vatican, where Michelangelo’s masterpieces fill the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel; and additional museums, churches and residences that enriched my understanding and experience of her environment.
How important was the fact that you were actually there, walking where they walked, to your sense of the characters and their story?
It was immensely important to me! All of my senses were engaged in the experience, especially in Ischia, which is an island 18 miles at sea west of Naples. The approach from the water is dramatic as the sight of the castle, perched atop a volcanic cliff, comes into view. One can only reach the summit by first passing through a dark tunnel carved out of the rock, finally emerging into the warmth and light of the upper island. The isolation of the island, as well as the colors, sounds and smells of the environment gave me a deeper understanding of what shaped Vittoria as a child and young woman. Equally, my trips to Rome and Florence served as a striking contrast to the simplicity of the island and helped me place Michelangelo within the complex and monumental settings in which he created his art. I have to admit that the experience of actually walking in their footsteps was an emotional journey for me as well as a physical one. Having read and absorbed so much prior to my visits, I could almost sense their presence at my side, pointing out things I shouldn’t miss.
How would you describe the relationship between fact and fiction, between historical accuracy and the writer’s imagination, in portraying Vittoria and Michelangelo?
As a writer of historical fiction, especially writing about the lives of well-known historical figures, I find the task of balancing fact and fiction is a delicate one. What I have attempted to do in exploring the relationship between Vittoria and Michelangelo is transform the known facts—the letters, the poems, the observations of contemporaries—into an inner life that reflects their mutual search for transcendence. Love That Moves the Sun is a story, not a biography, and so I took advantage of the “gaps” in the historical record and filled them with what I imagined might be there. I did not do so recklessly, but based my depiction of their profound connection on my interpretation of what was already known. Perhaps that is the best way to describe my process with Love That Moves the Sun—as a “translation” that seeks to express an emotional truth about love between two complex and passionate artists.
About the Author
PAULA EYKELHOF is a former (retired) Executive Editor at Harlequin Books (now a division of Harper Collins). She was with the company for more than 30 years.
Paula worked with a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. She was responsible for various series programs (including Romance, Superromance, American Romance and Everlasting), as well as working on single-title imprints, principally MIRA and HQN.
She gave many workshops and speeches through the years and has also written a number of blogs on writing-related issues, most recently for Bellastoria Press. She has also advised many aspiring authors.
Paula is now working as a freelance editor and writer.