A Spy in Another Country

By Flickr’s electricnerve

Our guest today is April Smith, author of the bestselling FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mystery-thrillers North of Montana, Judas Horse, and White Shotgun. She also wrote and executive-produced the TV-movie adaptation of her novel, Good Morning, Killer, for TNT’s Mystery Movie Night. But the big news is that April Smith has a forthcoming book that is entirely different from her popular mysteries, as she boldly enters the world of historical fiction with a  A Star for Mrs. Blake (coming this month), based on the 1930’s Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages to visit the graves of their sons in the American military cemetery in France.

April joins us to talk about the art of research in fiction writing—for A Star for Mrs. Blake she traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., Maine, Paris, Verdun, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial.

A Star for Mrs. Blake is a Booklist starred review: “… A heartfelt glimpse into a little-known episode in U.S. history, the journey taken by mothers of U.S. soldiers fallen in WWI to visit their sons’ graves in Europe… Smith deftly spotlights moments along their sojourn, from the giggling fits brought on by the French delicacies they are served on board ship to the tears they shed when confronted by the stark white lines of marble stones where their sons’ remains now lie…Smith’s foray into historical fiction is captivating and enlightening.”

Connect with April on Facebook and on Twitter at @AprilSmithBooks. 

A Spy in Another Country: The Art of Research in Writing Fiction

Writing fiction means creating an original world that is populated with a range of people who hopefully belong in that world and no other.  Their stories may emerge from your imagination, but the elements don’t come out of air.  Realities arise with which your people need to be equipped if they are to be believable.  If they’re cops during Katrina, they need guns.  If they’re travelers in France 1931, they need to get on a train.  You sit there scratching your head.  What type of weapons did police carry in New Orleans in 2005?  How do you describe the interior of a pre-war European passenger train?  You lean back with satisfaction — Guess I’ll have to do some research!  — like  a free day at the beach.  Research can be a stall to put off solving a problem — but sometimes you really need to know!  Here are some hints to make research more engaging and effective.  (So you can get back to writing, of course.)

The Internet

Google Images, Google Earth and Wikipedia are phenomenal tools.  They’re good for sketching out parameters, but what they give you is essentially dead data – stuff that’s been recycled and read by everyone who is on the same trail as you.

HINT:  Search for primary material.  Diaries, newspaper articles, family histories, and academic papers posted on the Internet provide fresh voices with personal insights.

After a point, facts are not enough. For me this comes well into the outline stage. I’ve got the major story beats and I’ve roughed out a few chapters in something approximating prose.  I’ve got the shape of the thing but not the motion; not the breath.  Now it’s time to go into the field.

A Foot in the Door

A great place to start is the press or public relations office — the folks whose job it is to help.  A STAR FOR MRS BLAKE JACKET ARTYour local police station has a press officer.  Hospitals, the sheriff’s department, research institutes, universities, the FBI, fire officials, museums, all have mechanisms designed to interface with the public, so take advantage of them.

HINT #1:  Call or email with a specific question.   Keep it as uncomplicated as possible.  That’s your first step in getting a conversation going.  Have two more questions ready to follow up.  Identifying yourself as local helps break the ice.

HINT #2: Get a name.  Make sure they have your name.  Get a referral if the initial contact isn’t right.  When you call, be sure to use the name of the person who referred you.  Thank them effusively and set the tone for the next time.

Building Relationships

Now you have a source.  The idea is to turn a cold call into a relationship, or if you’re lucky, a friendship.   How do you get access?  Respect.  The key is to convey respect for your source and the work he/she does.  In return, you are making the intention to portray what they’ve shared as accurately as humanly possible.  This doesn’t mean you’re an advocate, but that you have as much integrity in writing about them as they did in speaking with you.

What if your research isn’t about nuts and bolts information, but someone’s personal experience?  The same principle applies: you’re going to fictionalize the facts of their lives, but during the interview you can still convey empathy and respect for their situation – and be true to what you promise.  As in any relationship, trust goes both ways.

HINT #1:  If you’ve scored a personal interview, arrive looking businesslike.  A good guideline is to dress the way your source would dress.  For a female at the FBI that would mean slacks and a jacket or a conservative dress.  Men wear suits. 

HINT #2: If you have published, bring a copy of your book and sign it on site. 

HINT #3: Be sure to include your sources in the acknowledgements and send them a signed copy. God knows, you might write another book.

Where it All Comes Alive

Once I’m further along – usually after a full first draft – I’ll make a trip to every location that appears in the novel if I haven’t experienced before.  Now I know what I am looking for; what I need to fill in.  This is the most magical part of research because the construction is in pretty much place, and all you need to do is remain open to smell, touch, and see the world through your characters.

HINT: It can be efficient to combine research with a family vacation.  I once needed to visit a turbo-electric dam, a hazelnut farm, the city of Portland, and a wild horse preserve, so we made a road trip to Oregon into a scavenger hunt for those locations.  


Accuracy in fiction is really up to the writer.  If it’s magical realism, you are off the hook, otherwise, the reader expects to be grounded in reality.  Still, you may wonder if anyone would care if you mess up – or ignore – the correct gauge of a rifle or a dose of medication?  At least two people will notice: the source who gave you his time (and his buddies, who will never speak to you again) and the all-powerful copy editor, who, if she’s doing her job, will query what you’ve claimed to be true down to the label on your underwear. Keep good notes– and remember where you put them.  I print everything out and organize the pages in old-fashioned loose leaf binders.  That gives me the opportunity to painstakingly label the dividers with a fine-point Sharpie. What was that about stalling?

What about you? What tips and hints can you give about research during fiction writing? In what way are you a spy in another country?




  1. says

    On the subject of visiting locales, for those who don’t know, I just wanted to point out that a professional writer who makes a trip like that primarily for business purposes may be able to deduct the travel expenses on their tax return. If you extend your trip for personal reasons (e.g. for a family vacation) you can usually still deduct the business-related expenses as long as the primary purpose of the trip was for business. Needless to say, if you plan properly, this can substantially reduce the cost of your location research!

    • Cal Rogers says

      Lori, you bring up an interesting point. I was thinking of writing a novel set in Russia and asked my CPA if the expense of traveling there to do research would be tax deductible. She kind of smirked and said, no, afraid not, like I was trying to pull something on her. I figured, well, she’s the CPA. Maybe expensing as research what might look like a vacation is frowned on by the IRS. How do you prove to the IRS that, no, you really were doing research for a novel?

      • says

        The rules are stricter for foreign travel, but assuming you’re a writer with income and you plan and substantiate properly, you should be able to get a deduction out of it. As you might imagine, the regulations are way too complicated to discuss here, but you might want to take at look at this excerpt from IRS Pub. 463: http://www.irs.gov/publications/p463/ch01.html#en_US_2012_publink100033809. It breaks down (in pretty plain language) what’s deductible and when.

        • Cal Rogers says

          Thanks, Lori! Just what I was looking for. I guess the IRS has to be careful that people don’t abuse the system. Three weeks in another country enjoying its people and culture to get a flavor of that for a novel might be stretching it. Especially if you’re still an aspiring author with no writing income yet.

  2. says

    Thanks for the tips, especially about the public relations offices.

    Something I’ve found enormously helpful is the Sanbourn maps, “… originally created for assessing fire insurance liability in urbanized areas in the United States. The maps include detailed information regarding town and building information in approximately 12,000 US towns and cities from 1867 to 2007.” (wiki) You can find them online. They show a bird’s eye view of shapes of the urban landscape (divided into segments of a city). I’ve used them to “view” roundhouses, natural gas holders, and streets long since torn down here in Atlanta.

  3. says

    Politics can be a help. I got involved with our county GOP a few years back. The sherriff happens to be a Republican. A little elbow rubbing at varioius events got me a tour of our new high-tech forensics lab (I didn’t ask if taxpayer money paid for this…gotta choose your fights wisely). I’ve also made some great contacts who’ve served as presidential appointees all the way back to Ford. Of course, you also learn a lot about politcs. After you get over your depression and lack of faith in government, you get back to writing. Warning: if you get involved, it will eat your life. Get in and get out quickly.

  4. Carmel says

    The most painstaking yet most rewarding thing I did for my historical fiction wip was go to the Univ. of KY library, look at the newspaper I needed on microfilm, make copies, then bring them home to highlight the details that would enrich the story (the print is terrible on the eyes, but the event I’m writing about was well covered by the newspaper). I rank that up there with going to the actual places. Both give you a good feel for what happened in the past.

    I’ve been quite amazed by how helpful people are when you ask questions. There’s no way I can repay some of them.

    Great post.

  5. Elaine says

    What about a first-time author? With no published novel yet, I worry that no one will talk to me because why should they if there’s a good chance my book will never see the light of day. Do people think like that or am I just too shy? ;)

  6. says

    Thank you, April, for your suggestions for research. My novels, so far, have all been on location in California where I live and I haven’t done any traveling. I have used Wikipedia many times and want to thank you for your advice about other resources.

  7. says

    I lose track of printed notes, even in a binder. Instead I keep my first drafts peppered with footnotes, noting my source, usually a book title and page number, for where I found some bit of information. I create a clean copy of the manuscript to send to my agent, but I keep that footnoted early copy for reference if any fact is questioned during copy edits.

  8. says

    Many thanks for this very useful post. My first children’s book, The Secret Lake, was a time travel mystery in which a brother and sister find themselves in their past-time home in the Edwardian Times and meet the children living there. Researching clothing and interiors, as well has household staff hierarchy (and reminding myself of the education system during that period for the different social classes) was relatively easy and done online and using library books. However I have an outline for something for YA/Adult which I hope to start on this year which involves genetic engineering, so these tips about how to approach relevant institutions are very useful. Duly bookmarked !

  9. says

    April, thanks for the sound advice on research and the personal and effective ways to conduct it. I haven’t written any true historical fiction, but I did appreciate using Scrivener to write my latest (and long) short story, which had a plot point that involved the crossing of several rivers across the western US.

    The software has a repository area where you can keep images and webpages and other files, which were very useful in checking and double-checking some map and river facts a moment away from writing about them.

  10. says

    It’s great. Knowing what one is to write is better than without. It makes an author more confident and sufficiently supported with creative skills. The knowledge itself liberate an author. Much is discovered in research, and it demands brilliant skills to turn the raw material into a finished item which can fetch more on the market. This enhances interst and maintenance in writing , thereby meeting the expectations of the audience.

    I have enjoyed the post

  11. says

    Excellent, save-worthy advice. Especially inspirational that it took 25 years to find a home for such a unique story. I’m a Mainer and I can’t wait to read A STAR FOR MRS BLAKE, ’cause I’ve known some fine librarians in my day, and I have a few of those embroidered photo frames in my attic.
    And Deer Isle — ayuh, don’t get much better’n that!

    Congratulations on your publication day, April! How could this not be a triumph!