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A Spy in Another Country

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By Flickr’s electricnerve

Our guest today is April Smith [2], 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 [3] (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 [4] and on Twitter at @AprilSmithBooks [5]. 

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 ART [3]Your 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?