Research Tips from Teri Holbrookby Tabatha Yeatts
The Internet Writing Journal, December 1997
Category: Research Agatha, Macavity, Anthony, and Edgar award nominated mystery novelist Teri Holbrook (A Far and Deadly Cry, The Grass Widow) enthuses on the subject of conducting research to create believable stories. "I love research!" she laughs, "Writing is the hard part."
As an author who rises before dawn every morning to grope for a cup of coffee and her computer's "on" button, Teri Holbrook is both a disciplined wordsmith and an intuitive one. She says of her writing technique: "I just piece the plot out as I go. I don't even know 'who did it' until the end." Her research technique is more well-defined. Holbrook does about six months of research before she begins writing, and then she continues to research as she writes (as the plot develops, she finds she needs to know more information).
The first aspect of a new novel that Holbrook researches is the setting. Holbrook explains, "If I don't feel a very strong connection to the place I'm writing about, I can't get a story out of it." She says that she "flailed around" for a couple of months before she started The Grass Widow because she couldn't get a sense of where it should be.
Holbrook knew she wanted to set the story in rural Georgia (a county or two away from her home), so she would get in the car, sometimes with her oldest daughter, and drive around that area. She says, "My daughter would have the pad out and I would shout notes for her to take - 'Look, the flowers are orange at five o'clock in the afternoon!' " As she does her setting research, Holbrook reads about the area's soils, topography, geography, and history. She likes to read local histories and see old photographs of the area and its residents.
Sad Water, which she is currently writing, is set in England. She has made two research trips to England for it. On the first trip, she drove around the moors and towns of her setting taking notes, pictures, and video camera footage. On the second trip, she focused on research for the plot.
For instance, because there is a fire in Sad Water, Holbrook arranged an interview with an arson investigator. Although she was familiar with arson inquiry in the United States, she wanted to make sure she understood the ins-and-outs of arson investigation in England. She explains, "I take every profession represented in the book and I try to spend at least one day with someone in that profession."
This kind of research has led Holbrook to spend a day at a British newspaper (and go with the reporters to a pub afterwards), a stained glass artist's studio, and various law enforcement officials' offices. She says "I have found very few people who would not talk. Most people are very generous with their time." When she is looking for reference books, Holbrook will ask experts what books they studied from or what books they recommend.
When setting a book in her home territory, Holbrook does not need to study the area's dialects. But for her books set in England, Holbrook conducts dialect research. She says, "You don't convey dialects that much in a book, but you do want to give a flavor of it. That's something you can only do if you are fairly comfortable with it." In her research, Holbrook has found West Yorkshire dialect tapes (both storytelling tapes and ones that specifically talk about the language). She plays them over and over in her head as she creates dialogue.
Holbrook wants to get in the spirit of each aspect of her novels. She has taken pottery classes and attended church barbeques to get the feel of things. While she is writing a book, she likes to cook that region's foods at home, so she can have a sense of taste and smell to associate with her work.
"Mistakes make me nervous," says Holbrook, "Somebody somewhere will pick up on inaccuracies." Her thorough research helps her avoid inaccuracies. The only negative comment she has had from a reader criticized the fact that she interviewed an American Anglican priest instead of an English one. (Holbrook did check her facts with the main synod in England after interviewing the American priest).
Holbrook recommends professional organizations, universities, and libraries for locating experts. She states, "I really can't say enough about libraries! You can get terrific books through inter-library loan, and librarians can be such a help." In addition, she sometimes will call reporters in the region she is researching to ask for contacts or she will check the newspaper morgues.
Holbrook says, "The Internet is another good place to start. I don't use information I get off the Internet without getting it confirmed, though." She likes to double-check the information she gets from other sources also (by getting more than one point of view on a subject). If the sources conflict, which they sometimes do, she uses the one that works best for her story.
While Holbrook loves to utilize books, classes, tapes, photographs, and events to research her novels, she says, "the best references for mystery writers are people."
**Tabatha Yeatts is the author of After the Holocaust for young adults (scheduled for Fall 1998 release by Enslow Publishers). She is also the founder of the Internet publication Eye on Women, the facilitator for Kennesaw State University online poetry classes, and a freelance writer.