Garlic is an antiseptic

Garlic is an antiseptic

Yeah, I know. Who cares about garlic being an antiseptic?

Well, the heroine of my first published novel, The Orchid Hunter, cared because she was tramping around the Amazon without easy access to a pharmacy in the event of a yeast infection. That little tidbit — that Jessie knew about garlic, carried garlic with her, and was candid about how she planned to use it, if necessary — was a piece of research that helped bring her to life. It was, in fact, what got an editor’s attention when I was pitching this novel to Silhouette.

When we writers think about research, we tend to fall into one of two broad groups: we love research to the point of it consuming all our writing time (a.k.a. procrastination), or we would rather try to pull a deer out of our ear than crack a book or dig through umpteen websites for a crucial detail.

Everybody knows research can make a story better. But the problem is that the easiest resource — the internet — might be filled with great info, but it has plenty of bogus info, too. Or it has the wrong info because it focuses on one aspect of our topic, but not the aspect we’re interested in. So how to get what you need?

It helps to consider the difference between primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources were actually there while secondary sources weren’t there and therefore are more interpretative.

Some examples of primary source materials:

  • interviews
  • first-person accounts (letters, diaries, etc.)
  • original photographs
  • memoirs

These are quite valuable because they can give us actual language, sensory perceptions, and attitudes.

Secondary source materials can include:

  • essays
  • commentaries
  • documentaries
  • textbooks

With secondary sources, we often get the benefit of hindsight, interpretation of events, and insight into the broader context.

When I was writing The Orchid Hunter, I had a special challenge because the story was first person, and therefore by default would be in deep POV. This character had to know about — or experience during the course of the story — orchids, surviving in the Amazon, meeting and dealing with the Yanomamo, shamanism, illegal gold mining, pharmaceutical processes, and CITES regulations (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). What did living in the jungle look like, feel like, smell like, sound like, taste like?

I didn’t hold out much hope of finding good primary source materials on these topics, but eventually discovered a handful of wonderful nonfiction books, including an ethnobotanist’s account of his jaunt into the Amazon looking for promising pharmaceutical botanicals (primary), a book by an anthropologist about his years living among the Yanomamo (primary), and an investigative series of essays about obsessive orchid collectors and the CITES laws they frequently ran afoul of (secondary).

You can see right away that with only three nonfiction books, I had plenty of material from credentialed sources to work with.

Now that I’m writing novellas set in the 1950’s, research is equally important. Here’s the kind of research I’m working with:

  • autobiography or nonfiction books (Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffith and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou)
  • movies (Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause)
  • scholarly articles about the experience of women in the 1950’s (numerous, as many universities post their materials online)
  • tidbits I’ve picked up from my family and friends

And let’s not discount the research from our own direct experience. We can pull insights from our day jobs, our hobbies, that crazy thing we did once, and whatever else our memories are holding for us.

But a final caution about research: It can be easy to gather all this great info together and then get so tangled up in the details that we paralyze ourselves. So remember that research is intended to help, not to harm; it should open up our stories and characters rather than shut them down.

Go forth, my writing friends, and track down that obscure factoid you’ve been hankering for. But hurry on back! There’s a story to write.

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

7 thoughts on “Garlic is an antiseptic

  1. And garlic keeps the vampires away – although I think throwing out that factoid is somewhat missing the point of the post. Hee hee. I started out in historical romance. Besides not having the voice for the genre, I also found that I fell into the broad groups of pulling deer out of my ear (an expression I’d not heard before, BTW) Anyway, one of the reasons I moved to fantasy was because, like a moron, I thought, “Hey, no research here. I can just make up stuff.” NOT! While research is generally not a huge deal in fantasy (in my experience), there are always subjects we need to look more closely into. For me, for example, I needed info on glassmaking, basket making, cooking a pig in the ground, and superconductors. Not to mention, looking up stuff on close quarter combat, Japanese weapons, and dragons. For me, the trick is including enough research to make your characters, setting, whatever sound like/look like an expert without showing off all that wonderful new knowledge by doing the dreaded Info Dump. And for those who don’t like research, take heart. Sometimes you really find out some cool things. I mean, really, who knew garlic was an antiseptic?

    1. I was hoping you’d weigh in on the fantasy genre, Lorinda, on everything you’ve had to look up, be familiar with, etc. Your attention to detail is one of the things I love about your fantasy novels.

      And you’re right: We need just enough detail to set the stage, make the plot believable, enhance the characters. I love the full immersion of doing research because it gives me so many tidbits at my disposal to slot into the story where they will do the most good.

      We don’t need full paragraphs that sound like they’ve been lifted from a PhD dissertation. Judiciously-placed tidbits are more than enough; readers learn as much from context as from the actual words, and the layers of detail build a more complete picture than we might think.

  2. I’m good with secondary research. Internet searches are fun, and yes, I have on occasion lost a few hours to the inter-web, but for the most part, I can focus on what I want to know and then move on.

    My issue is with the primary, particularly interviews. I have confidence issues which make it difficult for me to approach a stranger and ask questions about their profession, hence the huge holes in my legal info. I’d like to sit down one-on-one with a police officer, a lawyer and a victim of domestic abuse, but my concern is that what I wish to know and why I wish to know it don’t feel like valid uses of THEIR time, and at this point in my “career” I can’t justify paying someone for their time.

    I did find out that someone I know once suffered a devestating burn, but the scarring is very minimal now. Since the hero of my third book has a burn scar that deeply affects his outlook, I asked this fella some questions, but again, I felt a little iffy, asking such personal questions about a negative experience in his life. Of course, he was very generous with his answers. Hopefully, the next time such an opportunity presents, I’ll remember how well it went in this case and tackle more “primary” research!

    1. Yeah, I hear you. I’m just glad RWA has at its disposal a lot of professional resources, like classes for writers taught by cops and ex-FBI agents and folks like that.

      But it’s far more difficult to walk up to someone and ask, “So, what’s it like having three arms?”

      One option might be to approach the topic indirectly, like phoning a support group leader or the public relations arm of a women’s shelter or some such. If they can’t help with information themselves, they might be able to make referrals to people who can.

      For police officers, many police departments have a public relations desk; check their website to see about a ride-along. (And yes, I cold-called the Coast Guard for Without A Trace. I had a lovely chat with an ensign about her training and her work.)

  3. For the most part, research needs to be 2nd freeware for me. If I stop writing and open the Internet everytime a qurstion comes up, it kills forward progress. XXX as a place holder shows up a lot in 1st draft. Hopefully, by the end of second draft they should all be gone.

    1. That’s a great approach, Terri.

      Unfortunately for me, so much of what I’m writing is predicated on getting the dang setting/plot points/characters right that I can’t wait until 2nd draft on very much. 🙁

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