How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Never a “Sense”less Moment – Writing the Big FIVE.

What is your favorite sense to write with?  Use the senses God gave you to SHOW your readers how you feel.  They’ll love you for it.

Jackie Houchin

I just returned home from a two-week trip to Torino (Turin) Italy.  If you want to experience your five senses with GUSTO, this is one of the countries you should visit.

IMG_3496 (Edited)I TASTED the cool creamy sweetness of real Italian Gelato, bit into crusty (salt-free) Tuscan bread piled high with fresh-made tomato Bruschetta and drizzled with first-press virgin olive oil from an orchard that covered the nearby rolling hills.  I sipped a frosty pale green menta (mint) icy that tingled my taste buds and sent shivers of coolness through my mouth and throat…on a baking-hot humid day.

IMG_1367I sampled a vast array of Italian cheeses (said to outshine France’s), from wedges of soft, creamy whites, protected by powdery rinds, to the mellow, medium-soft, large-holed varieties (not Swiss), that were delicious in a salty-sweet way with a dollop of apricot jam on top, to the hard, net-wrapped aged cheeses that take a good strong knife to slice, and a hunk of soft Italian bread to eat it with to even out the sharpness.

An expensive treat reserved for special occasions are the tiny balls of fresh Mozzarella floating in whey and filled with rich sweet cream that oozes into your mouth when you eat them. Magnifico!

What of the pastas (hardly ever spaghetti) in rich tomato sauces with melted cheese (and occasionally chopped hard boiled eggs), or made with basil-green home-made pesto?

Italy18 Hot Choc. Fresh whip cream What about a decadent hot chocolate so thick and rich that it looks like Hershey’s Chocolate Topping, but more delicious, served with a scoop of freshly whipped cream so thick you could eat it with a fork.Italy18 Hot Choc.

Aromas tease your nose when you walk past pizzerias or pastry shops. Sweets and Savories. Or sniff the meaty goodness of rows of whole chickens roasting on a rotisserie, dripping their goodness onto large chunks of peeled potatoes below.

Old Roman style streets of small cobblestones or large rectangle blocks make for uneven walking and leg strain…but offer a “rubbery warbling” from the tires of cars passing by…if you listen.  Horns honk continuously as Italian drivers in tiny cars dart in front of you, whiz by you, or fume impatiently behind you. “Romantic” Italian is spoken everywhere, quickly, rolling from the tongue with unfamiliar consonant and vowel endings, sometimes staccato, sometimes lyrical.

Italy18 Torino fountainMove through wet heat that causes limp hair, sticky skin, and clothes that cling. And then come upon an arched metal fountain in a park or piazza in the shape of a bull’s head (honoring “Torino”) that flows with cool sweet entirely drinkable water from its mouth. Hold out an empty water bottle, or cup your hands to catch the coolness, or even bend your head and drink freely.

Italian greetings surprise you, not with impersonal nods or stodgy handshakes, but with full frontal hugs, kissing (or air-kissing) on each side of the cheeks (always beginning on the right side!), a hearty pat or two on the back and a warm smile and verbal “Ciao.”

Italy18 Sibling hugsKids walk down the streets holding hands and they hug their siblings freely, unembarrassed.

You will see women (entirely “straight”) strolling arm in arm or hand in hand.

Sometimes men too. (Seriously!)

Ah, Italy.

 

Vibrant with the five senses!

What about your writing? Are you taking advantage of the “Big Five?”

SMELL

Exercise: Smell is the only sense that has a direct pathway to the memory center of your brain. What smells brings up unexpected memories for you? (Grandma’s house, your husband’s pajamas, Plumaria flowers, frying bacon, a certain spiced tea, wood polish, month-old laundry, cinnamon rolls warm out of the oven….a dead rat?  Describe a few of these using your sense of smell.

Hint: Read wine or perfume sites to build your smell vocabulary.

SOUND

Exercise: How would you describe the sounds around you right now? Pause and listen! Describe how fire sounds in a fireplace… in a forest fire. What’s the sound of water in a pool, a creek, an ocean? Make up a few new onomatopoeia sounds.

TOUCH

Exercise: Describe something fluffy, icy, pliable, jagged, papery, leathery, or slick. What do things vibrating or painful feel like?

TASTE

Exercise: Describe what something tastes like using a metaphor. (Comedian, Tim Hawkins, compares the taste and texture of a Krispy Kreme donut to “eating a baby angel.”  Think about that!)  What makes your mouth “water?” What makes you gag?  What does blood taste like when you bite the inside of your cheek? Have you tasted tears? Mother’s milk? Can you describe them?

Extra Credit Exercise. Buy a Bean Boozled Spinner Game and play several rounds with a friend. Describe the tastes of the Jelly Belly beans your pointer chooses for you. Flavors include Buttered Popcorn, Peach, Carmel Corn, Chocolate Fudge, and Rotten Egg, Dead Fish, Lawn Clippings and Barf.  I DARE YOU!!  Find a game here: https://amzn.to/2v4snUc

SIGHT

Exercise: Describe places you love. Describes different kinds of light, different shapes, perspective, illusion. Truly see a person passing by and tell what each aspect of his clothing, skin hue, walk, manner, and speed could mean. Use metaphors to describe a few of your favorite colors.

Italy18 checkered hall  Italy18 Castle shapes

Italy18 Lucky clover  IMG_3828 (Edited)

Close your eyes. Imagine one of your favorite places: a local coffee shop, the beach, a small bakery in Paris… anywhere. Take a few minutes to describe this place.

What is your favorite sense to write with?  Use the senses God gave you to SHOW your readers how you feel.  They’ll love you for it.