Thursday, July 28, 2011


Current Project: Proposals
Status: Inching along


Why do I love to do what I call field research for my stories? If you’re a writer, you can guess that part of the allure is getting out of the house and interacting with people in person rather than on the phone or online. I have to get out among people a couple of times a week to maintain my sanity and my social skills. One way to do that is to do some field research.

What exactly is field research? It’s learning through personal experience, observation, interviews, experimentation, and so on. I’ve met lots of interesting people in the field. This type of research is fun, challenging and often yields surprising results that lend authenticity to a story.

Obtaining permission to spend a day in Starbucks observing and asking questions prevented the baristas in my potential audience from throwing my book against the wall because the barista-characters in my story coffee shop (the setting for multiple scenes) don’t know barista jargon or the rules about hand-washing. Doing the same in a tattoo shop revealed that freedom to choose what music to play is a major perk among tattoo artists, that memorial tats are a major revenue stream in the industry (surprise), that many shops operate on a cash-only basis, and that custom tattooing is one of the only ways to make a good living as an artist.

Without spending some time crawling through lava cast forest tubes on Mount Saint Helens, I couldn’t have imagined or described what it would be like to hide in one. What’s the temperature? Is there dirt inside? Bugs? Leaves, twigs, pebbles? Is the rock smooth, grooved, bumpy, rough, full of holes? What sounds do you hear? What scents do you smell? Are there damp spots? Are the tubes level, or angled? How long are they? How big around? How much light is there inside?

My ride-along with a Clackamas County, Oregon, Deputy Sheriff taught me that an officer in a cruiser has to be able to divide his or her attention between keen observation of the surrounding area, skilled driving, looking up information on the on-board laptop computer, and police radio traffic (at a minimum). I saw how quickly officers responded en masse when someone entered the station and became belligerent. And I learned that some devil-worshippers cover their faces with grotesque black tattoos (surprise).

I heard writer Minette Meador describe her ride-along with a Portland Police Officer. When she mentioned the book she was working on was a paranormal romantic suspense, the officer recounted his own experiences with paranormal activity around the city. She didn’t ask; he volunteered this information. (Bonus!)

What have you researched in the field lately? Any surprises?


Paty Jager said...

Lately, I haven't had any field research. I'm hoping to go to a logging camp though for the next book.

Great blog and you've been on some fun field trips!

Minnette Meador said...

Thanks, Sarah for the mention! Wonderful article... love it, love it, love it! :o)

Jean Paradis said...

Well written and informative blog Sarah!

Sarah Raplee said...

You're right, Paty, I've had some fun times in the field.

Glad you enjoyed the post, Minette.
Loved your ride-along stories and interviews.

Thanks for stopping by, Jean. It was refreshing to read your July 18th blog post about Borders and the future of writing on your blog.

Genene Valleau said...

Hi, Sarah! Interesting field trips you've had!

It's been too long since I did field research. Years ago I attended the local police academy, visited a fire station, and worked with social workers--all of which I'm incorporating into my current series. But I need to do some brush-up visits and other field trips for the next books. Hmm...could be fun!

Sarah Raplee said...

Genene, maybe we at MWVRWA could plan some field trips and go together? could be fun. :)

Tam Linsey said...

You've done some fun research! It is amazing how much richer having hands on experience can make writing.

Sarah Raplee said...

Thanks for stopping by, Tam! You're right; it's lots of fun.