One might think that research isn’t necessary when you’re writing a novel – after all, it’s fictional. But my novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, is set in the Middle East, and while have been to a number of places in the region, I had never been to Mecca, Medina, (in Saudi Arabia) or Karbala (Iraq), where some of the greatest religious pilgrimages, including Arba’een, the Shia Muslim pilgrimage with about twenty million people take place. To make the novel come to life I spent as much time on research as I did on writing.
The February 10, 2021 issue of Writer’s Digest has an article by by Devon Daniels with the title, “How To Do Shadow Research for Your Novel” which i enjoyed and which I have included excerpts below.
Writer’s Digest says: “Devon Daniels is a born-and-bred California girl whose own love story found her transplanted to the Maryland shores of the Chesapeake Bay. She’s a graduate of the University of Southern California and in her past life worked in marketing, product design, and music. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her clinging to her sanity as mom, chef, chauffeur, and referee to four children, or sneaking off with her husband for date nights in Washington, DC. Meet You in the Middle is her first novel.”
Me Daniels says: “When I first decided to write an enemies-to-lovers romance between rival Senate staffers, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’d never worked on Capitol Hill before—or in politics at all—so I needed to research everything about the job, roles, and work environment from the ground up. It was important to me that the world I portrayed be as accurate as possible. In addition to an entertaining love story, I wanted to give the reader a peek behind the curtain of Washington politics in a way that felt both relatable and authentic. So, where do you start with this type of deep research?
First Stop: Hit the Internet
Research and read everything you can get your hands on about the industry or setting you’ve chosen for your novel. For me, that meant everything from articles detailing the day-to-day activities of Senate staffers to congressional calendars to “inside D.C.” gossip blogs to Yelp reviews of popular Capitol Hill hangouts. I watched a mind-numbing amount of C-SPAN. I even read Congress for Dummies, a joke that ended up in the novel. Once I felt comfortable with the basic rules and responsibilities governing legislative staffers, I moved on to the next step of my research: site visits.
Sure, you can “visit” anywhere in the world by watching YouTube videos, but it stands to reason that if you’re going to write about Ireland, you should probably have been to Ireland. Whenever possible, you should try to experience the sights, smells, and feel of a place firsthand. I live just outside Washington, D.C., so I was fortunate to have the benefit of proximity to my setting. I headed downtown to the Hart Senate building, one of three Senate buildings and the site of the political and professional power struggle between my main characters, Ben and Kate.
Now, here’s where introverted writers may have to step outside their comfort zones a bit: you’ll need to be confident, assertive, and outgoing—think “intrepid reporter”—to get the most out of your research trip. Armed with a list of interview questions, I strolled into a handful of senators’ offices, announced I was writing a romance novel, then began rattling off questions to the bemused staff assistants manning the front desks. While I got a few puzzled looks, I found most people were intrigued by my enthusiasm, happy to help, and flattered to be considered an “expert.”
I lingered on benches, watching and listening. I chatted up security guards. I ate lunch in the building’s popular coffee shop, Cups, then added the spot right into my draft. I snapped photos and video of the ornate gold elevators and elegant marble bathrooms—seemingly inconsequential details I ended up layering into pivotal scenes. Studying the Hart Building’s unique architecture and office layout inspired a critical plot twist I never would have dreamed up otherwise. Once I felt I’d learned all I could by
eavesdropping observing, I moved on to stage three: shadowing.
Call in an Expert
It might sound simple, but if you don’t personally know someone in the industry you’re writing about, this can take some creativity. I began with family and friends, asking around to see if anyone had any Capitol Hill contacts, but came up short. I ended up finding someone in the most roundabout of ways: via a thread in a Facebook group, where members introduced themselves and (conveniently for me) listed their occupations. When one woman mentioned she was a staffer, I slid right into her DM’s. This staffer was kind enough to take me on a tour of her office, explain the duties of her job and career trajectory in finer detail, and answer my questions about how staffers from opposing parties work together. She read over my early chapters, providing feedback and suggestions. If I hit a snag while writing, she was just an email away.
I was also able to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of the Capitol Building, an invaluable experience that literally allowed me to walk in my characters’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Strolling the Senate floor, standing in the room where the President signs the legislation, and gripping the dais where the majority leaders hold their press conferences was not only awe-inspiring for this history buff but helped me visualize and bring my characters to life in a completely different way.
I’m tickled when I hear Washington insiders call out how “authentically D.C.” the book feels, or assume I must have been a congressional staffer myself. Details matter, whether it’s the color of the carpet in a committee room or the type of music that plays in a well-known bar. One of the best compliments I’ve received is that the reader felt they were truly “in the room” with my characters.”