Story Roadblocks: Research

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Hello All! It’s the first Wednesday of the month and you know what that means: another installment of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds! To find out more about IWSG (and to sign up), click here.

This months co-hosts are Gwen Gardner, Dolorah, Sarah Foster, and M. Pax. If you would be so kind, hop on over to their blogs and say hello!

So what am I insecure about this month? The same thing I’m always insecure about: my novel(s) in progress. Some of you may remember me blogging about this particular story in a post called Story Rehab: Fixing Plot Holes. At that time, I couldn’t figure out what happened to the main character the night of the fire.

Well, here I am again, facing something that I’m sure most writers have dealt with: I hit a roadblock because I need to do research. Normally, I avoid this in my writing because most of the towns I write about are fictional. But I couldn’t get away with that this time. Because of the novel’s plot, I had to set it in an actual Louisiana town. Which town? Good ole Baton Rouge (which means “red stick” in French, by the way).

There’s a part in the novel where the main character, for certain reasons, needs to break into the governor’s mansion. Yes. You heard that right. I Googled how it might be done but of course, there wasn’t any information about it. And the last thing I wanted to do was call the person who schedules tours of the mansion and say, “Yes. My name is Quanie Miller and I’m trying to find out how to break into the governor’s mansion. Hello? Hello?” I imagine that my front yard would immediately fill with blue lights and the good folks at the F.B.I would want to have a conversation or two with me.

So guess what? I was in my hometown last week and took the drive to Baton Rouge to get a good look at the mansion. I had gotten to the part in the novel where the character gets into her car to drive down there, but I couldn’t visualize it. And let me tell you: that mansion is a thing of beauty! I took pictures of the road that leads there and drove around the neighborhood in the back of the mansion (and took pictures of the fence). As my husband and I were driving, I saw a man walking through a nearby park. He had what looked like a headset on so I knew that he was secret service. My husband said, “What makes you say that?”

“I watch Scandal,” I said. “Trust me: I know about these things.”

I didn’t want to get out of the car and walk near the mansion because I could imagine the headline and accompanying news article:

Woman found skulking near govenor’s mansion.

“…after further investigation, F.B.I discovered the woman had been researching how to break into the governor’s mansion and called the tour coordinator inquiring about the same. Woman insists she was doing research for a novel. Authorities are dubious. Charges are pending.” 

I found out some basic information online: how the outside of the mansion looks, and how part of the inside looks (the part that’s accessible to the public), but the character needs to go further into the house to find what she’s looking for. I imagine that, for security reasons, there are no blue prints of the mansion online. It’s dawned on me that I’m going to have to make this stuff up: how the other rooms in the house look, etc. And that’s my issue. Because the mansion is an actual place, I’m worried about people saying, “but that couldn’t happen!” Or, “Hey! It doesn’t look like that! The family room is on the second floor next to the guest bedroom, not on the first floor near the kitchen!” But in order for me to finish this story, I’m going to have to take some creative liberties.

What do you guys think? Am I worrying for nothing? Have you ever hit such a roadblock with a story? What did you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


44 thoughts on “Story Roadblocks: Research

  1. All Stories are true. All storytellers lie. I am a storyteller and everything I just said is true!

    There is a difference between Truth and actuality. Don’t worry if your story, episode, anecdote is not actually true, right, correct or whatever. It only needs to be believable. I enjoy doing research; be it on the net, at the library, road trips or first person accounts. It can become a distraction from other work that needs done too! The only times I get annoyed with fictional accounts are when the author blatantly ignores the geography in a situation. To suggest that Baton Rouge is south of Eunice to me would destroy your creditability with me. I have never been to Louisiana either. To suggest the back porch or piazza at the goevernor’s mansion had the ceiling painted blue, wouldn’t bother me at all. I doubt this is the case but I’ve seen blue ceilings on porches all over and I know what it means. It has versimlitude!

    • Hi Tommy,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I think I can get away with flubbing certain things that readers won’t care about but I’ll have to nail certain details (like geography, lol).

  2. Ha! Boy, Quanie. You do have an imagination!

    I’m so glad you were able to see the governor’s mansion, even though circumstances which brought you were sad.
    I hope seeing it in person has inspired you to really nail some of those scenes in your novel. Research is tough. I had to do a lot of research about Missouri in order to make my WIP run more smoothly. I remember having tabs for maps and articles, house structures, restaurants, etc. Writing comes easy because it lives in us but research, ugg.
    Good luck my friend!
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  3. hahahaha!! I love it. I hope the FBI has us writers in a special category, since our search history is terrifying lol. I have hit a million roadblocks these past few weeks and it’s driving me bananas!! But I just try and write through them, or if I’m researching something I’ll make sure I work on another story. It’s so hard, I’m the type of person that wants things done yesterday, so I hate when this happens!

  4. I was going to suggest doing some internet research. Perhaps you can use some of the info and change the character’s destination. Of course, creative license is always an option. I used that for a setting in my novel. The place exists, but not the interior and business is different. I’m not writing historical fiction after all 🙂
    dolorah recently posted..IWSG: THE READER IN MEMy Profile

  5. Lol, Quanie, imagine if the information on how to break into a governor’s mansion was available on Google! I laughed when you mentioned the secret service agent and Scandal. (I watched Seasons 1 & 2 … but all of The West Wing. So I reckon I can probably recognize an agent as well.) Have a good time writing up the scene and don’t worry about having to make things up.
    Claudine @ CarryUsOff Books recently posted..Goodbye, Mrs. HendersonMy Profile

    • LOL! I thought about that as I was writing and it dawned on me that the information would probably not be readily available. I’ve gotten some great suggestions here. I’m going to research a bit more and whatever I can’t find, I’m going to make it up (but make it sound credible).
      Quanie recently posted..Story Roadblocks: ResearchMy Profile

  6. Research? ME? Nah, I never do research 😉 LOL! Man I’m like the queen of it these days.

    Okee dokee, so, I actually think that calling up and saying you’re writing a book and asking some questions is totally legit. Are there tours of the mansion, since it’s so historic? Is there a historical society (I bet there is) in town that has info about it? I’d contact one of the people who works there and ask some general questions about the mansion’s groundplans, etc. You can TRY explaining the plot and the info you need, but I really doubt anyone except the security agents could answer those questions! The society, though, should have some info about the mansion and layout. It IS taxpayer-provided property, remember, so some of this is public knowledge.

    Then, if you want to get really fancy, you can take everything you learn and bring it to a security consulting firm (yes, they definitely exist) and see if they can help you craft the security a place like that might have, and a way someone might break in.

    You CAN make it all up, of course, but you’ll still need to do research on security systems and how to break ’em 🙂 Good luck!
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..Insecure Writers: Digging OutMy Profile

  7. Writers DO research the strangest things. I always seem to over do it, and I’ve wondered, too, if the FBI is watching. Taking a tour is an excellent idea, especially if no one ever wrote a book about its history or architecture. Blueprints or drawings may exist from the time when the mansion was built and the state archives/library may be able to help you with that.
    Gayle Mullen Pace recently posted..The “Pantser” and the SnowflakeMy Profile

  8. I think sometimes there is no other solution but to make things up, mostly because info are not available. I’m writing historical and though most of the story is set in recent years (1920s) a part of it involves an ancient practice: bone casting. There was no way for me to find info about this practice in the British Islands, but I didn’t want to make everything up, so I ended up using the ancient Roman system… even if I know Romans never made it to Ireland (where my character is from).

    As others have said, I think the most important part is to make things credible. For me, this also includes adhering to reality as much as possible, until you really cannot do it anymore. In your case, if you can’t get the actual blueprints of the Governor house, you can find blueprint of similar houses built in the same period. They will probably have the same layout, and so, even if your layout isn’t true, it is at least realistic and historically accurate.
    Just an idea 🙂

  9. Yup! I can relate! Although I finished writing my book, I had to do a lot of research, which was a first for me. For the sequel to Hurricane Crimes, I did research on the setting for the second half of the story, and research on the…disaster that takes place. I had about 20 pages of research!

    I Google the strangest things and every time I cringe hoping the FBI isn’t seeing it. HAHA!

    “I watch Scandal,” I said. “Trust me: I know about these things.” LOL! I loved that! I watch Scandal, too. I can’t wait for tonight’s episode!
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Revisions Insecurity / IWSG + AwardMy Profile

  10. As usual you had me cracking up while reading this Quanie! I’m pretty sure that when an FBI/CIA tech agent assigned to Google Recon gets an alert of suspicious research activity, he/she just rolls their eyes and says dryly, “Oh, another writer…nothing to be concerned about.” They know we’re nuts, but harmless!

    Going on location to research is super important, even with all of the information on the web. Actually being there gives you a FEEL for the place. You catch the vibes and stumble across little things that you wouldn’t find otherwise. I’m thinking of having my next novel set in California, and even though I grew up there and spent all of my twenties there too, there are things I’ve forgotten. Like the fact that most houses in the hood don’t have mailboxes, but rather little slots built into the front door so that the mail goes directly inside. It’s something I’ve never seen in the south, but is super common in L.A. So I’ll need to plan a trip to Cali, because who knows what else I’ve forgotten!

    And if you can’t get into that mansion, chances are most of your readers can’t either. Do your thing and take creative liberty!
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    • Ha! So you think that they just know we’re crazy and don’t pay us no mind??? LOL! I had no idea about those mailboxes in L.A. In most places I’ve been to in the south, the mailboxes are near the end of the driveway. So I wouldn’t have noticed that in your story (but I’m sure some purist would have pointed it out!).
      Quanie recently posted..Story Roadblocks: ResearchMy Profile

  11. I think as long as you have the generalities and a few good specifics you can pull off making up the rest and count on the willing suspension of disbelief of the readers. If you write your scenarios well and with confidence I think readers will overlook things that might not be true so long as everything sounds believable. I think about those movies from not too long ago about the terrorists taking over the White House. I don’t know how true everything was, but it sure made for a good story.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
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    • Hi Arlee,

      You’re right! I hadn’t even thought about those White House takeover movies (I enjoyed the one with Gerard Butler). I never once thought, “That couldn’t happen!” Even though I’m sure they didn’t have all the details. So thanks for that!
      Quanie recently posted..Story Roadblocks: ResearchMy Profile

  12. Ha! I’ve been to Baton Rouge – my memory of it is stopping for Key Lime pie as a break from crawling through traffic trying to find a hotel in what was probably the part of town furthest from any hotels.
    I wouldn’t have a clue what the Governer’s Mansion looked like and I suspect they’d thank you for providing an inaccurate floorplan to confuse any real would-be burglars!
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  13. That’s hilarious. ^_^ I’ve seen this sort of thing before – an author whose work I enjoy had to research the White House for his comic, and had much the same thoughts about the trouble that research would get him into. And this was back when the internet was in its infancy, so he had to go to a library and try to find the floor plan for the White House. …yeah.

    I’d suggest making it as realistic as you can, fudging what you can’t learn, and if the book has an author’s note, mention it there. Most readers will be glad the author didn’t commit crimes in the name of making the book realistic, so if you cop to making up the mansion’s floor plan because you couldn’t get into the actual place, I think most readers would be willing to forgive that.
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    • Ha! It’s good to know I’m not the only one. And you know what? I had not even considered the library! My goodness. It seems like such an archaic thing these days considering the internet but I might just have to pay them a visit. Thanks for your suggestions!

  14. What a wonderfully engaging post! Now that you’ve completed your first road trip into the depths of your story I’ll bet you’ll do it again one day – just because it was so much fun! I enjoy research but thanks to curiosity, I tend to spend too much time at it!
    One time I actually stumbled upon some valuable insight while digging for old bottles out in the sticks. (Yeah, I still like to play in the dirt!) It appeared in the form of an old schoolhouse; dilapidated and long-since abandoned, it wasn’t hard to accidentally let myself inside. This was perfect for the setting and a character who had a habit of staring out the window. Lessons in faded chalk remained on the blackboard and atop many little desks were the yellowed remnants of worksheets, but regrettably, there were no windows. Not a one! So I wrote one in the story anyway. Who’s to say someone like my brother didn’t build that schoolhouse (in a prior life) – he would have put in an entire wall of windows!
    Write on, Quanie! If this post is any indication, your story will be one we can’t put down!

    • Diedre,

      Okay, so you have me totally intrigued about that school house! Your description totally had me there. And I think you’re right about hitting the road to do research again. I have an idea for a story set somewhere in Hawaii and I can’t wait to go back there and do some digging around.

  15. LOL – You are so funny. I always leave your blog feeling better than when I came.

    If you’ve done a diligent search and can’t find it, chances are your readers aren’t going to know either. Put a disclaimer in the front or back of your book and call it done. 😉

    P.S. Try searching Google Scholar (< just google that) before you give up.
    Melissa Maygrove recently posted..IWSG February – Wayyy Out Of My Comfort ZoneMy Profile

    • Ha! You’re right, Stephanie: any excuse to hit the road. And I agree with you about having a connection after personally visiting a place. I feel like I can write certain scenes with more confidence now that I’ve actually seen the place in person.
      Quanie recently posted..Story Roadblocks: ResearchMy Profile

    • Hi Ernesto,

      It’s SO much easier for me when I set my stories in a fictional town and just run with it. I don’t know what I was even thinking, setting this novel in an actual city but you know, our characters are just such dictators:)

  16. I’m living through this exact problem! LOL Since I live in Charleston, SC, I decided to set my novel there (it was easy and I’m lazy). Then I realize I don’t know as much about the city as I thought, so I drag out the maps, go out for drives and take pictures etc. Even then, I’ve moved a historic house and placed fictional businesses for my story – I can only be but so realistic. It’s a fantasy universe and I’ve given myself permission to take liberties. There will always be that one person that says: “Well you know such and so is IMPOSSIBLE because REASONS.” In our current reality, they’re probably right. But the reality in my story is mine to bend and twist to my will, so I will take liberties as long as I can make it sound believable.

    I totally agree with the above posters – research as much as you can, then let your imagination do the rest!
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  17. First–your post had me laughing with the calls and the note about Scandal (I’m in season 3 on Netflix right now).

    I wrote a historical involving astronauts set in the 1960s in Texas near the space center. I had to research astronauts, Texas, and the 60s, all of which meant I did a ton of research. I made up as much detail as I could, or was vague with certain things, but the space center I could not make up. I did a mix of google maps, detailed google searches for all kinds of sources; educational texts, tourist photos, blogs, you name it. Has the gov mansion been on a home tour before? Maybe a historical society has a website with photos, or someone blogged their personal photos of it. YOu have to get creative with your online searching, but I bet you can find things.

    The other aspect is sometimes it’s necessary to “over-research” so YOU know what to work with, but those details don’t make it in the book. I read some seriously dense NASA literature I can’t believe I even found online, and my book is YA about the daughter of astronaut. But I still needed to get the context. So while it may help you to write it, you also don’t want to bore the reader with details of where each room in the house is and what it looks like and where the exits are located UNLESS it aids your story. I think you can work with research details and add in your own to make your story work. Lastly, you can add an author’s note at the back how you embellished details of a real place. I’ve seen authors do that a number of times.

    Good luck! I’m glad I found your blog.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      Wow! You have some great suggestions! I hadn’t even thought about looking into a historical society. I did find a Youtube video of someone driving to the mansion but it was brief and the clip ended after the driver pressed the button at the gate and was told to go to the parking lot on the right. I also love your suggestion about adding an author’s note. Thanks so much for stopping by!
      Quanie recently posted..Story Roadblocks: ResearchMy Profile

  18. I feel you Quanie. I’m in the same boat. One of my WIP is set in a fictional town near Colonial Williamsburg. So like you, I’m going to have to get up, get out and take some pictures. But for now I’m relying on imagination, pictures and whatever info I can find online. So I suggest that you research as much as you can and just make up the rest. Since you’ve already drove down and taken pictures of the exterior, then take a tour as well. As many times you need (if you haven’t already) and hopefully there’s no rules against taking pictures. Doing research for your story can be a real pain but it also gives it a level of depth. So yup, go for the research.
    lidy recently posted..Overcome Fear of WritingMy Profile

    • Hi Lidy, you’re so right: research does give the story a level of depth. I didn’t get a chance to do a tour before I left but thankfully, there’s a good amount of info on the part that’s accessible to the public online. Good luck with your research! Let us know how it turns out:)
      Quanie recently posted..Story Roadblocks: ResearchMy Profile

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