That's why I always begin my writing process with research, and continue researching clear through the final draft. It's fun to find that little detail that gives a scene the ring of verisimilitude—the feeling that the story's world is absolutely and unquestionably real.
I love to research locations, and I do that early on. For example, the suspense novel I'm writing now involves human smuggling across the Mexican border into Arizona.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Border Patrol doubled in size to nearly 21,000 agents, most of them stationed along the border with Mexico. That's roughly nine agents for every mile of border from Texas to California. Couple that with fences now dividing the border for miles at all the major crossing points, and the Coyote smugglers are forced to move their human cargo and drugs across more remote and dangerous geographic areas. Arizona's Sonoran desert is one of the busiest--and deadliest--border crossing routes.
So I've been poring over topographic maps and using Google Earth to virtually roam the route my Coyote smuggler will force his customers to walk to their meet-up point. It's a scorching, desolate and arduous route, with summer temperatures topping 115 degrees, so they only travel at night.
Interestingly, I found during my research that the smugglers outfit the illegals almost as if they used an assembly line: Same brand and style of backpack, same contents, even the same amount of water—and never enough, so the travelers will be dependent upon their guide. In my story, one of the characters in the border crossers is a drug mule for the Sinaloan Mexican cartel, so sentries are posted along the route to track his progress. But they're not there to assist, only to monitor. Sometimes to ravage. From that fact, came the little jewel of a scene I'm posting as my first "Teaser Tuesday" post. Please come back on Tuesday and read it!
I'm renewing my passport now, and this winter my photographer husband and I will travel south to visit the locations I'm writing about on both sides of the border. The town of Naco is tiny on the Arizona side, but a bustling border crossing site on the Mexican side. And Bisbee, where my main character, Rumor Vargas (remember her from my last book? She was Samantha's business partner), has her antiques store, is already one of my favorite places. While I say there will be no paranormal element in this story, after the haunted sites tour in Bisbee, who knows?
It's the physical location visit that really "seals in" the details—especially sensory details like the way things sound, smell, and look in the actual setting. The hubby will take photographs and I'll take notes. If you are familiar with the book's settings, I encourage you to let me know if you spot any mistakes in the details of your favorite locations!
As an author, the hardest part is making sure the research doesn't take over my writing time, especially with the Internet making the world so very accessible. Hours (days!) can go by while I'm happily browsing, and not one word of the book actually gets written. That's the paradoxical truth about research: While it is absolutely essential, research isn't the story. The story must come from within. From the heart. For me to get into the "flow" requires extended periods of uninterrupted concentration, or wakeful dreaming. It's not an easy state to enter into and maintain. It must be protected.
To keep from getting lost in research, I set the kitchen timer. When the timer goes off, I stop—no matter how enticing that next search link looks. I go back to my blank page, and write. It's the only way to make a book. So, if I come to something I don't know, I insert square brackets [find out where in the high desert Saguaros quit growing] or [how much does a drug mule get paid per trip]. Then, if I get writer's block, or just need a break, I'll research one of the bracket questions, and that helps me get the writing juices flowing again.
Can you recall something an author researched so effectively that it pulled you into the story? Please share, I'd love to hear your examples.