7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Road Trip Research Inspires Writing

A lot of writers dread researching details for the settings of their novels. There is so much reading to do; so much time spent searching the Internet for information. Some of it can dampen inspiration. But there is a way to make research one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing life and kindle that flame of inspiration, and here’s how.

You can find inspiration in your own backyard whether your setting is local or distant. To keep this post brief, I will outline for you steps you can take to find inspiration in your research that is local.

  1. Begin online by searching your county’s historical sites. A good source is your local historical society website. Make a list of sites according to places that are from the time period your novel is written in. For example, your heroine lives in a Revolutionary War period manor house. You can visit one nearby to feel the ambiance of such a place, soak in the architecture and lifestyle.
  2. Pack a lunch, your camera, and a notebook! Gas up the car and set out through country roads to these locations. But watch for interesting little known places along the way.
  3. Explore plantations, fortresses, battlefields, old houses, and small towns. I’m fortunate to live in a historically rich area in Maryland. I’m currently writing a series entitled ‘Daughters of the Potomac’. Not far from me are the Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, Rose Hill Manor, and Schifferstadt House, all places where my books will be set or places that are representative of places in the stories. In visiting them, taking photos and notes, my heart swells with inspiration, and history comes alive in my mind, much more so than reading a document online.
  4. Now, while you drive throughout the countryside, keep an eye out for interesting places you may not find listed, such as old houses, memorials, old cemeteries, and churches. They will be out there, and they are worth a pause.

So here are a few links to the places I have visited that have inspired my writing.

I hope you enjoy your time researching your story!
Rita Gerlach


  1. Your new series sounds wonderful, Rita - I so love the title! It instantly transports me to early America and I can just imagine the beautiful covers to come. Thanks for your interesting tips about research and making it more an adventure than a chore. You live in such a historically rich area that it must sometimes be overwhelming deciding on just a few places to visit! But that's a good conundrum, I'm thinking:)

  2. I agree with Laura, a very good conundrum to be faced with. To visit any sites of the era I write in would require plane reservations first, or several days and several hundred dollars worth of fuel for driving 2500-3000 miles. Colonial writers living east of the Mississippi are blessed! But I do take advantage of any trip I can make back east, researching on line as many places similar to those in my stories that I can visit while I'm wherever family or business trips take me. For instance, knowing I'd be attending the ACFW conference last year in Indianapolis, and that I'd be flying to Nashville and driving up north through Kentucky with my writer pal, Joan, to get there, I went on line and found a 1790s stone plantation house we could stop and tour on our way back. Book research is necessary, but you're so right that nothing compares with actually standing in a house of that era, restored to what it would have looked like then.

    Harper's Ferry is a wonderful town. I was able to visit it two years ago, while back east for my brother's wedding. I'd been there before, but not since I'd begun writing historical fiction. Amazing the different things that caught my eye this time around.

  3. I live in Las Vegas NV - we don't maintain our history here we blow it up. You have to go outside of Las Vegas to research the history of Nevada. I am not in the era of the west yet in my writing (currently in the Revolutionary period) but when the time comes I'll be ready.
    This past fall I took a research road trip and drove from Las Vegas to Colonial Williamsburg VA then up to Massachusetts. My travel buddy and writer friend went with me. We tease each other 7,000 miles, 13 days, 24/7 together and we're still friends.
    The trip was incredible! I gained so much more and met the most incredible people who were very excited about my story and happy I am doing it. Amazing experience. I can't wait to go back and do more in depth research for the non-fiction book and I plan on doing a documentary.

  4. Teresa, your trip account brings back such memories. I did a road/research trip like that with a dear friend several years ago. I flew to Wisconsin, and she and I drove down to TN, then into NC, and back up to Wisconsin again by a slightly different route, touring various sites and places along the way. I want to do that again very much!

  5. I feel fortunate to be living in the DC area and writing colonial/revolutionary era fiction as well. Not only is the Library of Congress nearby - a vital resource for obscure primary sources and hundred-year-old local historical society journals - but there are so many places such as those mentioned.

    I definitely want to plug the two colonial farms in the national capital area: Claude Moore Colonial Farm (www.1771.org) in Northern Virginia and the National Colonial Farm in Southern Maryland(www.accokeek.org). Claude Moore portrays a tenant farm family of rather meager means, while the National Colonial Farm recreates a more "middling" farm. Both provide an interesting contrast to the big plantations like Mount Vernon and Monticello, and both feature reenactors well versed in the period, heritage animals, accurate buildings, etc. They also both put on great events and workshops like hearth cooking, spinning and dyeing, and holiday festivities. They've both been an invaluable resource for me. Check them out if you have a chance!

  6. Enjoyed the research tips immensely....not only for the info, but for the inspiration. Talk about those job perks! Can't help it; enjoyed those learning trips since I was a kid. It's also why my house is decorated in colonial style....to surround myself in the atmosphere. Thanks, Rita!

  7. Just did a tour of two plantations yesterday on the James River and was inspired to write two more stories based on wonderful real-life events! I am blessed to live in the colonial triangle of Virginia but I drove northwest for this research! Thanks for the great article, Rita!

  8. Hi Laura! I'm working on the macro edits for Before the Scarlet Dawn now. Due by the 20th, and I'm enjoying every minute of the process.

    Lori, you are so right. Book research combined with visiting historical places really does enrich the writing experience.

    Wow, Teresa! Your road trip must have been amazing! I'd love to rent an RV sometime and take off with hubby.

    Yea, Matt. It's a great area to live in. A bit of trivia on my end. My great great grandfather Henry Horan was one of the superintendents of the Smithsonian.

    Good to see you stop by, Pat.
    And Carrie. I'm trying to find out if my ancestor's (Alexander Magruder, patriarch of the Magruders of Washington DC) plantation is still around. It was called Anchovie Hill in southern Maryland.

  9. I try to remember that I can find research inspiration close by because it's in the close-up details. That way I don't feel so envious of those able to travel to all my favorite places throughout the colonies...

    Rita - I so enjoyed Surrender the Dawn. It was worth the long wait!

  10. Debra, that's so true. Good point.

    In my case, a lot of my weekends are spent hiking mountain trails, shooting arrows into rotting logs or steep banks for target practice. In most of my stories there's at least a few scenes where characters are trekking over mountains, along trails, or even carrying bows and arrows. Though the terrain in the Pacific Northwest is quite different than that of eastern forests, the sensation of being out on a trail, the sounds of rustling in the leaves, the calls of birds, the sun on water, the wind soughing through the trees, and the sensation sometimes that I'm being watched, is the same.

    So is coming face to face with a startled black bear, and experiencing that breathless moment of will it/won't it charge, and finally the knee-knocking relief when all parties turned and went their separate ways.

    I was later able to work that experience into a story set in upstate New York. So yeah, research inspiration is there for the taking if we have the eyes to see it.

  11. Debra, I am so glad you enjoyed Surrender the Wind.

    Lori, I would have ... in my pants.

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  13. Rita, my husband maintained the most incredible calm. This bear was so close. Just a tree or two separating us. After a few tense seconds of face off, he said (to the BEAR), "We're just two people and a dog here, and it's okay, we're going to leave now." Then he turned to me and the dog pretending NOT to see the huge bear, and said, "Turn around and let's go."

    Putting my back to that bear was hard. I was so flustered I could barely find the trail we were standing on. A couple seconds later I hissed, "What's it DOING??" He said, "Soon as we moved, it whirled around and went on up the mountain."

    It was one of those moments I'll never forget. Awesome in the true sense of the word. Glad it happened. Don't want EVER to repeat it.

  14. Lori, you nearly gave me a heart attack with that bear story! My hero meets a bear in my first novel, but I wouldn't want to do the research first hand!

    It's great hearing about all of your research experiences. Great tips, Rita. I enjoyed your post very much. I like making a day trip of research and am never without my camera. My mother and I went on a research trip in the winter to Kittery, Maine - we combined my writing research with a family history treasure hunt. It was a day full of adventure that I'll never forget. And it is so true, that sometimes one location might even fuel inspiration for another or that you can take some of the things you learned and use that knowledge in another setting that fits.

    Writing is more than pen to paper, it's the research, too. And that is one of my favorite parts!


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