Friday, May 14, 2010

The Facts of Life

Today's guest blogger is Alli Sinclair, an Australian-born writer who has lived in Argentina, Peru, and Canada. She has climbed some of the world's tallest mountains, worked as a tour guide throughout South America, and tended bar in an Irish pub in Peru. Alli recently completed VESTIGE, a paranormal romance set in Peru, and is currently working on a mystery set in Argentina. Her inspiration comes from her travels, but the facts? Where else.

Writers love sending readers to other worlds, to give them an experience they wouldn’t normally get in the ho-hum of day-to-day. Perhaps the reader will learn something new about someone else’s life, or about them self. But what takes an average story and sends it skyrocketing into another realm?

One of the greatest compliments a writer can receive is when a reader says, “I believed I was there.” Perhaps the reader felt like they were standing next to Eva Peron when she made her speech from the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. The reader’s skin sizzled from the electric atmosphere of the adoring fans crowding into the Plaza de Mayo. The reader could study the intricate details of the Baroque architecture and then gaze at the glittering Cartier bracelet Eva Peron was wearing. Cartier bracelet? Who would have known? A savvy writer who spends time on research would have known, without a doubt.

When a reader picks up a book, not only are they investing precious time, they trust the writer knows about the subject. But how can a writer know that Incas cut off their hair when a loved one passed away? Research. How can a writer know spider webs were used to cure warts in the Middle Ages? Research.

With the age of the Internet, research is a lot easier than back in the dim dark days when people knew how to use the dewy decimal system. Don’t know what the DDS is? Do some research! Now that Google and the like are commonplace (google is officially a verb, believe it or not), research should be relatively easy. But take heed before you google. There is a lot of dodgy information out there that can lead an innocent researcher down a very crooked, slippery path. Working out which web sites are reliable can take almost as much time to research as, well… the research itself. That’s why it’s better to do some in-person investigating if given the chance. And luckily, I’ve had more than my fair share of opportunities to do just that.

I write books set in South America that include historical elements. The stories also have a paranormal side, which means I can create my own world. But I want my stories to feel genuine. If I know the Incas used ornamental pins that could double as a knife, then I will weave in that detail. It might not be significant, but it gives my writing a depth it otherwise wouldn’t have. Sure, I could have googled or (gasp) gone to a library to find this out, but I was able to draw on the knowledge I gathered when working as a tour guide in Peru.

Perhaps this first-hand experience is what fuels my passion for writing stories set in South America. Although, I believe this is a case of chicken and egg. Am I a writer or traveler first? For me, the two are inseparable. All that time spent travelling the globe, I was researching, even though I had no idea I was doing it at the time. Standing among the ruins, I learned historical facts that fuelled the storyteller in me. I could close my eyes and picture the fires burning in the centre of the plaza, smell the incense and hear people speaking a language that no longer exists. To me, research is in my makeup and without doing it, my brain would implode from boredom and my stories would fall flat.

What about you? Is research in your nature? What do you like to research and how do you do it?


  1. Thisis my first time at this blog and I am now totally going to bookmark it. Fascinating sutff!

    That's very cool, Alli! While I don't write about somewhere so far away from home for me, I do write small towns and living in one or going to one to find the rhythm of life, the rhythm of the people who live there can be invaluable. I loved the tidbits you put in here. Who knew indeed that Google was a verb?!?

    Have a great day!

  2. What a fascinating life you've led, Alli! I love research, too, especially the hands-on type you describe. Such a good reason to plan another trip. :) I'm writing a mystery series set in Iran and other places. I take lots of pictures and keep a journal when I'm traveling to record details as I experience them so I can recapture those moments when I want to write about them in my stories. My Iranian friends and relatives are always teasing me about scribbling away in my little book. And they roll their eyes at the mundane things I'm always photographing.

  3. Alli, wonderful comments and blog. Supriya, thanks for hosting and presenting these international authors. I follow Heidi's as well. When you write you educate and expose us to amazing cultures, for which I'm so grateful. Who knows if I'll ever get to go on these adventures, but thanks to all of you, I do!

  4. Great post! Alli, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said research gives the writing a depth it might not otherwise have. I really appreciate it when I'm reading a book and I can the writer went that extra mile to get the details straight and weave them into the story. Myself? I like doing research. I'm surprised at how the research itself sparks ideas. I don't often get as far afield as you've been! But....I just went to Hollywood a couple of times for the book I'm working on. :)

  5. Internet research is a wonderful tool, but there's nothing like real-life experience and it shows in the writing. You have such a rich life experience, your novels are bound to be fascinating! I love books that take me away to another time and place. Great post!

  6. Fabulous post, Alli. You make me feel so lazy about my own research. Perhaps that's why I enjoy writing in made up worlds, too. :)

    That said... if I find a topic I want to learn more about, I can get obsessive about learning all I can.

  7. Thanks so much for all your comments! Researching is in my blood and its nice to know I'm not the only one obsessed about it. :-)

    Misty, going local can be just as interesting as zipping across international borders. Once you capture the rhythm (I love the way you put that!) of the people, it lends authenticity.

    Heidi, I bet your stories set in Iran would be absolutely fascinating. It's funny how writers don't bat an eyelid with a colleague stops mid-conversation to scribble something down yet non-writers think we're going loopy.

    Donnell, I hope you get to go on many adventures as you can!

    Barrie, oh you are so right about research sparking new ideas! Isn't it great when that happens?

    Thanks so much, Kathy. I love being transported to other places, too. It makes the world seem smaller, huh?

    Maureen, I think being obsessive is part of a being a writer!

  8. Wow Alli,

    You are amazing - its interesting how so many people are now tuning in to the paranormal and writing such brilliant work. Would love to hear more from you on this blog. Good luck with your adventures in your Argentinian book.

    I am writing about the new children coming in after the indigo children and how we can learn from them.

  9. Thanks so much, Katrina. Your book sounds really interesting and sounds very timely. Good luck with it!