Monday, July 13, 2015

XXX For Research

Jodi and me on Georgica Beach in East Hampton

I talked last time about how important research is to help flesh out your book. I've had the most amazing experiences researching my books. I don't think I've taken a single 'vacation' in twenty years that wasn't somehow related to researching one of my stories. (A couple Vegas weekends nothwithstanding.)

A great case in point was when I was brought in to help Jodi Della Femina write her first novel. I wasn't an official 'ghostwriter' - Jodi insisted my name be on the book - but that was basically my job.

Jodi wanted the book to be about a wedding in the Hamptons and what happens when a 'local' girl marries into a wealthy summer family. Because Jodi was also a cookbook author, she wanted it to have a 'foodie' vibe to it. So we had the main character - based loosely on Jodi - start her own catering business in the Hamptons.

Jodi is a very creative person with lots of thoughtful memories of the summers she spent in the Hamptons. But she was in New York and I was in Toronto, so for the most part, we spoke on the phone, hammering the story out that way. Then I'd do the writing and let her read how it was going.

Other times, she'd just email me a snippet of something she remembered or was thinking about, and I'd keep it organized so that we could incorporate it into the book later.

Now I knew what an incredible position I was in. To ghostwrite a story about the Hamptons? Not everyone gets a chance to visit this exclusive place. But I wanted the story to feel like a trip to the Hamptons. So research was a very important part of the book.

However, you can really bog down a book with too much research. And - more importantly - if you stop writing to look something up, you can lose your train of thought and the whole flow of the story. To help with this, I remembered some very helpful advice I'd read in On Writing by Stephen King.

King said too much research can overwhelm a book. And new writers who had a tendency to do a lot of research beforehand wanted to include it all. Which is a mistake. He treated research in a much more utilitarian way. If he was writing a story and needed a research detail for something, he'd just leave a blank and keep writing. He filled in the information later.

Near Gin Lane in Southampton. There's no filter on this one. The light really is 'gauzy' and magical.
I used this device so many times for By Invitation Only. As the book was coming together, I realized there was specific information I needed to make the story come alive. Everything from descriptions of places to the history of the area. So rather than interrupting my writing, I would just insert "XXX" in the manuscript where a detail needed to be.

When I had the first draft of the book done, I 'searched' out all the XXX's and made a list of all the info I needed. Some of this I could do online and with books. But for most of it, I actually had to go to the Hamptons to get the 'feel' of the place.

I took two research trips: one for a couple of days to get the proposal ready (we had a book deal in three days btw!).  Then I took a second longer trip after the first draft was finished. I carried my big list of XXX's wherever I went and just crossed them off one at a time, writing notes or voicing them into a recorder.

Some of these 'blanks' were for descriptions of a place: like the fridge at Round Swamp Farm. Round Swamp is a local produce and foodie shop and the big walk-in fridge is one of Jodi's favourite places in the world. She wanted to mention it in the book, so I went there and stood in the fridge with my notebook and just took it all in. It really is a special place, so full of local fruit, vegetables and herbs, it smells like the garden of Eden. A comparison I couldn't resist making in the book. ;)

I'd also left XXX's for a description of the holding cell at the East Hampton Village Police - because one of the characters ends up there. When I went on my tour of the station, I took copious notes about everything from the color of the walls to what the stainless steel loo looked like.

There were hundreds of examples like this, from boutiques to beaches.  It was such a fun book to research & write! But I didn't let myself get too bogged down by details before I started the story.

So don't fret if you don't have every single piece of information you need for the book you're dreaming about right now. Start working on the story, leave blanks where you might need a historical date or the exact description of whatever - and then work that information in later. Or at least when you've finished writing for the day. It's far better than interrupting the flow of the story when you're writing it.

That can just turn into a long surf session where you get nothing done! (As we all know!)

By the way, if you're looking for a great summer read, that book, By Invitation Only fits the bill. We were recommended by many pub's, but In Style especially flagged the book as the perfect beach read.

I think it's even better if you're not on a beach - because reading it will make you feel as if you are! Like I said, not everyone gets to go to the Hamptons. Unlike Jodi, who grew up in a wealthy family and spent every summer there, I was raised by a single mom in a mining town. Vacations for us were car trips to see aunts and uncles. I know there are lots of people out there just like me, so I wanted the book to feel like a Hamptons vacation whenever you picked it up. And it does!

By the way, I heard from men who borrowed the book from their wives and really enjoyed it, too. It's a light fun read - but there's lots to learn, too. Plus there's a great love story in there as four investment bankers rent a beach house together. And one of them falls for our caterer :) ...

It's available at Amazon.com - at a slightly reduced price - so check it out. By Invitation Only.

Hope you enjoy it! And if you do, I'd love it if you left a nice review! :) Thanks so much!