Rabbit Holes of Novel Research

Remember that famous quote from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes… “the secret’s in the sauce”? As a reader, what inspires and impresses me most is when an author drops one key detail into the middle of a narrative, without fanfare or fuss—and yet it has an enriching impact. 

As a writer, I know how hard it is to come up with such a perfect piece of trivia—whether it’s made up or dug up. My own searches are both fun and frustrating; a kind of treasure hunt, except that I usually can’t even describe ahead of time exactly what “treasure” I’m seeking. I mostly know it when I find it, but even then its usefulness isn’t guaranteed. Sometimes such a detail will only reveal its importance a few months later—and it might even prove relevant to a completely different character or scene. What can I say, it’s not a very scientific process…

Though I dig up most of these details via internet searches, the best example involved actual travel. In 2016, while working on Ferry to Cooperation Island, I realized I couldn’t quite “hear” Courtney’s Eastern Shore twang—and none of the online recordings I dug up sounded quite right. I decided to make my first-ever dedicated fiction research trip to Oxford, Maryland, so I could listen in on the locals.

Wandering around the small town proved quite disappointing; most of Oxford’s current residents grew up somewhere else. But on one random morning beach walk, I spotted a not particularly distinctive oyster shell that instantly sparked a thought: “Courtney wears that around her neck, on a leather thong.” I picked up the shell and carried it home to my desk, where it continued to help me home in on what makes her tick—and why. 

Most of my “rabbit holes of research” don’t lead to such inspirational happenstance; far too many end up in the trash file. But without this kind of digging, I’d never stumble onto the details that, carefully placed, will enrich the “secret sauce” of each story. And, I have to admit—even when they’re not successful, they’re a large part of what makes writing fiction so much fun.

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