How Do Writers Research?

One year ago, my friend and I drove to Santa Fe, NM. We planned it as a research / vacation trip in the wonderful Southwest, with side trips to Taos and Red River.santa fe

Why Santa Fe? Because I knew that my main character, Reverend G, loved the Southwest and particularly Santa Fe. I also knew that I wanted to include something about that region in the third Reverend G book – which is still in its first draft stage.

So we drove to Santa Fe, enjoying the mountain scenery and the warmer weather. After a hard Kansas winter, we needed to soak up the sun as well as to soak in the culture.

Writers can, of course, do research on the internet. In fact, that’s where I started – looking up the main sites of Santa Fe. But the internet can only provide facts and stats for a region.

If you want to write credibly and make your stories real – you have to actually experience a region.

The writer needs to know how people communicate in a particular area, how characters dress and talk, what it feels like to stand in line at the Georgia O’Keefe museum and then spend several hours drinking in the colors and textures of her paintings.

The writer needs to discover new artists who craft incredible sculptures out of metal, pictures of women on horses that seem to fly through the studio, textiles that flap their colors in the wind.

The writer keeps a journal of the trip and gathers brochures, maps, postcards, photos wherever she goes. But the writer also records the emotions she feels, touring a particular city.

I wrote about our tour of the Plaza: “Native Americans spread out their creativity: jewelry on black mats, shining silver and bountiful turquoise, coral, copper bracelets, earrings, necklaces – nothing that Reverend G would buy but all of it – she would enjoy. The pottery – some with colors of the earth, some with the brightness of primary colors.”

We talked with tourists, but also with the locals – interesting blends of Hispanic, Caucasian, Native American and some Asians. Reverend G and I both loved the diversity of the Southwest.

These friendly people, women in broomstick skirts of various colors. Men with tanned and wrinkled faces. They seem to live an idyllic life where they have the freedom to leave workplaces and spend time with a writer from Kansas, to tell her how long they’ve lived in Santa Fe and why they moved out of corporate America to operate a coffee shop in New Mexico.

We ate at a little café with different colors painted on each wall – purple blended into orange, yellow beside red. Small salads with walnuts, salmon and bleu cheese with a vinaigrette dressing. Iced chai tea in tall glasses – spicy yet sweet and so refreshing.

So many variations of wildflowers, splayed in gardens along with buckets of pansies and Indian blanket daisies. A momentary wrong turn and we were lost, but then found in a rose garden at the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bathing our hot faces in the fountain that promised health. Snapping my promo picture while surrounded by lavender roses.

Statues of Mary everywhere and the creativity of God surrounding us. Worship all around us and in us as my friend played a Native American flute, and I wrote in my journal and savored the day.

The Loretto Chapel, famous for its spiral staircase. You can’t imagine what happens to Reverend G in the chapel, but you’ll have to wait for the third book to find out.

Although we smelled smoke from mountain wildfires, the resulting atmospheric change brought us colorful sunsets – a sacred end to a busy day.

We left a few sites for the next trip – whenever that will be. But I found enough material and soaked in enough of the Southwest to add to my book and make it credible.

How do writers research? They live in the area for a while. They let every one of their senses open fully to the people and the places where they exist. They look for the inner soul and the textures and colors around them. They listen for dialects and observe relationships. They take time to literally smell roses and meld new friendships. Then they come home, organize their notes and write about it.

And a year later – they wish they could return.

©2013 RJ Thesman – Author of “The Unraveling of Reverend G”

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6 thoughts on “How Do Writers Research?

  1. Very interesting, RJ. I think your approach reassures me I can write about each of the countries I’ve lived in. I have had the experience and I have my letters to my family to fall back on. It makes me want to get going! Thanks.

    • You’re right, Amy. Wherever we’ve lived – we’ve done hands-on research. We know the sights, smells, foods, culture and dress of the area. And with letters as an additional resource – you have a great start!

  2. Great piece! Felt the warm sunshine. Smelled the fragrant blossoms. Saw into the eyes of the people. Yes, we must “experience” the people and places to write the story. Thank you for reminding me to smell the roses in my new place called home.

    • Thank you, Merrie. Yes, as a writer, you too understand the importance of being in the moment and in the place. I’m sure God has a good plan for you in your new place and He will send love messages to you – perhaps through the roses.

  3. Thanks, RJ. I lived in New Mexico more than 40 years ago, back when there were only about 500,000 people there.

    Back then, the hippies were riding horses on the roads and lived in communes; La Raza was shooting up things; and Frontier Airlines still had jet service into the then-open Santa Fe airport.

    I worked on Ghost Ranch, about 60 miles north of SF. Georgia O’Keefe lived in Abiquiu and had a casa on the ranch. If you’ve seen her “Ladder to the Moon” or some of other paintings of the landscapes, those were done from her home.

    I appreciate you sharing your trip to NM. The plaza at SF was always a lively place back then. Seeing the Indian, Mexican and gringo cultures mix–or their best rendition of that–always fascinated me.

    Next time you get back–and you will–go up to Chimayo and see the church there. Then, go next door and have a lip-smacking authentic Northern NM meal at Rancho de Chimayo. My favorite: stacked enchiladas with green chilies and topped with a fried egg. Their chili con queso is terrific. Then visit one of the two famous weaving shops in the same vicinity.

    Go up to Truchas, if you’ve time.

    Go up US84, to Abiquiu, then farther north to Ghost Ranch, then on to Tierra Amarilla, Chama and you’re at the Colorado-NM border. That’ll be a breath-taking drive.

    If you’ve got time, go west and see Chaco Canyon where the Anasazi once lived.

    Reverend G. would’ve done no less.

    God’s richest blessings to you. May He guide your thoughts, eyes, words and fingers–and may the fruit of those have His blessing and reap prosperity for you.

    Best regards,

    C. Kenna Amos

    • Thank you so much for all these wonderful suggestions. I have seen the church at Chimayo and would love to visit these other places. Oh, my – getting homesick for New Mexico !

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