Author Spotlight

The importance of research

When I was writing my first novel, Catch Rider, I drew on years on knowledge that I gained by working with horses.  In fact, sometimes I think I wrote the book because I had to do something with all of the facts I had in my head about horse shoes, feed, boots, and veterinary science.  Once I started working on the book, it felt great to have a place to put these facts and names.

When people started reading the drafts, a frequent comment was that I had created a “world.”  I did know this world well, but I didn’t grow up in the Appalachian mountains, and I felt like a little bit of a phony.  I wanted to make the world richer and more believable, so I started adding more details and researching them as far as I could.  This meant, for example, that if I referred to Fiebings hoof dressing, I made sure it was still available in the same can, and that it was still used on the horse show circuit.  My first draft referred to custom Vogel boots, and a horse person who read a draft pointed out that girls don’t wear those anymore.  They wear boots with zippers up the back.  Realizing that I hadn’t shown horses hunt seat in a few years, I found Kaitlan Parker, who had just qualified for the equitation finals, and I asked specific questions:  Who makes your boots, helmet, and coat?  What breeds are your horses?  How much sleep did you get before you rode in the finals?  I also found someone who rode at Madison Square Garden and asked her what it was like.  She told me that there were huge structural pillars in the middle of the warm-up ring, and that the barn area was tiny.  That was enough.  Sometimes you just need a few small details, and your imagination and storytelling sense can go from there.

It’s important to me that the story is believable, and that someone who had actually ridden in the equitation finals would buy it and suspend their disbelief.  I know Catch Rider is a stretch — I won’t give away the ending — but the final act is entirely possible.  I had to work hard to make it believable by playing with the details for months.  My editor doesn’t ride horses, so she asked me a lot of questions and trusted me to put the time into answering them.  She pushed hard, and I’m very grateful for that.

But back to creating a “world,” because this is important… You don’t have to grow up in the mountains to write about them.  You don’t have to grow up in the projects to write about them.  But if you’re going to “create a world” somewhere, spend as much time there as possible and research everything.  Ask detailed questions, and when people start talking, let them talk.  Let them give you the details that have meaning for them.  If, for example, I was going to write a story about a Chinese real estate developer in Beijing — I’ve never been there and know very little about the culture — I would spend as much time as possible with people there, and ask them to tell me stories about their day, their jobs, and their lives.  That way, the details that you get are filtered through their consciousness, and what comes out is rich and valuable.  Listening becomes really fun as you make new friends and soon you’ll find yourself up to your eyeballs in material.

I would urge writers to think about creating a world somewhere.  All of us readers love to be transported to a new place and learn how other people live.  I think the most successful books are those that help us escape into a new place with new rules, and that can be anywhere.  You don’t have to be born there, all you have to do is dig deep into what really interests you. And don’t be afraid to buy interesting people a cup of coffee and let them talk.


Catch RiderToday’s guest blogger is author, Jennifer H. Lyne. Jennifer’s first novel, Catch Rider, was published this year by Houghton Mifflin. Visit her website to find out more about this book.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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