Editors Blog

3 Reasons Why Personally Visiting a Source (or Location) Will Better Your Writing

I first met Audie a year ago, when I arrived at his home in northern California. Sharp barks announced the arrival of me and my photographer, William Muñoz. Audie’s human, Linda, invited us into the living room as Audie ran excitedly back and forth, away from us and towards us, trying to find the courage to make friends with these strangers. Making friends with strangers isn’t something the dogs in the Michael Vick dog fighting ring were used to, and Audie clearly suffered from a struggle between his innate desire to make friends and his learned fear of strangers. But thanks to the loving attention he’d received from a variety of generous people since his 2007 rescue, Audie was soon snuggling against my leg on the couch taking a nap.

Dorothy is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Wendy won.)

 

    
Guest column by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, animal
lover extraordinaire who always jumps at the chance
to write about canines. Her newest book (May 2011)
is Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance.
Dorothy believes up close and personal research is
vital to the success of a project. See her website here.

 

I suppose I could have written a book about these dogs by reading magazines and articles on the Internet—their rescue had certainly generated lots of press. But I never would have been able to write a compelling and sensitive story without meeting Audie and his human family and following them through their daily routine. The vital personal relationship component that brings writing to life would have been missing.

Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” and when you’re a writer, 90% might be more like it. When you’re there, encountering your subject matter in person, you not only can make an emotional connection, you also have these other advantages:

1. You can ask your own questions.
If you use only written resources, you can miss out on key information that could help bring your subject alive to your readers.

2. You can get the personal viewpoint of the people involved in your subject matter. I learned this many years ago, while writing a book about different breeds of horses. I had written to the official organizations representing various breeds for information, and each of them strove to convince me that their breed was the ultimate “all purpose horse.” I couldn’t figure out what to write about for each breed that made it unique and special. Then I visited people who raised horses.  When I arrived, I’d invariably be asked to come in for a cup of coffee before visiting the barn or pasture. After a sip or two, I’d ask my host why he or she chose this particular breed. Bingo! I had my answers and was able to write my book.

3. By being present and observing closely, you can capture those little details that help draw your readers into your story. While shivering so strongly I could hardly write as I watched polar bears near Churchill, Manitoba, I could see the little puffs of snow stirred up by a bear’s giant snowshoe-like paws as it padded along the tundra and note that its coat was so smooth and gleaming white it looked as if it had been professionally groomed. I never would have gleaned those details just from reading or even from a video.

So take my advice and go on a quest for your own up close and personal knowledge of a subject that grabs you and will grab your reader.  And if you can make it one that takes place on, say, a tropical island or an exciting city, so much the better!

Dorothy is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Wendy won.)


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20 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Personally Visiting a Source (or Location) Will Better Your Writing

  1. Darlene Foster

    Thanks for this great post. It came just in time. I am at the part in my next book where the main character goes out on a sailboat for the first time and I was stuck. Now I have contacted the local yacht club to see if someone will take me out for a sailboat ride so I can really feel the experience. I would love to win your book as well! Darlene

  2. Jade

    I am glad to see books on survivors of dog fighting rings. It’s sad to see them treated as such but it makes my heart very happy to see people adopting them and giving them good homes and the love they deserve.

    I agree greatly, Asking your own questions get you far more interesting answers and more of what you are looking for as a writer. I have gone to several horror conventions and asked the actors about obscure films that many never bother to watch and they are more than happy to talk about them then the ones that got them popular.

  3. James

    I have to say that those small details do make a world of a difference to most readers. I love to read because a book can take me to a place I have never been at a fraction of the cost it would take to go there myself. Thank you for taking the time to focus on the details!

  4. Dorothy Patent

    Ah yes, Laura the reality check! My husband and I love it when we see a movie placed on some other continent, and the film makers want the viewer to feel a portent–they will almost always use the cry of a red-tailed hawk, no matter where in the world we’re supposed to be!

    And Summer, I agree that even visiting a gravesite can be illuminating. You’d like what Trish Marx, who writes nonfiction for children, says on her website in reference to her touchpoint for one of her books:

    For ONE THOUSAND YEARS DEAD, about the mummies of southern Peru, it was the balls of yarn, still vibrantly red and yellow, found in the tomb of a thousand-year-old mummy, that was the arrow connecting me to the rest of the story. My grandmother’s balls of yarn, in her knitting basket, looked just the same. I had something real, in my life, to both keep me grounded and let me fly back through the years and see/visualize my subject’s life.

  5. Summer Stephens

    I write stories I find on the northeast Florida and Georgia coasts. I never write about anything or anyone I haven’t visited personally. Most of the people I write about are dead, so I visit their gravesites if I can. I visit buildings, forts, marshes, plantations, markers, rivers, anything with a personality. If I didn’t I couldn’t get my head in the right place to write about what I love.

    Bless you, Dorothy, for writing this book. And bless Linda, for giving Audie a second chance.

  6. Laura McGaffey

    There’s also the "reality check" factor. Some readers buy books on subjects they already know about; i.e. I have every book I’ve ever found on Miniature Pinschers, a dog breed I love and own and therefore know about from first-hand experience. A significant reason for my purchase of these books is to support the author who comes across knowledgeable and truly interested in the MinPin.

    From my husband’s POV when reading fiction, he has been known to close a book and throw it in the trash when locale details are way off the mark and/or technical details (computers to guns) make the author look like a bumbling idiot. His "favorite" mistakes are when a gun is a revolver yet the character ejects a magazine, and when the "sound of a Glock being cocked" is heard. Glocks do not have a hammer that can be cocked by a user and therefore there is no cocking sound. (For those who want to argue this point – watch any movie where a character pulls back the slide on a semi-auto gun to load a cartridge and you will note that the sound is not the same as the cocking of a gun by pulling back the hammer.)

  7. Georgia Ann Mullen

    Traveling to Seneca Falls, NY to research a magazine article got my juices flowing. I toured Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house, visited the remains of the Wesleyan Chapel where the First Woman’s Rights Convention was held, walked the Cayuga-Seneca Canal towpath. I knew there was material there for an historical novel about women’s rights and abolition. I ended up writing two and am working on the third, which will take me to Louisville, KY this summer.

    So, Dorothy, I agree completely with you. Researching on location is not only productive, it’s fun. And tax deductible.

    Thanks for an informative post.

  8. Dorothy Patent

    Thanks for your wonderful comments–I’m glad people out there find it useful, and it looks like I have some fellow dog lovers out there, too. And Kristin Barrett–my husband said I "needed" to have him along when I visited the Galapagos Islands while researching a bio of Charles Darwin. So he did come along, and he did carry my camera–sometimes!

  9. Hong Lam

    I agree! I also find that you also get to enjoy more random opportunities to make the most out of life. Action is always preferred over inaction. Showing up to events can also spark inspiration. Last Saturday, I worked at a yard sale and ended up with a job opportunity! I believe that when you expose yourself to random opportunities and you’re prepared to meet them, you will find yourself lucky often. Indeed, that is the definition of luck.

  10. Tamara Meyers

    Thank you for the article. I had an idea for a novel, I researched the setting, I started the story, but something was missing. After visiting the locale of the story I found my missing character – a house. It fits so well into the reason for the story that I don’t think I could have written it without this discovery.

    Maybe my next novel can be about wintering in Hawaii…

  11. Shawn

    I couldn’t agree more, Dorothy. I just spent a couple weeks in France following the footsteps of an ancient poet and exploring some places that will be in my next novel. I feel so connected to his world, and in particular to a tiny little town I had never heard of prior to this research. Visiting Fontaine de Vaucluse was the highlight of my trip, and I’m already longing to go back. (See http://shawnbird.com/2011/04/24/magic-fontaine/ for the blog I wrote on this!) You HAVE to see the places to discover the unexpected secrets that open up the magic in your work.

  12. May & KC Frantzen

    How wonderful that you were able to make a connection with Audie and his human. Good on ya! May the K9 Spy and I trust that all the <i>ex</i>-Vick dogs are shining examples of hope.

    We look forward to reading more! Thanks for sharing the opportunity here, and for your excellent words of advice. Couldn’t agree more! :)

    may at maythek9spy dot com

  13. Kirsten

    Too true! Research comes through when writing and brings life to the story. It’s the main difference between communicating your message vs. aggregating what others have said. Thank you for writing about this. Plus the picture of Audie is great!

  14. Kristin Barrett

    Thank you for this article! I am writing a book about Norway and looking for any excuse to go, so I forwarded this article to my husband. :) What an interesting topic you chose to write about, I love to hear about successes.

  15. Rae Whitney

    DHP- Love the idea of visiting the site. True enough, being there is half the fun and the best words emerge therein. "Paticipant Observation" at it’s finest. Thanks for the blog. ~ RW

  16. Wendy Greenley

    Thank you, Dorothy, for tackling this important subject matter. I am a huge supporter of the Best Friends Animal Society and all the work they have done with the Vicktory dogs. I look forward to reading this dog’s story and passing the message along.

  17. Ann Vanderlaan

    My writing partner and I used exactly this strategy when writing our first novel; and we’ll do it again for the second in the series.

    I’m sure this book will be a great chronicle of a Vicktory Dog who "made good".

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