How to Do Shadow Research for Your Novel

How do you write something outside your experience? Research! Author Devon Daniels gives her top 3 tips for how to research for your project.
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Author’s note: I both wrote this essay and conducted the research I detail in it prior to the acts of political unrest that occurred in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. At the time I was writing Meet You in the Middle in 2018, all of the government buildings I mention in this piece were open to the public. My memories and unique experiences exploring the Capitol and Senate offices are even more meaningful to me today, as security concerns will likely result in the closure of these historic buildings to the public for some time. Here’s hoping that the novel’s themes of bipartisanship and mutual respect will be better reflected in our country in the years to come.

When I first decided to write an enemies-to-lovers romance between rival Senate staffers, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’d never worked on Capitol Hill before—or in politics at all—so I needed to research everything about the job, roles, and work environment from the ground up.

(Devon Daniels: Finding Middle Ground in Love and Politics)

It was important to me that the world I portrayed be as accurate as possible. In addition to an entertaining love story, I wanted to give the reader a peek behind the curtain of Washington politics in a way that felt both relatable and authentic.

So, where do you start with this type of deep research?

First Stop: Hit the Internet

Research and read everything you can get your hands on about the industry or setting you’ve chosen for your novel. For me, that meant everything from articles detailing the day-to-day activities of Senate staffers to congressional calendars to "inside D.C." gossip blogs to Yelp reviews of popular Capitol Hill hangouts. I watched a mind-numbing amount of C-SPAN. I even read Congress for Dummies, a joke that ended up in the book. (As Nora Ephron once said: Everything is copy!)

Once I felt comfortable with the basic rules and responsibilities governing legislative staffers, I moved on to the next step of my research: site visits.

How to Do Shadow Research for Your Novel

Road Trip

Sure, you can "visit" anywhere in the world by watching YouTube videos, but it stands to reason that if you’re going to write about Ireland, you should probably have been to Ireland. Whenever possible, you should try to experience the sights, smells, and feel of a place firsthand. (Of course, this advice applies to a post-COVID-19 world where travel is both possible and safe.)

I live just outside Washington, D.C., so I was fortunate to have the benefit of proximity to my setting. I headed downtown to the Hart Senate building, one of three Senate buildings and the site of the political and professional power struggle between my main characters, Ben and Kate.

Now, here’s where introverted writers may have to step outside their comfort zones a bit: you’ll need to be confident, assertive, and outgoing—think "intrepid reporter"—to get the most out of your research trip. Armed with a list of interview questions, I strolled into a handful of senators’ offices, announced I was writing a romance novel, then began rattling off questions to the bemused staff assistants manning the front desks. While I got a few puzzled looks, I found most people were intrigued by my enthusiasm, happy to help, and flattered to be considered an "expert." (Tip: pay special attention to oft-overlooked folks like interns and receptionists. They see everything and have some of the juiciest stories!)

Meet You in the Middle, by Devon Daniels

Meet You in the Middle by Devon Daniels

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I lingered on benches, watching and listening. I chatted up security guards. I ate lunch in the building’s popular coffee shop, Cups, then added the spot right into my draft. I snapped photos and video of the ornate gold elevators and elegant marble bathrooms—seemingly inconsequential details I ended up layering into pivotal scenes. Studying the Hart Building’s unique architecture and office layout inspired a critical plot twist I never would have dreamed up otherwise.

Once I felt I’d learned all I could by eavesdropping observing, I moved on to stage three: shadowing.

Call in an Expert

It might sound simple, but if you don’t personally know someone in the industry you’re writing about, this can take some creativity. I began with family and friends, asking around to see if anyone had any Capitol Hill contacts, but came up short. I ended up finding someone in the most roundabout of ways: via a thread in a Facebook group, where members introduced themselves and (conveniently for me) listed their occupations. When one woman mentioned she was a staffer, I slid right into her DM’s.

This staffer was kind enough to take me on a tour of her office, explain the duties of her job and career trajectory in finer detail, and answer my questions about how staffers from opposing parties work together. She read over my early chapters, providing feedback and suggestions. If I hit a snag while writing, she was just an email away.

I was also able to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of the Capitol Building, an invaluable experience that literally allowed me to walk in my characters’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Strolling the Senate floor, standing in the room where the President signs the legislation, and gripping the dais where the majority leaders hold their press conferences was not only awe-inspiring for this history buff but helped me visualize and bring my characters to life in a completely different way.

(How to Write a Romance Novel: The Keys to Conflict)

I’m tickled when I hear Washington insiders call out how “authentically D.C.” the book feels, or assume I must have been a congressional staffer myself. Details matter, whether it’s the color of the carpet in a committee room or the type of music that plays in a well-known bar. One of the best compliments I’ve received is that the reader felt they were truly "in the room" with my characters.

On the flip side, resist the urge to get too bogged down in minutiae, which can lead you down unnecessary rabbit holes. Take heart that the vast majority of readers won’t know if you’ve taken some artistic liberties with the truth or have to fudge a detail or two to make a timeline work. In fiction (and especially in romance), the most important thing is to tell a compelling and memorable story.

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