Skip to main content

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.

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

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

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.

Writing the Romance Novel

This course explores why romance is the same, yet different. Some essential components of romance are unique to the genre, while some romance requirements are identical to those of any good fiction story.

Click to continue.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.