Thursday, January 24, 2008

Research - Part II: Hot Dogs and Beans

I'm often asked whether I use research assistants (not infrequently, by people who'd like to apply for the job). 'Preciate the offer very much, guys [g], but no, I don't.

Now, like everything else in writing, how/when/how much one researches is totally individual. Some people canNOT start writing until they feel they have a good grip on the period they're writing about. (Some people feel they can't start writing until they know virtually everything about their period. These people never actually write anything, because it isn't possible to read/learn/know everything—but they become good amateur historians. I had one good friend (since deceased, alas) who wrote a novel about Byzantium, decided she must know more before re-writing it—and in the process, discovered that in fact, she really wanted to be a historian rather than a novelist, and ended up going back to school in her late 50's to get a Ph.D. in history.)

I am not one of these people.

Mind, when I wrote OUTLANDER, I wrote it for practice, in order to learn how to write a novel. I chose historical fiction because it seemed like the easiest and least-constraining kind of book to write, not because I loved history. (I do have an abiding curiosity, but it isn't limited to history. [g]) But—as I told myself when I saw a minor Scottish character in a kilt on TV and decided on a whim to set the book in 18th century Scotland—"The point here is not to learn everything about Scotland in the 18th century; the point here is to learn to write a novel."

I already knew that the only way of learning to write something is to…er…write something (odd how frequently this basic fact escapes people). So I started writing [shrug]. Immediately, knowing nothing about Scotland or the 18th century, and having no plot, no outline, and no characters—nothing but the rather vague images conjured up by the notion of a man in a kilt.

(Which, as I'm sure you all agree, is a Powerful and Compelling image. [cough] Speaking of which—a couple years ago, I was fortunate enough to win an international literary award, and went to Germany to accept it. While there, I was interviewed by what seemed like every member of the German press, and toward the end of the week, was having an interview with a lovely man from (I think) a literary journal of some kind. He'd read all the books, and was saying all kinds of nice things about my style, my narrative drive, my imagery, the thematic complexity of the novels, the vividness of my characters…and I was nodding happily, thinking, "Yes, yes, go on…", when he said, "There is just one question I'd like to ask you: Can you tell me, what is the appeal of a man in a kilt?"

Well, I was very tired after a week of this, or I might not have said it—but I just looked at him for a moment and then said, "Well….I suppose it's the idea that you could be up against a wall with him in a minute."


A few weeks later, home again, I got a stack of press clippings from the German publisher, including this particular interview (I do read German, but very slowly). The publisher had put a Post-it note on this one, which said, "I don't know what you told this man, but I think he is in love with you."

[cough, cough, cough])

Yeah, well, anyway. Research. So, I started writing immediately, figuring that if I wrote something that later turned out to be wrong (as I learned more)—I'd just fix it. No big deal, and nobody was going to see this, anyway.

I also began doing the research immediately as well. And learned quickly that for me, the research and the writing feed off each other in a sort of positive-feedback loop. I write along, and realize that I need to know some specific bit of information. I go to look this up, find it—and along the way, find some other entertaining bit of history or trivia whose existence I would never have suspected—which in turn provides the kernel for a new scene, plotline, character, etc.—which in turn requires more specific information, which in turn…

Mind, I don't write with an outline, nor do I plan the books out before writing them (what fun would that be?). Consequently, I have no idea (beyond a few events here and there) as to what will happen in a book, let alone how it will happen. That being so, the book is free to take any direction and shape that it will—the shape reveals itself to me as we go along (and I'll write a bit about the shapes of books later on, perhaps).

My favorite analogy regarding research is what I call "Hot dogs and beans." Consider that you're planning dinner for your family. You decide to have hot dogs and beans; tasty and cheap and everybody likes them. You have a busy life, and thus an assistant—you tell the assistant to go to the store and get hot dogs and beans for you. The assistant does, and you have a nice supper.

OK. If you go to the store yourself, you're intending to get hot dogs and beans. But on your way to the sausage-and-cheese section, you pass the fresh meat section—where you observe that there's a sale on organic chicken breasts. "Ooh," you think. "I could make chicken curry!" So you get the chicken breasts, go back through the aisles to get spices, vegetable juice, mango-peach applesauce, mango chutney, jasmine rice…and coming back toward the front of the store with this, you pass through the fresh produce section and see the water droplets gleaming among the fresh lettuces and long green onions—and it occurs to you that a shrimp salad would be Really Good with the curry—so you go back to Meats and get half a pound of fresh baby shrimp, then to the condiments aisle for dressing—and thence to the chilled wine cabinet near the checkout, for a lovely dry Riesling, which will just top this meal off….

Well, if you write historical novels and you depend heavily on research assistants, you get hot dogs and beans.


  1. Diana~~
    So glad you do NOT have a research assistant; we love YOUR cooking!

    (choice of wine is excellent too!)

    Men in kilts: That question would never enter the mind of a female journalist!

  2. The "hot dogs and beans" analogy doesn't apply just to research, of course. I think it applies equally well to people who browse in bookstores or libraries. Do you go into a bookstore looking for a specific title, zip in and out in five minutes, or do you spend time browsing the aisles, just to see what looks interesting?

    I am definitely in the second category myself. In fact, I'm sure I would never have found your books in the first place, if I hadn't been browsing in Barnes and Noble one day, just looking around for nothing in particular. Sometimes you just get lucky [g].


  3. Good morning, Diana:

    Several years ago, in the middle of a parent support group meeting for families with autistic children, we were discussing that facet of autism affecting the use of language and the general breakdown of communication skills. The moderator decided that we were to do an exercise.....

    ....we broke into parties of two, were handed these oddly-shaped, colorful, wooden blocks and had to try and WORDLESSLY describe what we individually had chosen the blocks to represent. The man I worked with guessed mine really fast. When it came my turn, I had no idea how to begin... I spent all of the allotted time trying to interpret what he was gesturing about -- never got it.

    What I learned about myself was invaluable and demonstrated to me a characteristic of which I was only vaguely aware -- I cannot proceed with certain tasks until I know enough to hazard said tasks.

    While your post today discusses the facilitation (or lack thereof) of research assistants, the last few posts have addressed the writing process. And I have decided that: YOU have an extraordinary gift (obviously) coupled with a wonderfully logical, yet fanciful, mind. YOU can pull it all together and it happens with relatively little effort when compared to ME. I am the person who would not be capable of proceeding until I had a load of knowledge on a subject..... therefore my purpose for visiting your blog is self-serving. I am here to enjoy myself, to learn what I may about the process, and maybe, someday, I'll have gathered enough knowledge to begin. And I won't employ a Research Assistant, but a Housekeeper instead.


    PS: I changed my photo this morning in honor of your response about the appeal of MIK's.

  4. Being back up against the wall in a second is my absolute favorite visualize of a man in a kilt!

    This is good stuff right here! :)

  5. I think that's a pretty fantastic analogy
    And I am a big fan of curry.

    Here's to a life without a research assistant.

  6. Diana - I think any advise you give is quite sage. (Sorry, I am still enjoying the imagery of a way-too-hot kilt-clad warrior pushing me up against a wall, sigh). When I first started writing I actually bought a "how to write" book. The authors were specific in their ideas of outlines, research and language. I tried and tired but could not make myself follow their concepts. I would be writing/typing along and a character would pop up and change the scene on me! I finally realized that I did not have to follow their advice especially since one of my favorite authors (hint) does not adhere to strict outlines either. I find the writing flows and the story progresses smoothly in a desired direction, even if not previously anticipated. So, thank you for making it acceptable for writers like myself to be uniquely creative, even if nothing ever makes it to publication. Thanks, Christi Plano, TX

  7. p.s.
    I just wanted to add...

    SO glad we are not just having Hot Dogs and Beans for dinner....LOL! ;)

  8. You are so amazing, what a great way to explain research! It is so true!!!

    What is so appealing about a man in a kilt??!!! Please, what kind of question is that??!!

  9. The hot dog and bean analogy is a very good one and as karen henry suggests, it's also why I prefer the serendipity of the tv and radio to watching DVDs and listening to CDs and MP3s.

  10. Diana
    Your blog brought back a memory of my daughter and her friend in a Enlish Lit. class in HS. They were given an assignment to write an essay. The moment my daughter got her assignment she went to work. She would write, rewrite, scratch out, correct, rewrite, and over analyze. But she was always ready to turn it in on time. Her friend would literally be writing her assignment the hour before class. You guessed it, my daughter could barely pull a B. (the teacher said he never knew were she was coming from). Her friend got straight A's. My daughter, frustrated, asked her friend how she did it. The answer was with a shrug "I just let it come to me." Diana_ you_ are_ that straight A student. Fortunately our daughter turned her creativity to grahpic design, and is very successfully employed.

  11. You never cease to amaze me! I find myself laughing out loud at each post you write. The other thing I'm astounded at is that you don't plan the shape of your book, nor do you write linearly. If I were a writer, (which I am not, and don't plan to be), I would need to be so organized. I guess that is my Type A personality (which maybe is why I am not a writer!!). I would have to write the story in order. I am in awe that you can write a scene here, and a scene there, then come back to figure out how your book will begin. I believe that is why your books are so good, you as an author let them develop as they will, you do not force them to develop.

  12. Diana...
    Question, when you finally submit your manuscript, do you make sure all the T's are crossed, the I's dotted? Spelling correct and sentence's structurally sound? Have
    you--ever--had a manuscript sent back to be reworked or corrected.
    Your insight into
    the publishing world is fascinating.

  13. Dear Sharaf--

    Nnnn...well, let me start by saying that I am Very Old. [g] Meaning that I was educated prior to the complete collapse and abdication of what now passes for a school system.

    I realize that it's very non-PC to think that inability to spell or have correct grammar is in any way a failing of the person who can't or doesn't. Yeah, well, sue me. [g] I went to a Catholic elementary school, I was school spelling-bee champion in every year for which I was age-qualified, and the very thought of even _writing_, let alone showing to anyone, text that contains spelling or grammatical errors (bar deviations introduced for a specific purpose, such as dialect or ironic comment) is...just unthinkable.

    I couldn't do it. Not wouldn't. COULDN'T. I don't freaking _make_ spelling or grammatical errors. Typos, yes. Errors, no. [g]

    I do not use spell-checkers (save for the final run-through before I send a manuscript in, to help catch typos and inadvertently-doubled words, and get a word-count), and I think--no, I _know_--that the thing that Word tries to pass off as a grammar-checker is an abomination and a stench in the nostrils of the Lord.

    Or in answer to your question...I'd never submit a manuscript that I wasn't sure was fit for public consumption. (Mind, technical execution is a different issue from either editing, or copy-editing. I'll add those to the list of stuff to talk about later. [g]) But personally speaking, I don't think there's the slightest excuse for submitting a sloppy manuscript.

  14. Diana-
    I know this is off topic. but as I said before I am re-reading Voyager. I am wondering what the time frame is between Jamie's marriage to Laoghaire and claire's return? how many years? I can't seem to find the answer. Granted I haven't purchase the Outlandish Companion yet, but I thought I would go to the source. :)
    and btw, the excerpts are both wonderful and very frustrating. :) can't wait until your new book comes out.

  15. Great analogy! Letting other people do research for me would be like letting other people ride the roller coaster. Why miss out on the fun parts?

  16. Diana..If you are OLD then I'm ancient. I remember back in the early 60's an author under the pen name of VICTORIA HOLT. She must have been the pioneer in Romance novel's. I think though they described them as "Gothic". Speaking of old I'm wondering if Jamie and Claire will outlive me or I will out live them. It will be close. I can't believe this is my third blog today. I'm taking advantage of a clear mind.

  17. Dear Sharaf--

    Oh, I (and my sister) read all the Victoria Holts! Actually, I doubt they were ever sold as romance novels (though that's what they are; as I said, genre is as much a function of marketing as of content)--more likely simply as historical novels. The romance genre has gone through _all_ kinds of development and change over the last 30-40 years--and I wasn't actively involved during the 60's, by any means--but to the best of my recollection, the only books specifically referred to as "romance novels" were Harlequins and Silhouettes. Everything else was pretty much historical fiction or "a novel of suspense" (involving a central romantic plot).

  18. Diana,

    I'm not Scottish (in this lifetime, anyway!), but I write about 18th century Scots. I remember the first time I went to a Highland Game in Loon Mountain, NH some 20 odd years ago. I was with my husband (who is a Scot) and my sister. My husband was a photographer at the time, so my sister and I were left to our own devises. Probably not a wise move on my husband’s part! We, my sister and I, decided to see for ourselves just what was worn under the kilt. Mind you, it wasn't quite as easy as it sounds. One doesn't just go up to the nearest kilted man and ask, I mean what fun would that be anyway?

    So, we found a set of stairs that were the open grate sort and nonchalantly stood under them. All right, maybe nonchalant is not the correct word for what we were doing, but I swear to God, it the most fun we'd had for a very long time! One by one, a kilted man would walk down the stairs and we'd look up. I can't imagine what people were saying as they heard us giggling under that stairway. We gave it a good hour in order to research the matter thoroughly!

    Oh, and to answer the question on everyone's mind... shorts. Very disappointing. There wasn't a free-baller on the mountain that day.

    And just what is the appeal of a man in a kilt? My feeling is, if a man is confident enough with his masculinity to wear a skirt, he radiates a certain manliness that stirs the loins of a woman! This is seconded only by a James Bond tuxedo. Mmmm!


  19. " a stench in the nostrils of the Lord"-- I laughed until I cried! To say that you have a way with words is SUCH an understatement! I loved your comment, not only for its wit, but for its truth: I am so tired of the bad spelling, incorrect grammar, and general sloppy writing(style) that comes across my desk. With your permission, I will now have a new way of relating this disgust to my students!

  20. So you're a great cook too, Diana? I don't know about anyone else, but I'm hungry.

  21. That is exactly how I shop! I have a stringent list that I follow until my eye starts to wander. And later, when I am preparing a most unique meal, my husband will comment. "I thought we were having cod tonight."

    Oh, I will say, you didn't see this salmon calling to me -- the deep rich color -- the FRESHNESS!

    "But it's over $20 a pound"

    Yes, but did I mention it called to me? I HAD to have it?

    He will cluck and fuss and I will say that while I am willing to stray when it comes to food, I would never, ever be lured by another man no matter HOW fresh he was!


    And ... what cracked me up about this entry, was that my husband, when I can't cook for whatever reason, ALWAYS resorts to hot dogs and beans.


  22. Dear Lisa--

    Mine always resorts to spaghetti when I'm out of town. [g]

  23. I loved that analogy and now I think I get it. :)

  24. Diana,
    I just realized why I love your writing so remind my of one of my history professors when I was a lowly undergrad. I'd never really thought much about history, to be honest- other than having an affinity for the Civil War era since I'm Southern and my mom brought us to every plantation home in existence when I was a kid.

    Anyway, this professor liked to give us tidbits when she lectured...little asides not normally found in the history books. For example, Battle of New Orleans- Pakenham's note to Jackson eluding to the fact that Jackson should prepare himself because he and his troops would be through with them in time for him to have lunch in the city. Jackson's reply was "you may have lunch in New Orleans, but you'll have dinner in hell."

    And I get that from your writing...the little unknown facts or tidbits that makes me want to learn more about the era. I cannot tell you how many times I've googled the Jacobite's, Culloden, the Bonny Prince OR 17th century medical practices since reading the series.

    Like my professor, you gave me more than I thought I wanted and I think that's what makes the series so compelling and makes me so eager to read more. And like many others that have posted, I too am elated that you don't use an assistant.

  25. Dear ts--

    "You gave me more than I thought I wanted." haha! That's a _lovely_ compliment--thank you!

    In re research assistants--no knock whatever on folk who use them (Ken Follett does, for instance; he's acknowledged two of them in more than one of his books). If one is the sort of writer who _does_ plan things out and work linearly and all, then I'm sure that works well. It just wouldn't work as well with the particular oddball freeform way _I_ work.

  26. Well, all I can say is thank God for that "oddball freeform way. " Seems to me it has worked out for you...a bit...kinda? I mean I 'guess' you're a bit successful? 'few' people have heard of Outlander? 10 or 20 at least? :P

    *wishes sarcasm would transfer online*

    In any event...I'm glad you've made me want what ya gave me. :P Hell, not just 'want what ya gave me' but...

    'obsess about men in kilts?'

    'inspired me to get off my butt and start writing everyday and not just when the mood struck?'

    'filled my hubby in on every detail of Jamie and Claire's story?'

    'insisted that said hubby embrace his Scottish roots and learn to love kilts?'

    lol...take your pick, dear.

    OK...shutting up now...just wanted to say a big thank ya!!


  27. Can you come to Hannover or Braunschweig next time you’re in Germany? That would be so great and I can see you ‘live’ for the first time.


  28. Heh. I went to Catholic school for grades 1-3 and I still remember my spelling workbook with the line of unbroken 100s from the weekly quizzes.

    My daughter is the same way, fortunately. I've also been teaching her tricks -- which she then goes and teaches the teacher, who gives them to the rest of the class.

    I don't use the grammar checker either. Chokes on sentence fragments and so on, doncha know. And don't get me started on Flesch readability indices.

  29. Julia--

    Well, it's not up to me; the publisher picks where they want to send me. So far though, when I've come to Germany, it's been the major cities: Munich (I'll always come to Munich, I think, because that's where the publisher's offices are), Cologne, Bonn, Hamburg, and Berlin. They did say they want to try to send me somewhere in Austria, too, next time--but no idea where.

    I'll hope to meet you in one place or another, though!

  30. Well, you've explained your publisher decides where you go.
    I don't suppose they'll be sending you to Scotland any time soon?

    Or, maybe, just, perhaps, Idaho?

    It would be wonderful to hear you read at some point.

  31. Can I put in a plug for New Orleans? Somewhere in that vicinity?

    *bats eyes*

    Should we start a letter campaign to the publishers? ;P

  32. What a lovely visualization a man in a kilt is :)

    I've always wondered if you've ever hit a roadblock when it came to researching. I've often found myself wandering to the internet to help myself visualize the style of women's dresses and men's coats for the time period only to come up empty handed.

    What do you find is the most difficult thing to research? Do you have a favourite topic to research?

  33. Dear Laura--

    No, not really. Umm...see, I don't rely exclusively on the Internet for research (it didn't _exist_--at least not in its present useful form--when I began writing these books [g]). I don't think any serious historical novelist does.

    While the Internet is _great_, in terms of finding something instantly, checking a map, fetching a picture of some object or person, checking dates...there are major problems of credibility and superficiality, if you depend on it to any great extent.

    I have an ever-growing research collection (which I think I mentioned in the "Pleasures and Perils of Research" post) of books---probably about 1500 in the "core" collection that I keep in my main office bookshelves, another thousand or so in the peripheral collections. Book are in-depth, often peer-reviewed or otherwise held accountable, and provide all kinds of bibliographic leads to other useful material.

    It's rare for me not to be able to find out at least a suggestion of what I'm looking for--and a lot of other stuff along the way. [g]

  34. Diana,

    Do you read Fan Fics when you have time?
    The Hot Dogs and beans discussion reminded me of the wonderful nougat parfait I made after a recipe in a cooking magazine. *hmmm*

  35. Arlen, where in Idaho are you? I'm in Idaho as well.

  36. slfisher:
    I'm not in Idaho at the moment.
    I am from scotland but my wife is from Idaho.
    Right now I am back in Scotland arranging to have our dog flown over there but I'll be back there and living in Boise by summer.

  37. Dear slfisher--

    No, never. Once in awhile someone will send me a link to a particularly egrgious example--saw one a few months ago, where the person had ostensibly "written" a multi-chapter (very _short_ chapters) piece involving two "original" characters--but lifting verbatim quite a bit of the dialogue from several of my books.

    The ones (that I've seen--and I try not to look, believe me) involving fan-fic Jamies and Claires are, for the most part, cringingly awful sex fantasies, in which Jamie has apparently lost his sense of humor, his common sense, his imagination, and his ability to talk, while Claire has lost her wits, doubtless as a result of having her brains f***ed out. Yak.

  38. A gift indeed. Anyone who read this post will most likely grin the next time they eat "hot dogs and beans".

  39. THANK GOD you aren't lazy!

    I cringe when I think of the many wonderful scenes throughout the long journey with Jamie and Claire that we might have missed out on!

    I did wonder, however, if I was reverting back to my teen-age giggly girl persona after reading this post and the following comments.....

    Who else giggled at the use of the words "Hot Dogs", "Men in Kilts" and "Sex Fantasies" all wrapped up in a discussion about historical research?


  40. Not all Fan Fics are bad but I never came across the Jamie and Claire ones. :) So I don't think I want to search for them.
    Sometimes I write Fan Fics.They're on my homepage but I write in German so most of you can't read them.But if you want to have a look here is the link:

    Now I stop advertising my homepage. *gg*

  41. actually, that was Julia's question, not mine.

  42. Oh, sorry, slf! Reading too fast. [g]

  43. Just another question that came up in my mind when I went to bed yesterday.It's just crazy what you think about when you go to bed.So here ist the question:
    Have you written poems?
    I write some,I don't know if they're good,but some people think I'm crazy cause I sometimes write about death or stuff like that.It's just the way that you start writing and something totally different comes out in the end.Do you have that,too?

  44. Diana,
    According to my sister and I, the "thing" about a man in a kilt is that he's man enough to wear one! LOL

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