Sarah has a new book coming out - yay! - which is the first in her new World War II series.
Isn't that cover beautiful? And you have a chance to win a copy! Details are at the end of the post.
I think Sarah does a wonderful job of making the reader feel like they're living and breathing and rationing in the 1940s, so I asked if she would pretty please come talk to us about how she researches her books. She said yes, and here she is:
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to travel to every location where your stories are set? There’s nothing like visiting a place to get the true feel of it, but money, time, and other barriers prevent us from doing so.
My new World War II series, Wings of the Nightingale, is set in the Mediterranean—Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, and Southern France. My husband’s frequent-flier miles allowed us to visit Italy and Southern France last summer. It was amazing! However, time didn’t permit us to go to Sicily, and visiting Algeria and Tunisia isn’t exactly an option.
So what do you do when you can’t visit a story setting? You research.
What to Research
You also need to understand the local culture. What lingo do they use? What foods do they eat—and not eat? When do they eat? In England, most restaurants close about 6 pm. In Italy, they don’t even open until 7 pm. And in France, we saw a sign in a restaurant window saying “Closed for Lunch.” Huh?
What are local homes and stores like—outside and inside? What kinds of transportation do they use? What do they wear? Where do they shop? What wares are available for purchase? When my hero in With Every Letter visits an open-air market (called a souk) in Oran, Algeria, he tries couscous (which he’s never even heard of before—it’s 1942), buys jewelry of colored stones set in silver (not gold), and looks at Berber rugs with diamond patterns. Each of those little details came from research.
Where to Research
1) Travel Guides
Travel guides are great resources, full of maps, descriptions of local sites, and transportation information. Some (I love Rick Steves’s books) explain customs, lingo, and food as well. Many travel guides can be found online too.
2) First-Person Accounts
If you can’t go someplace yourself, pick the brain of someone who did. Do you know anyone you can interview who’s visited a location? How about blog posts by travelers? How about travelogues that describe someone’s visit? For my series, I relied heavily on first-person accounts from oral histories, letters, and on-the-ground journalists like Ernie Pyle. These told me about the mud in the winter and dust in the summer, the oranges and eggs peddled by the natives, and how the locals dressed.
3) Local Media and Museums
Local newspapers are wonderful resources. Most are online now, and these give you insight into local issues and concerns. Advertisements can yield all sorts of information too.
Even if you write contemporary fiction, historical museums are treasure troves. Many have websites or bookstores with specialized information. If nothing else, you’ll learn what the locals take pride in—from the tomato canneries, to the Victorian clock, to the art deco theater. Good stuff.
4) Google Maps
Google Maps is probably the single best tool for this kind of research. Pull up your location, look at the terrain, study the street map, zoom in close. You can see all sorts of features this way. If you haven’t played with the “man on the street” function, you’re in for a treat. See the little stick figure guy on top of the zoom bar? Drag him over the map and plop him down on any street that lights up in blue. Oh, heaven! You can now “stroll” down the street with panoramic views, look up, look down, and peer down alleyways.
Now you can see what the locals drive, where they shop, what the houses look like, even what people wear. I’ve been able to find many wonderful details for my stories this way.
In With Every Letter, I wanted a crucial scene to take place at a bridge in Sicily. I couldn’t find any bridges near Termini Imerese, where my heroine was based. She needed to ride her bike down to the beach for some thinking time. So I hopped on Google Maps and “pedaled” around, dodging scooters, passing stone walls draped with bougainvillea—and I saw a bridge. A charming medieval bridge not on any map or site I’d looked at. That’s where the scene took place. That same bridge is pictured on the cover of With Every Letter. Cool, huh?
So, don’t let money and time stop you. With curiosity, hard work, and some sleuthing, you can find the details to lend accuracy, authenticity, and color to your stories.
Sarah Sundin is the author of With Every Letter, the first book in the Wings of the Nightingale series from Revell, and also the Wings of Glory series (A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us, and Blue Skies Tomorrow). In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Sarah lives in northern California with her husband and three children. When she isn’t ferrying kids to soccer and tennis, she works on-call as a hospital pharmacist and teaches Sunday school.
To get entered to win a copy of With Every Letter, leave a comment below either sharing something weird or difficult you've had to research for a manuscript (I spent so much time looking up "roofies" for the Skylar Hoyt series...) or simply telling Sarah thanks for taking the time to make research seem a little more manageable!
(Book giveaway is available to US residents only due to the unfortunate realities of pricey international shipping. Giveaway closes Tuesday, September 11th. Please make sure I have a way to contact you should you win.)