Wednesday, December 6, 2017

3 Things I Did in the Name of Book Research

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She had a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Authenticity has always been important to me as a writer. In fact, it's a pet peeve of mine when I'm reading a book or watching a program and something happens that I know is wrong or impossible. It bothers me that the authors didn't take the time to research the situation and get the details right. When authors don't bother to do their research, it's lazy. It tells me they don't care about their readers. My opinion, perhaps, but it's partly why I'm so steadfast in doing my own research.

Now, most research is fairly boring. I'm reading books or reading things online. And sometimes I'm interviewing someone on the phone, which is fun, but not really worth tell you all about.

But there have been a few stories of times when my research went into test mode. Times where I felt the need to experience something or get a good visual on something for my story. Today I will share three of those stories with you.

1. Spencer rappels off a cliff, handcuffed to two girls.
In Project Gemini, the second, full-length book in the Mission League series, my spy kid Spencer is in Okinawa, Japan. He was following some bad guys and got caught. But then he and two girls managed to escape. The problems are these: a) Spencer is handcuffed to each girl, b) there is only one one rappelling harness, c) bad guys are chasing them, so they have to act fast, and d) they need to rappel off a hundred-foot cliff to a getaway boat, anchored in the ocean below.

I wrote this scene, and my editor ripped it up. He said it didn't make sense and he couldn't picture how this thing was working. Spencer is six foot four. Both girls in the story were fairly small. And it just so happened that my husband is six foot one and my children, at the time, were fairly small. What a coincidence! I created a reenactment in my living room.

I used handkerchiefs to tie my husband's wrists to my children's wrists, then I made my kids climb on my husband, the way I pictured the girls holding on to Spencer.

Dad got quite squished and beat up, and our kids had a blast. There was much laughter. I didn't take any pictures, but I did manage to see where everyone's hands were and jot down lots of notes. I was able to rewrite the scene, and it turned out much better. Here's part of the scene from the book. It's a long scene, so I'm only sharing a portion of it. This is a first person book, told from Spencer's point of view.
          “You ready for this, Tiger?” [Beth asked.]
          “I was born ready.” Then I met Beth’s gaze—her eyes looked like pools of black through the goggles. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Beth.”
          “You’ll be fine. Stay in a sitting position and use your feet to walk and bounce down the rocks. The boat is directly below us. Keep your brake on, and you can’t fall.”
          “But the girls could.”
          “Nope, they’re tied onto you,” Beth said. “So, unless you forget the brake . . .”
          My head lolled back at the stars. “Fine. Let’s do this.” I crouched and picked up Mary, setting her over my right hip like a mother holding a small child. “Sixty-three, huh?”
          She swatted the back of my head with the hand that was hooked to Grace’s.
          I crouched for Grace, and she jumped onto my back. I resituated her leg over Mary’s on my right but could do nothing to hold Grace on my left as my left hand was attached to Mary’s and holding the main ropes. This wasn’t so bad. I had a pretty good grip on the ropes and Mary. If Grace could hold on—
          “Tiger,” Beth said. “Right hand. You’re not holding the brake.”
          Figs and jam!
          “Mary, you’re going to have to hold on,” I said. “Use your arms and legs.” I let go of Mary and found the brake rope.
          “Got it.” I was thankful for the handcuffs and ropes. Although I didn’t relish the idea of either girl falling, at least they were sort of locked/tied on.
          “Hold on tight, girls,” Beth said.
          They were. I felt like I was in a chokehold at the dojo. And both the girls’ legs around my waist hurt my bruised abs. Too bad I couldn’t tap out.
          I hadn’t bothered to look over the cliff. With a name like Suicide Cliffs, it couldn’t have been an encouraging view. I crept back and felt my heels go off the edge. I kept the ropes braked and leaned back. My toes gripped the rock edge as I let out the rope an inch at a time. A bead of sweat trickled from my forehead down my nose.
          Three lights flickered in the field beyond the mangrove tree. Flashlights. They were coming.

2. Levi shoots his rifle at a transformer to kill the power in the Safe Lands.
For my dystopian novel Captives, I needed to have Levi do something to shut off the power. I know nothing about such things, so I went to my then gun/hunting expert for help. His name is Greg and he taught me how to pull apart a bird (which Sir Caleb showed Achan to do in To Darkness Fled), and Greg also brought me one of his huge daggers and explained what Achan would have to do do kill a bear that was attacking him in From Darkness Won. Greg has done a lot to help the authenticity of my books over the years.

I told Greg all about my story and what I wanted to have done. At the time, my plan was for Levi to make some sort of pipe bomb to blow up the dam and kill the power that way. But I didn't have any logical reason for Levi to know how to make pipe bombs. Greg asked me why he wouldn't just shoot out the transformers at the power station.


As Greg explained that, yes, my story should have power stations, even if the power came from a dam, I realized this made much more sense, since Levi is a rifleman. This was definitely how he'd get the job done. So Greg brought over his rifle and taught me to use it, let me look through the scope at my neighbors houses across the river, told me what Levi would think and how he'd breathe. Here are some pictures I have of that very fun day.

And here is how the final rifle scene turned out:
          The distant substation was a tangle of gray metal on a field of black maybe three hundred yards out. The four gleaming spotlights that towered over the station didn’t cast their glow far.
          “Nowhere to hide,” Zane said.
          “We won’t be here long enough to need to hide.” Levi jumped down onto the roadway and crossed to the inner wall. It came up to his waist. He lifted the strap of his rifle over his head, set the rifle on the wall, and crouched to look through the scope, turning the zoom until the substation glowed in the lens. After locating the row of transformers, he tried to figure out which way they ran. If he could hit the first transformer in the series, everything else would go out.
          Levi pulled back the bolt and loaded a round into the chamber. “Keep an eye on the studio’s location, and let me know if it goes dark.” He flipped off the safety and took aim at the transformer on the far left. One deep breath, and he pulled the trigger.
          The shot cracked around them, echoing off the concrete walls of the dam. Through the scope, Levi saw no sparks or evidence that he’d hit anything. He glanced up at Zane.
          “Prospector apartments went dark,” Zane said. “All the way to . . . Wow, that’s weird. The power went out in the Highlands all along the edge of the Highland – Midland wall.”
          “It’s an arch.” The first one must be the other end then. Levi chambered another round and aimed for the transformer on the right end. Just as he pulled the trigger, Zane spoke.
          “Someone’s coming.”
          The shot rang out, but Levi knew he’d missed. He cocked the gun and straightened, looking where Zane was pointing. Two sets of headlights were heading their way from the other side of the inner wall. They’d just passed the other Highland substation.
          Levi crouched and aimed for the transformer again. “Don’t talk.” He took in a deep breath and held it, then fired. He straightened to glance toward the city below.
          Zane yelled, “You got it!”
          Levi tucked the rifle strap over his head. “All I needed to hear. Let’s go.”

3. Achan loves wine.
In, From Darkness Won, the final book in my Blood of Kings trilogy, Achan is in a fowl mood, and one of his poorer influences, gives him a bottle of wine to lift his spirits. I wanted Achan to love the wine so much that he ended up drinking the whole bottle. The problem? I pretty much detest the taste of alcohol. But I needed to write this scene, so I asked my husband to buy a bottle of wine. I'm pretty sure he bought the cheapest wine ever made. We poured the wine into the glasses we used at our wedding (for our sparking apple cider), and sat down to try and enjoy it. I took one sip of that stuff and gagged. I ran into the bathroom and spat the stuff into the sink. My husband didn't like it, either. It was nasty. We laughed and laughed, but I was no better off from where I'd started. No WAY could I describe that stuff as tasty. What was I going to do?

I had a friend who loves wine. I recalled her talking about going to a winery, tasting and smelling the different wines and trying to guess what was in them, etc. I emailed her and begged for help. I asked her to please write me a paragraph of what a good glass of wine might taste like to someone who'd never tasted it before but really likes it. She asked me if it was red wine or white wine.


The conversation went back and forth. She pried out of me the necessary information, then wrote me a paragraph. And I used parts of that paragraph to write the scene. Whew! Thank goodness for friends. Here is the part of the scene from the novel From Darkness Won in which Achan first tastes the quality wine and likes it.
          [Achan] brought the bottle to his mouth, worked the cork free with his teeth, and spat it on the ground. He smelled the contents, expecting the briny smell of mead, but the tangy combination of currants and cedar filled his nostrils.
          Had Kurtz meant to give him wine? Achan had wine with dinner most nights, so it wouldn’t matter to drink some now. He took a sip. Robust sweetness filled his mouth. He swished his tongue around, tasting the flavor as long as it would linger. Blazes, that was good. Much better than what Lord Eli had served in Mirrorstone.
          Yet when the taste faded, the wine left his mouth dryer than before. So he took a longer drink and wished he had some food. The wine seemed to point out just how hungry he was. He should go back to his tent and eat.
          Instead he took another drink.

The moral of these stories is: Go the extra mile and do your own hands-on research. It's an adventure, it's usually fun, and it will in the end, make your story better.

What strange things have you done in the name of book research?


  1. I've gone to Hawaii twice! those were more like convenient coincidences than real research trips but, honestly, I would never have been able to make my descriptions as vivid if I hadn't visited.

    I also have hobbled around on crutches and taken a shower while standing on one leg to better understand my character, who is an amputee.

    Great post, Jill! It was fun.

    1. Nice! And I like how you got into the character of your amputee.

  2. I washed my own mouth out with soap in the name of research. That's probably my funniest hands on research story.

    I had a character who loses a dare and has to wash his mouth out with soap. But I was the goody-two-shoes kid who never back talked my parents or said naughty words, so it was something I'd never experienced. And it seemed like that kind of experience that any readers who had had it happen to them would immediately recognize as faked if I didn't try it myself.

    So I found a bar of soap as close to the type of soap my character would have, braced myself, and scrubbed the soap over my tongue. Odd thing is, it didn't taste nearly as bad as I thought it would.

    1. Bwa ha! That's funny, Tricia. Good job on seeking out that authenticity! :-)

    2. I remember that scene, Tricia! Heh heh, that was really good. Nice job making it realistic! My parents always used hot sauce on my sisters and me -_-

    3. Hmmm... my mom has told me having one's mouth washed out with soap isn't a fun experience, but I haven't earned the privilege of forced knowledge either. I have daydreamed about chewing it, though. It seems like soap would have an interesting texture... but then I might choke, which I have a knack for even without foam and bubbles trying to stuff my airways.
      Fun experience! Your scene sounds fun!

  3. I so understand doing research! There are things I have done (like go to a casino) just because I thought, "maybe I will use this some day". And I am the same way with describing food. I have taken to describing olives in most of my stories (an easter egg of my own) but I only like black olives. I have gotten so used to describing other olives the way people who liked them would that when I see them I start salivate, until I remember that they are disgusting!

    1. Hahaha
      I think I would have to pretend that I was describing something else to create a viable description... Or I would probably have my MC dislike olives.

  4. I became a fan of motocross racing! Okay, that isn't that weird, but traveling 500 miles to stay in a tiny (and not sound proof) cabin at a motocross track--a location I planned to use in my novel--took the research over the top. I've also asked people a lot of weird questions, especially for my mystery novels. Recently had a couple of park rangers at a Civil War battlefield scratching their heads after I asked them questions no one had ever asked them before.

  5. I think hiking through the woods carrying a huge backpack and a canteen is the most interesting real-time research I've ever done XD I did have one of my friends hold me at the point of a (plastic) sword and pretend to interrogate me once. He couldn't stop laughing, though, so it failed.

  6. As someone who's never done this, you all sound very insane. Since most of my research involves finding out the effects of severe physical pain... I'll just back away from the hands-on aspect. xD

  7. The weirdest thing I've done was go to the beach, and that was just a happy coincidence while I happened to be writing a short story about a mermaid. I just chose to look at it as story research. XD
    Your experiments sound like a lot of fun, and I love the authenticity. :) I still haven't gotten around to reading your books (I'm a terrible procrastinator like that. XP), but they sound really good!

  8. Hmmm... I'm going to have to write a scene at some point about a character jumping off a skyscraper and the people below somehow managing to catch him. That seems like a good thing to research, but I should probably use a dummy instead of actually chucking someone off a building. ;)

  9. I think the weirdest thing I've done so far isn't really that weird. I get tons of books from the library. I'll bet the librarians question my sanity now. ��