Dogged by Research


Dang, Shelties are cute, aren’t they? My two furry babies, who are sitting next to me on the sofa as I type this, certainly think so. 

But to the topic of this post. I love research. My favorite teacher in high school, Mrs. Westphal (who seemed about 100 years old to me, but was probably about 60), taught me how exciting it could be to write a  research paper, and it was one of the most valuable things I ever learned.  I still find research to be fun and seductive. Research seductive? Yes indeed! It can suck me in and not let go, which can be a problem when I have a short time in which to write a book. It’s always hard to know when to stop researching and start writing.

In Secrets She Left Behind (and its prequel, Before the Storm), the bulk of my research went into the setting of Topsail Island, which of course, necessitated several grueling trips to the beach. Haha. Second only to the setting, though, was the research I did on missing persons. That took two major forms: I spoke with Kelly Jolkowski, founder of Project Jason, as well as two members of one of the Topsail Island police departments. Kelly, whose own son, Jason, has been missing for 8 long years, helped me understand not only how the search for a person would proceed but also what the family and friends would be going through emotionally as well as how they could help the authorities in the search. Kelly is all about educating and supporting the families of the missing, and she’s an amazing advocate. The police officers gave me the rundown on what would happen from a legal and procedural perspective when my character, Sara, turns up missing. I also needed to know how authorities would deal with Sara’s son, Keith, since he is only 17 when she disappears.  

For my current work-in-progress, The Lies We Told, I spent hours talking and emailing with an EMS medic, Cass Topinka, about how she would treat a couple of medical emergencies. She gave me great details (as well as some necessary information on a stuck ambulance siren!). What I love most is that she told me how it feels to be the person trying to save a life. Speaking of details, though, it’s important for me to use them sparingly. My readers don’t want or need to know how many milligrams of a particular drug a patient would receive. They just need enough detail to make the scene feel real, because what’s really important is the emotional response of my characters to what’s happening. I often wonder if the people who help me with my research feel let down that our hours of conversation are reduced to a couple of sentences in the book. Those hours were invaluable though. They helped me see the scene in my mind and figure out what details would make it feel real.

My characters In Lies are doctors volunteering in an evacuation shelter after a hurricane, and I stumbled across Dr. Hemant Vankawala online. Dr. Vankawala was part of a disaster team after Hurricane Katrina and he has been so generous in telling me about his experiences in the airport in New Orleans, which was turned into an evacuation center. (an aside: Dr. V told me that, during those rare moments he was able to sleep, he slept on the baggage carousel. So when I toured the airport in Wilmington, NC, where my story is set, I wanted to see the carousels where my characters would be sleeping. I’d already written several scenes that included those uncomfortable beds. Imgine my surprise when I discovered the carousels in Wilmington are the steeply slanted variety! Really messed up my scenes. I found another place in the airport to bed down my characters. This is a good reason to view the setting firsthand whenever possible!). Dr. Vankawala told me everything, from how the patients were triaged, to the caloric content of MREs. Plus he read a scene for me. I think he’s the kind of guy who goes over and above the call of duty, and he clearly loves his work.

I’m so grateful to the people who generously help me make a work of fiction feel more real for my readers. That’s why I write looong acknowlegements in most of my books–I want to include everyone who helps me.

Especially Mrs. Westphal.  


  1. Margo on August 13, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    This is definitely my favorite pic you’ve posted for a blog Diane…as soon as I saw it I let out an ‘ohhhhhhhh’ pretty loud and everyone around my desk had to come and see…(-O:
    I’ve always imagined that an author’s least favorite thing to do would be research so you’ve really surprised me…Diane, when you’ve talked about being in a room alone and your characters ‘speaking to you’
    and getting it down on your note cards, I think of those moments being your favorite time because of the creativity…now that you’ve explained the process tho, I can see how fascinating it would be to investigate, research and learn all the fine details that make a story believable. Learning is invaluable and your accuracy enhances the novel.

  2. brenda on August 13, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Cute picture-also bet you like doing the research on location.
    If you who read this BLOG have not read Mary Ann McFadden-I may have mentioned her-she is a real treat. THE RICHEST SEASON was great; her latest is fantastic…Happy Together (the name keeps escaping me…)I can’t wait to reread it while we wait for Diane’s next one…

  3. Margo on August 14, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Brenda, I’m reading SO HAPPY TOGETHER right now and read THE RICHEST SEASON last year…I love her books too…the current 1 takes place on Cape Cod!!
    Diane, you’re so good about acknowledging everyone who helps you…I always read the names you mention at the beginning of every book. I wouldn’t think any of these people would feel let down if their thoughts were minimized to a few sentences…I’m sure they were honored to be asked to help you out.

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