Explaining research to a non-writer

Every time a feature film set in the past is released, it doesn’t take long for the press to start finding research gaffes from minor stuff like cars on the street before they were made, songs being sung before they were released, and then major problems such as battles being fought in the wrong country and world leaders showing up after they were dead.

It’s hard to explain how such things happen to our readers and viewers. Hollywood, of course, is more of a problem because so many people are involved with each production. Major authors have multiple editors and fact checkers. Small press authors usually have to roll their own research and hope for the best.

When authors write novels, they are primarily concerned with the storyline and the characters. Yet, as one writes, there are dozens of things to check:

  • The characters, such as my protagonist in Fate’s Arrows drive cars. Okay, what makes were they and when were they available?
  • My protagonist is an archer. What kind of bow did she use  and what kind of damage would an arrow inflict when it hit a person?
  • My protagonist, Pollyanna, was a Marine who learned Karate in Okinawa like a lot of other soldiers at the end of WWII. So, what techniques will she use when attacked back in the states?
  • Most people know little or nothing about the Korean War. Fortunately, I had a good source book and that allowed my character to mention things that happened, along with the exploits of the forerunner of the CIA.
  • In the novel, she’s auditing the books of a small grocery. Fine. What products are in the store?
  • And since the KKK is involved–this is Florida in 1954–that means reading more about that group than anyone would want to.

Basically, if somebody coughs in your novel and grabs for a bottle of cough medicine, you have to find out whether that cough medicine even existed when the novel was set.

If you were around at the time and place your novel is set, you can’t even rely on your memory.  Most people don’t remember nitty gritty specifics. They know they grew up listening to a song on the radio, but do they know what date it was released? Probably not.

When we write our novels, everything is open to question even though we’re writing fiction.


Writing about a place that’s far away

Writers with a big advance from their publishers can often travel to faraway places, take pictures, and do research. Most of us can’t do that. Fortunately, Google Maps and Google Earth can help.

I live in Georgia and am writing about a speeding motorcycle on Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. I’ve been there with family but wasn’t taking notes. I can’t afford to go back, even if there weren’t COVID restrictions. So, how do I learn more about the road from far away?

  1. I’ve picked a popular tourist destination. So, for almost every trail, a section of road, or mountain in the park, there are going to be “How to” guidebooks easily found via my search engine. The best of these give you plenty of information about hiking a trail, climbing a mountain, or sightseeing along a highway.
  2. Fortunately, Google Maps has “street view” activated for Going-to-the-Sun Road. Using that, I can see the road from a driver’s point of view, including points of interest visible from the highway such as trailheads and parking lots. In a sense, this allows me to “go there” and see what my characters will see.
  3. Hovering over the visitors center at Logan Pass.
    Once I’ve done that, I can switch to Google Earth and set my search terms on Logan Pass and go straight there, first as though I’m seeing it from a satellite view, and then–better yet–as though I’m looking at the road and the visitors center and the nearby mountains from a helicopter. I can hover as close to the road or the mountains as I want or gain some altitude and see many miles of highway or trail at once.

It’s better to go there, of course, but using these tools, I can gather enough information to make the novel work.


My novel “Mountain Song,” set partly in Glacier Park, is free on Kindle February 8 through February 10.

For goodness’ sakes, keep the notes you take while writing a novel

I tend to take notes on the backs of envelopes, grocery store receipts, and random pieces of paper. While working on a book, those notes pile up on my desk. Years later, I have no clue where they are.

Sometimes the notes go into a file folder. Sometimes I type them into a DOC file. File folders get lost. DOC files disappear when hard drives crash. What’s left after that? The memory that you used to know something, but now you don’t.

Case in point: a friend is reading an old novel of mine that has a lot of Blackfeet language phrases in it. I used to know what they meant. Now I don’t. So, when she asks, I can only say, “Figure out those phrases in the context of the scenes where I use them because I’ve got nothing for you.”


And now I’m thinking of writing a novel related to the one she’s reading. Or, seeing that there aren’t any notes in the house, maybe I won’t. 

A better filing system would save a lot of anguish. Not to mention time in terms of how long it will take to re-research stuff I already researched.  I guess when a book is done, I don’t think I’m going back that way again. So, stuff disappears. 

What I need is a crack staff (as opposed to a staff on crack) to tidy up the mess on my desk each time I finish a book. Then I might have a clue (as opposed to not having a clue).

My advice is to keep the notes you take (in an organized fashion) whenever you write a novel.


Since it hasn’t been that long, I still know how to find the notes I took while writing “Fate’s Arrows.”

Car Shopping for My Characters

Cars are often one indicator of a character in a novel. Black ops characters usually drive something with many tactical advantages in a fight; other characters are often described by their sports cars or family cars, most of which cost more than the readers of the novels make in a year.

In my novel Lena, (set in 1954) I introduced a new character to the Florida Folk Magic Series named Pollyanna. The name made her sound like a spoiled brat who lived at the estate of wealthy parents. In fact, she grew up at a fish camp and knew her way around the business and everything that went with it. She needed a practical vehicle:

This is a 1949 Ford F-1, 1/2-ton Silvertone Grey pickup truck. It was the lowest of the line of Ford F-series trucks made between 1947 and 1952. Perfect for a fish camp, though Pollyanna would have gotten a 3/4-ton F-3 if she could have afforded it. Pollyanna always had a 1935 Smith & Wesson model 27 .357 magnum revolver in the glove box or in a thigh holster.

Since she lives near a small town, everyone recognizes her truck. This  isn’t helpful when she’s spying on bad guys. So, along with a blonde wig, different clothes, etc., she drives the family’s seldom used Blue 1949 Dodge Wayfarer coupe:

oldcaradvetising photo

When I visualize a character, I try to see what kind of car fits who they are. The town storekeeper drives a 1949 2R clover green Studebaker pickup. The Sanctified Church uses a Buick Roadmaster hearse. The fuel hauling company drives an Autocar surplus tanker truck. The police drive Chevrolet Bel Air squads.

Finding the right car for each character is sometimes a thrilling treasure hunt and sometimes an exasperating search when years and models seem to be missing from the Internet.

For me, tracking down cars is a heck of a lot more fun than trying to figure out what kinds of clothes my female characters would be wearing years ago.


The Kindle edition of Malcolm R. Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer is FREE on Amazon.
















The NSA probably thinks I’m a women’s clothing designer

When I was a child, I was told that women wore dresses, skirts, and various kinds of things that I called trousers but that women called by magical names depending on the styles and fabrics. From snippets of conversation, I learned that dresses and skirts are not generic, that they had names/uses/purposes, that they came from different designers, factories, stores, were either last year’s fashion (no longer in use) or current fashion (in use).

The bottom line is this: I know that the women in my novels have to wear something, but I don’t know what it is. That is, I can’t just say, “Alice wore a dress.” If it’s a high-scale dress, then I’ll need to know a designer. I’ll need to know what kind of dress it is and under what circumstances it’s worn. I always assume that the kind of dress suitable for a PTA meeting isn’t suitable for a New Year’s Eve party aboard a royal yacht.

The NSA comes into play because not knowing anything about anything, dress-wise, I’m online a lot. Multiple clothing searches. The plot thickens, dress-wise, when I’m working on a novel (as I am now) set in the 1950s. Unless some kind of a retro fad is going on, dresses from the 1950s aren’t being worn today, even to a PTA meeting.

The good thing about searching on, say, women’s clothing of the 1950s, you not only come across articles discussing how fabrics/styles changed from the war years (if you’re young, I should tell you World War II on the homefront meant utilitarian clothes, rationing, etc.) to the 1950s. (For example, the Vintage Dancer site was a nice place to start. So was Fashion History Timeline.)

This gives me a general picture–including what the clothing was called. Moving on, I can then search on the names of the clothing, finding vintage ads, catalogue pictures, and even Etsy shops that specialize in retro clothing from certain eras. So, while Brad Thor, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and other black ops novels are keeping up with weapons and tactics, I’m desperately trying to find out what my characters should wear and when.

People always ask why research takes longer than writing. It all comes down to the fact that I learned only the difference between a dress and a skirt, but none of the thousand styles or accessories. It was, I suppose, a lapse in my education and/or upbringing.


P. S. –  My older woman character named Sparrow wears a Kitty Foyle dress that was popular in the 1940s. If you’re not sure what the dress looks like, you can watch Ginger Rogers in the film “Kitty Foyle.” Rogers won an academy award and the dress she wore in the film endured.



No, I don’t need Khaki trousers

If you’re online a lot–including social networking–you’re probably used to the fact that if you ever mention (or think about) a product, you’ll suddenly see dozens of ads for that product. At present, Facebook is deluged with ads for toilet paper. Gosh, I wonder why? Those who checked out these ads, unfortunately, found that the projected ship dates were in June.

Writers see ads others don’t see because we’re always researching something. For the novel in progress, I checked on the kind of Khaki a middle-aged person might wear in the early 1950s. Now, Khaki ads are showing up on Facebook, on news sites, and everywhere else I’m going on the Internet. At least, on Facebook, you can make the ad go away if you say you’ve already bought the stuff.

(We go through a lot to bring you the most accurate books on the planet.)

When I was researching hitmen, I started seeing ads for contract killers until finally the FBI called up and asked if I wanted to kill anybody. I said “no” and they said, “fine,” but I wonder if they’ve really gone away. No doubt the NSA scoops up my telephone calls and searches for words like “rub out,” “concrete shoes,” and “kick the bucket.”

Some writers share Facebook accounts with their spouses and get in trouble when these kinds of ads appear: “Honey, why are we suddenly getting ads for brothels?” The proper response to that is “Somebody hacked into our account.”

When writers talk on forums about their research, they wonder how many watch lists they’re on for researching nefarious stuff for their novels. While the famous writers can visit the police department and learn everything they want to know, little-known writers are stuck with Internet searches.

“Honey, I got a letter from the FBI and they told me you want to know how to kill your spouse by putting a pinch of something in his/her coffee.”

“Don’t worry, sugar, I saw that in a movie called ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ when I was a kid. The FBI has me mixed up with somebody else.”



Malcolm R. Campbell’s short story collection, Widely Scattered Ghosts, is free on Smashwords during the company’s “give back” sale.



Ad Hoc Writing Research

If I were writing historical novels, I would probably do a lot of research before I even committed to writing each book. My novels are written without an ourline or any idea how they will end up. This means I do the research for each scene when I get to it. While the novel in progress is set in 1955, the fact that I was an elementary school kid in that year doesn’t mean I know a lot about the time period.

So, it’s time to Google everything.

  • The last scene took place at a grocery store. Okay, when somebody entered the store, what kinds of posters, die-cut signs, and hand-written specials did they see on the window sill or window? I found a great Noxzema suburn cream sign, a nice Planters Peanuts poster, and a list of the meat prices per pound.
  • The current scene takes place in the backyard of some well-to-do people. While we had cheap pre-Weber metal barbecue, the fru fru people often had barbecue grills made of brick, 44 inches wide are larger.
  • What are they having to eat? I knew part of this already, but did a bit of online checking. The menu: porterhouse steak, corn, collards with ham hocks, baked potatoes, corn bread, and macaroni salad. The men are drinking either Jax Beer or Old Overholt Rye whiskey. I would enjoy all of this except for the Rye which I never liked.
  • The family wanted music. So, after verifying that long playing records were, in fact, available in 1955 AND that RCA had a three-in-one (78, 45, and 33 and 1/3 rpm) record player, I needed to make sure they had something to listen to. Since the men in the family are KKK members, they won’t be listening to jazz, blues, or gospel. Glenn Miller seemed like a safe choice.
  • Now, if I can, I’d like to find out how long each of the tracks is so I can time the action with which song would be playing at five minutes into the dinner and ten minutes into the dinner, etc.  (I did this once before when I timed the cuts on a Scott Joplin CD with a ride between Tallahassee and St. Marks, Florida. Probably nobody checks these things, but I wanted to know what song would be playing as Emily and her father (in Widely Scattered Ghosts) reached various landmarks along the way. Heck, I even check the weather reports for the dates and cities where my novels are set to make the weather in the novel the same as it was in “real life.”

Okay, I only have one more thing to check. What happens if somebody gets shot in the arm with a target arrow? There’s so little history taught in med school, that doctors can’t tell me what they would have done in 1955. I was e-mailing back and forth with a medical museum curator who admitted that doctors seem to believe that their speciality “rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of ignorance” just before they got out of medical school. So, on treatment, I need to skirt around the specifics I don’t know. I’m not happy about that, but as Vonnegut always said, “so it goes.”




It probably got your Grandfather LUCKY

It may have even gotten your Father LUCKY
Keep Up the Tradition – Lucky Tiger Company

We all know what it means when somebody says, “I hope I get lucky tonight.”

While researching the brand of hair tonic a sexist pig woud use in my novel in progress, I came across some ads for Lucky Tiger hair tonic that were (apparently) “OK” to run in the 1940s and 1950s but (no doubt) might cause a bit of social media flack today. Here’s one example from 1949:

And another from the 1950s:

So, the man here is just back from Africa after killing numerous animals for sport, and the first thing he does is use this hair tonic to prey on women. Needless to say, all the women in the Lucky Tiger ads I found were just delighted.

I don’t think women in “real life” had much in common with the women in these ads even though it was common in those times for “a man to pursue a woman until she let him catch her” (or so they said). Looking at ads like these, it’s obvious that patriarchy fueled our purchasing decisions as well as our view of ourselves and the opposite sex.

Even though high school and college-age individuals see the 1950s as ancient history, the deeply ingrained attitudes of that “ancient history” continue to impact men’s and women’s roles today. I can’t imagine how women seventy years ago reacted to these ads–along with all those happy housewife commercials that made cleaning the house look like fun.

Today, things are different, but not different enough.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two contemporary fantasy novels, “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande.”



Looking for an image of an old Rosetta Tharpe recording – UPDATED

If you’ve been around for a while and/or like vintage gospel, jazz, and blues, you know who Rosetta Tharpe was as well as how influential she was. As Wikipedia notes, “Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; in particular a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1963 with a stop in Manchester is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.”

So, one would think that finding a picture of a 1951 Decca release of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” with Marie Knight would be easy to locate on the Internet. Perhaps, but I can’t find it and would really like to see what it looks like so I can mention it in a novel. I could fake that, I suppose, by assuming that it looks like the other Decca recordings of the era, but I don’t feel comfortable doing that.

I spent a couple of hours this morning looking for the image. So far, I’ve found everything but. Seriously, I’d rather be writing the novel that pulling teeth, research-wise, for every fact I use. I’ve mentioned Tharpe before in my “Florida Folk Magic Series” because my character Eulalie was a blues singer and knows who all the singers of her era were. In the novel in progress, the main character is named “Sparrow” so that’s why this recording is important. Plus, I like the song, one that everyone and their brother or sister has recorded. Since the book is set in 1954-1955, the 1951 recording is the most reasonable release to use.

If you’re thinking about becoming a writer, obsessions like this will often take over your days.


And here it is, compliments of Sandy Daigler who picked the one method of searching Google’s images that didn’t occur to me:




Write what you know: but I’ve never been a bag lady

“BAG LADY: A poor woman, often homeless, who uses bags or shopping carts to transport her possessions and collect things that might be of use or traded for money.” – Urban Dictionary

Authors often joke about the feds tracking them down after they (the writers) use the Internet to learn how to kill people in various ways, break into banks, and commit other nefarious deeds for use in upcoming novels.

Yesterday, I looked at dozens of sites to learn more about bullet and arrow wounds. I found a wealth of information. So far, the police haven’t knocked on my door to talk to me about cold cases involving arrows in the ass.

Years ago, I asked a vet on a pet forum how much chocolate it would take to kill a large dog. Figured I’d get turned in ASPCA. I was surprised that we actually had a good discussion about it: he knew I was an author and not a nasty pet killer.

And then there the time I asked a forensic scientist what a dead lady would look like after she’d been buried for three months. He told me and asked for a copy of my book in which I gave him credit in the acknowledgements. Apparently, I didn’t sound crazy enough for him to suspect I was a grave robber.

It just goes to show, authors not only write what they know but write what they don’t.

So now the novel in progress has a bag lady in it. Needless to say, I’ve never been a bag lady. I once knew a lady that people in town thought was a bag lady. She looked like she was 150 years old (she wasn’t) and had the dried out look old people get who’ve smoked ten packs of cigarettes a week for 80 years. She was the cashier at a small grocery store. One time when the credit card reader was taking a long time, she asked that the screen was saying.

“Waiting for bag lady,” I said (because she bagged the groceries as she scanned them). “Most people around here think I’m a bag lady because I walk everywhere when my car won’t run which is near about always.” After that, she got ticked off if I didn’t come to her register or take her advice on my grocery buying habits. Seems like I saw her everywhere in town and about every time we’d stop to chat, somebody would ask me a few days later why I was talking to “that old bag lady.”  I told people she was giving me brokerage tips.

She’s long gone now, but I think of her as I try to come up with what the bag lady in my new novel will look like and act like. Whenever I have a female character in a novel, I have to ask my wife what kind of clothes she’d wear. I’m aware that women wear clothes, but I have no idea what any of the clothes are called or what for what occasions they’d be appropriate. My wife can’t help me as much this time out because my 1950s bag lady is wearing clothes from the mid-1940s.

Government restrictions seriously impacted the clothing people could buy. My wife wasn’t around then, so I’me learning about color and fabric restrictions, knitting socks for troops, and the no-nonsense styles men and women wore then on line. Even Mrs. Roosevelt was purportedly knitting socks for the war effort. Needless to say, my bag lady doesn’t look like the lady on the cover of that sheet music.

If there’s a crime spree in your neighborhood targeting bag ladies, I have an alibi–enough browser history to prove I’m here in my den doing research.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”