Having fun with my research

Now that I’ve finally promised my publisher a new novel and floated the general premise past her (she liked it), it’s time to do some research.

Typical poster used to get the public to do their own knitting and donate a lot of it to the cause.

Like the Florida Folk Magic Stories, this novel will be set in the Florida Panhandle, so I already know the area. This is one of the benefits of writing a series, or doing a standalone novel that uses the series as a starting point: you have a lot of location information on file that wasn’t used in the previous novels.

Since my main character is a bag lady in 1955, I’ve been looking at clothing manufactured during the 1940s. Needless to say, a bag lady isn’t going to be wearing the latest thing from Paris or even from Sears Roebuck. There’s a lot of material available about 1940s women’s clothing inasmuch as it was greatly influenced by rationing and shortages.  A lot of people were mending old clothes, making do with fewer fabric selections, and knitting socks for the troops (and themselves).  So, I think I know what my bag lady’s going to wear.

While the novel isn’t historical, I want the cultural references to be right. So, what was happening in Florida in 1955? I already know that the KKK was strong in those years. And I know that educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955 in Daytona Beach. My bag lady would know that because even though 1955 is part of the Jim Crow era, the story would be covered by the press.

My bag lady is–for reasons I won’t divulge now–an expert bow hunter. This means checking on the kinds of bows and arrows used by hunters in those days. I had good luck with this. I found information about the most widely known brand of bow at the time along with a selection of arrows.

Now, since this novel starts where the series ends, I have to make sure that I don’t contradict anything that happened in the series. So, I’m researching my own stuff to make sure there aren’t any continuity problems. For example, if a bad guy was killed in the series, I don’t want him showing up in the new book fit as a fiddle. By the way, “fit as a fiddle” is the kind of thing my bag lady would say–checking the slang of an era is part of the process. I’m surprised at the number of TV series that have characters from years ago using modern slang such as “whoa!” (meaning “wow!”) and other phrases that nobody said twenty or thirty years ago.

When Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and I were both in an ancient CompuServe literary forum, we found that we had one thing in common that a lot of writers weren’t understanding. The research has an impact on the story the writer is about to tell because it tips him/her off to things s/he didn’t know and is responsible for altering the plot of a novel in ways the writer wouldn’t have considered before the research phase began.

I didn’t care for research projects in school–often for the purpose of writing “themes” as they were called in those days–but I enjoy them now. I once read that writers like Nora Roberts have a staff that includes researchers. While there are times when I wish I could pick up the phone and ask an assistant a question and get an immediate answer, I feel much more in touch with my characters and my story when I have to look up all the stuff myself.



Never go drinking with your muse

My muse and I recently went out to a local biker bar and slammed down a case of Budweiser and several guys wearing badass tattoos and dirty clothes who thought we didn’t belong there.

We probably shouldn’t have made fun of the bikers who were drinking lite beer or were riding Mopeds.

My muse does not look like this.

The good thing about going to a biker bar is this: nobody asks what you do for a job. They assume the answer is either nothing or something illegal and that asking is a good way to get beat up. Suffice it to say, biker bars don’t have Enya on the jukebox. So, don’t expect much empathy there.

The bad thing about drinking with your muse is that she doesn’t like excuses. When you explain why you haven’t been writing lately due to __________, she says “So what?”

Yes, I’m trying to juggle three writing projects at the same time. That’s a first for me. I don’t like it. When I try to tell my muse why I don’t like it, she laughs and comes up with profanity so bad I didn’t even hear it in the navy.

As I told another writer years ago, “I don’t have a muse because high school literature courses portrayed muses as women who looked like they were dying of consumption or thought they were princesses.”

After saying that, a lady named Siobhan showed up and announced that she was my muse. The first thing I learned was that if I mispronounced her name, she’d kick the crap out of me. The second thing I learned was that she’s more psychic than I am. (For those of you who didn’t grow up speaking Gaelic, her name is pronounced “Shivahn.”)

“I want the best for you and your writing,” she always tells me. My response is usually, “You’re the lady who invented tough love, right?”

After a few Buds, we’re saying things that shouldn’t be said. Yet, I have to say, muses are more forgiving than spouses. You can tell as muse to “_____ off,” and she’ll always be there. You can’t say that to your wife or husband.

Basically, my muse thinks I’m hiding behind the research. That is, that I’m doing research long after it no longer matters and that it’s time to start writing the story. Okay, she may have a point. I do have a tendency to over-research everything I write. Maybe that’s because I started out as a journalist and a technical writer. Or, maybe that’s because maintaining that I’m still doing research is a good way to avoid doing any real writing.

I don’t think I’m the only writer who does this even though I’d probably buy a Harley if the main character in one of my novels rode a Harley. Accuracy’s important, right?

My muse said, “that’s a crock.” She also said, “Why aren’t you writing the story yet?” My answer is always, “Because I’m scared that I can’t.” Suffice it to say, she doesn’t buy that.


When does the research for a novel get out of hand?

If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you know I take issue with fiction that spends a lot of time teaching its readers something rather than telling a story. In different ways, The Da Vinci Code and the Celestine Prophecy are examples of this. Actually, I enjoyed both books–probably because I liked the messages. I’ve also like Katherine Neville, whose 1988 novel The Eight more or less introduced the heavy-on-teaching/mystery-thriller/ancient-secrets approach to fiction that Brown, Raymond Khoury, and others have used  in a fair number of other novels. When one finds the secret and/or the message fascinating, it’s easy to forgive the fact that these novels have too much lecturing in them.

researchFor the rest of us, our research gets out of hand when we become so fascinated by it, that we left it take over our fiction–presumably, this happens when think our readers will love that research as much as we do or when we’re just sloppy.

Before I write, my research always gets out of hand, as others see it, because I insist on knowing a lot more about the novels’ subject matter, location, and characters than I can possibly use. My conjure-related, blues-related, and other historical notes for Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman are longer than the combined word count of the books.

I do this because I want to internalize the information so that whenever and wherever it’s needed in the story, it naturally appears there without seeming to intrude. In “real life,” most of us act in accordance with our views and beliefs without the need for a Dan Brown-style lecture in the middle of an event that explains to others who are there why we’re doing what we’re doing.  I do too much research because I want the result of it to be a correct novel that doesn’t have to tell the readers why it’s a correct novel insofar as, say, conjure or the blues or the Florida piney woods go.

One never wants a reviewer to say “the research shows” about a book. When it does, it’s gotten out of hand.

One thing one learns when writing nonfiction is that the more often one quotes other people (other than in research papers where you have to do it), the less one understands the material. If you understand it, you don’t need to tell it through others’ words. I believe the same thing about research and the novel. If you have to keep pasting in globs of research, then you probably don’t understand your own subjects, locations and characters well enough to just tell the story.

Yes, it’s easy to say a little too much here and a little too much there and only realize later (probably after the book has been printed and it’s too late to change it) that while correct facts and ambiance are important, they need to support the story and the story’s wont to be continuously moving forward. Right now, my research for an upcoming novel is almost out of hand because I’m fascinated with the subject matter and could just as well keep reading about it if I don’t admit that–past a point–I’m delaying writing the book rather than creatively getting ready to write the book.

So, it’s almost time to stop and to let what I’ve learned become a part of me. Only then will it help the story. Just a few more pages to read, and then I’ll start writing, oh and just quickly check another book or two, yeah, right, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


To learn more about my two conjure novels, read my spooky web page. 


Haints, Plate-Eyes and Demons, oh my

Frankly, I don’t like reading specific directions for summoning evil spirits because I’m afraid I’ll accidentally think them or recite them and suddenly a hideous monster will appear.

demonFrom hoodoo to witchcraft to high magic, the lore is filled with cautions about the dangers of summoning bad stuff because unless you know what you’re doing, the bad stuff will come after you. This would be kind of like purchasing a rabid dog to keep traveling salesmen away from your door. The odds seem high that the dog will attack you first.

Another reason I don’t like reading specific directions for summoning evil spirits is the feds. They probably track this stuff and the last thing I need is the NSA telling the FBI that I used the search terms “black arts conjure oil” or “hoodoo demon-calling spell” enough times for it “to be a problem” as opposed to looking for crossword clues.

Writers often talk about stuff like this. We worry about doing research about how to kill people, make bombs, mix deadly and untraceable poisons, and making pacts with the devil. The people who have that kind of history on their computers usually tern out to be serial killers or the kind of nut cases who join ISIS and saying “I’m just writing a book” probably won’t cut it when the cops arrive.

I didn’t worry about this when I was writing Conjure Woman’s Cat because for that book, I was looking up good spells, good charms, and how to reverse jinxes. But in the sequel, my good conjure woman is combating a black arts root doctor and so I have to know more about that side of the business for her to be able to speculate about what he’s doing and how.

Since I try to make the spells and uses of herbs as realistic as possible within the world of conjure, I don’t feel right just making it up. Suffice it to say, the curses I’ve found aren’t going into the sequel verbatim. For one thing, I have to find a spell or recipe in multiple places before I’ll trust that it’s more than the imaginings of one resource. For another, what if the thing works as advertised? I don’t need to see on CNN that people are using my book to summon demons to go after their spouses’ lovers or to disrupt law-abiding governments (if any). So, everything has to be blurred around the edges: exact enough to make a real conjure woman nod in agreement but inexact enough to your child, spouse or neighborhood crook can’t use it.

By the way, plate-eyes aren’t seen very much any more, but generally they’re unpleasant, what with their glowing eyes the size of plates. If one bothers you, you can get rid of it with anything that smells bad. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to use any plate-eyes in the sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat because nobody seems to know how to contact one of them. Haints, well, they’re okay, but they usually have their own agendas.

Demons, though, they’re looking pretty good, figuratively speaking, because they’re easier to summon that most people think and fewer people are going to question whether the author has used the right technique or the wrong technique to call them.

When the book comes out, I promise it won’t contain the exact technique for calling a demon. It will be close enough to make the book slightly dangerous. But that’s what readers want.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and a batch of paranormal Kindle short stories.

Stop by my website.


Sometimes my research won’t support what I want to do

I fact check everything I put in my stories and feel very nervous about the things I can’t track down.

In my short story in progress, two college students explore a cave and find a fair number of bats. When they leave the cave, they discover that while they’ve been very dry inside, the world has gotten very wet outside.

I wanted one of my characters to say something like, “Holy deluge Batman, there’s been a change in the weather.”

My story is set in 1962. Guess why I can’t use that phrase.

As you can see on Robin’s Page, there are over 356 “holy something or other” phrases listed from the Boy Wonder. No, “holy deluge” isn’t there, but that’s not the problem. My character wanted to mimic Robin, not quote him.

The Batman television show where we heard “holy whatever” over and over aired on ABC between 1966 and 1968. So there it is. My character can’t mimic something that hasn’t started yet.

Sometimes research giveth and sometimes it taketh away.


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