Researching the Contemporary Novel

Researching the Contemporary Novel:

Write What You Know, and Then Learn Enough to Get ‘er Done

by Deborah Vogts

When most people think of doing book research, they immediately think of historical research. Those who write historicals have my deepest admiration. But contemporary authors have to do research for their stories as well. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Every novelist must “jump” into their characters’ skins, and that often means we must learn things we don’t already know. How do we do this? The Internet is an invaluable tool, as is your local library or bookstore. Sometimes, though, your questions can’t be answered that way and you have to go to your “source.” Often that means interviewing someone by email, by phone, or in person. For an introvert writer who spends the majority of her time in front of a computer, this can be terrifying. Believe me, I know, as I still fight my fear of admitting to someone that I’m an author. After all, they might look at me like I’m an alien, or worse, they might try to bite off my nose, or laugh at me . . . or sneer.

Okay, so what sort of research might a contemporary author need to do? Below are a few things I did for the books in the Seasons of the Tallgrass series, published by Zondervan.

In my first book, Snow Melts in Spring, the opening scene is one where a horse is terribly injured. Right off, I had to know technical terminology, and not only that, but I had to create a scene that was accurate and believable, not just something that looked good on paper. To get it right, I contacted a handful of veterinarians, asked them a bunch of detailed questions all the way down to possible accident scenarios, which would create the type of injuries needed for the story. I even shadowed one small animal vet for a day in order to get a feel for what a “day in the life” might look like for my character who was also a vet.

I also needed to know something about football. Again, not my specialty. For this research, I went to the children’s section of the library and checked out an armload of books. Here’s a good tip to know: Children’s books are easy to read and they are chock full of valuable information. I also watched a lot of football games on television and asked my football loving friends and family hundreds of questions–all so I could write two or three scenes with authenticity.

It matters.

For my second book, Seeds of Summer, which releases the end of May, I needed to learn about the Miss Rodeo America competition because my main character, Natalie Adams, is a former Miss Rodeo Kansas and first runner up Miss Rodeo America. My research for this story included visiting with those at the Miss Rodeo America headquarters, as well as interviewing and questioning the current MRA at that time, Miss Amy Wilson, Miss Rodeo America 2008.

The highlight of this research culminated when I met and visited Amy at her home in Colby, KS. Amy was a joy to work with and is such a lovely person. My visit to her home was an unexpected blessing, as she shared some special moments from her time as Miss Rodeo Kansas and then as Miss Rodeo America.

I learned that Miss Rodeo America has a host of sponsors who shower their queen with lovely gifts, some of which include: a wardrobe of Wrangler Jeans, Justin Boots, Bailey Hats , fully tooled Court’s Saddle with custom Miss Rodeo America conchos and an official Miss Rodeo America trophy buckle from Montana Silversmiths. Accompanying the perpetual Miss Rodeo America tiara made by Landstrom’s Original Black Hills Gold Creations, Amy was given a wardrobe of matching jewelry. These items, along with other prizes were presented to her throughout her reign. To see some pictures of these items, please visit my blog post here.

For my current project, book #3 – Blades of Autumn, I’m having to learn about running a cafe. So guess what? I’ve been visiting small town cafes and asking the owners lots of questions. Research such as this never ends, but taking the time to do this for your stories might mean the difference between someone loving your book or tossing it against the wall because it wasn’t accurate. Sure, you’ll never please everyone, but by doing the necessary groundwork, you’ll at least know you did everything within your means to bring accuracy to the story.

Again, it’s important. Your readers will thank you for it.

~ ~ ~

Blurb for Seeds of Summer: When opposites attract, sparks fly–like an electrical malfunction. That’s what happens when former rodeo queen Natalie Adams meets the new pastor in Diamond Falls.

A heart-warming contemporary romance set in the Flint Hills of Kansas where a former rodeo queen abandons her dreams in order to care for her deceased father’s ranch and her two half-siblings, only to realize with the help of a young new pastor that God can turn even the most dire circumstances into seeds of hope. Spanning the Seasons of the Tallgrass, each story in this series reveals the struggle of the people who live there and the dreams they have for the land until they come full-circle in a never-ending cycle, just as man comes full-circle in his understanding of God.

If you’d like to read a snippet from Seeds of Summer, I invite you to visit Country magazine, which recently did a feature interview with me for their April/May issue. While there, you may also enter your chance to win one of my books. This book giveaway ends May 31.

Deborah Vogts and her husband have three daughters and make their home in Southeast Kansas where they raise and train American Quarter Horses. As a student at Emporia State University studying English and journalism, Deborah developed a love for the Flint Hills that has never faded. In writing this series, she hopes to share her passion for one of the last tallgrass prairie regions in the world, showing that God’s great beauty rests on the prairie and in the hearts of those who live there.

Visit Deborah at her web site or Country at Heart blog to learn more about her research for Seasons of the Tallgrass series.



It’s great to have you back at Romance Writers on the Journey, Deborah. Thanks for your informative article. I’m eager to read Seeds of Summer and enjoy the results of your research.

Feel free to leave a comment for Deborah. She’ll be dropping by to answer your questions about research on May 27.


About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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8 Responses to Researching the Contemporary Novel

  1. Keli Gwyn says:

    Deborah, thanks for sharing your research tips.

    What’s one surprising tidbit you learned while working on Seeds of Summer that you were able to work into the book?

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing your experience with research, and the Seasons of the Tallgrass series sounds wonderful!

  3. Hi Deborah,
    I love how you brought up the amount of research contemporary writers need to do. You’re so right, much of the “how to research” info is aimed at historical writers. And interviewing sources and experts is nerve-wracking even if you’ve done it many times. I find it especially hard because I’m not published yet, and to say “I’m writing a book, can you help me?” is awkward when you know the first question from your interviewee will be, “So, where can I get your books?” I’m still working on the right way to handle that!

    Thanks for the great insights.

  4. Hi ladies,

    Thanks so much for stopping by to say hello. Liz, I remember how terrified I was to ask the veterinarians information about my story that was not even “contracted” for. And yes, they do ask where they can get your books. Eeks. It’s just something that has to be done. And really, it’s still very hard for me to do. I’d much prefer emailing people… LOL I’m such an introvert.

    Keli, you asked about surprising research that I included in the book. There were many, actually. Things I learned about the MRA contest–how the girls prepared and how they “blackened the bottom of their boots” for the judges. How about my scene where Natalie rides a bucking horse? That’s fun and surprising. Ah, now I spoiled it.

    If you’d like to read more about my MRA research, I added a new link on my web site (news & media) under Miss Rodeo America (magazine) which ran a feature interview for me this month.

    Thanks again for hosting me here, Keli. I’ll check back again later!

  5. I forgot to add the link to the Country magazine site. Their contest ends on the 31st so there is still time to enter the book drawing where they are giving away TWENTY of my books. 🙂

  6. Diane says:

    Love your workspace and your research technique. Small diners are great to watch the dynamics of. Good luck with your future books. :O)

  7. Whew! Excellent post. You novel writers are amazing. Thanks for all the hard work you do to make the books we read realistic and compelling. …back to my picture book writing.

  8. Great post and your covers are great.
    I enjoy doing research and sometimes get too involved in it. At that point I have to step away and go back to my writing. I love the interesting little facts that I discover and sometimes never use.

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