Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Help Wanted

Research.  Sounds like a pretty obvious thing to do when you’re writing a book. Unless you’re me. I always thought that I didn’t really have to worry about researching my stories, since I write contemporary romance. I use settings that I know, and ideas that I’m familiar with—that whole concept of writing what you know—so to me, research was always for those OTHER writers, the ones who write historical or science fiction or paranormal.

Hah! The hero of my soon-to-be published book is in a wheelchair. It’s kind of an odd type of hero to have in a romance, but I wanted to portray a strong man with a unique vulnerability. And, I wanted to show that the biggest obstacle facing the hero and heroine is not always the most obvious one, and this was one way that I was able to accomplish it. It wasn’t until I was about three quarters of the way through with my draft that I realized, hello, I don’t know anything about a guy in a wheelchair and maybe I should actually do some research so I don’t sound like a complete idiot. Not to mention the fact that of course, research makes things sound believable. Okay, I’m a little slow, but at least I realized before I finished the ENTIRE thing.

So, to research my character, I went online to a variety of different listservs and tried to find someone to help me. Um, hi, I’m a writer, and I was wondering if anyone on this list would be willing to talk to me about their life in a wheelchair? Yeah, right. Let me tell you, asking a stranger to be willing to answer the types of questions I needed to ask is about as awkward as asking someone out on a date.  What’s even more awkward is establishing the boundaries of those questions. Exactly how much information do I want to ask? For that matter, exactly how much information do I want to know?

Despite the fact that in my other life, I’m a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines, I’m not really good with questions. I can come up with questions easily. It’s the asking and answering that I have trouble with. Am I being too nosy? You don’t want to answer that? Okay, no problem. I’ll ask you something else. In other words, investigative journalism is just not my thing.  And being on the receiving end of questions? Ugh. Why would anyone want to know anything about me? Can’t I just get away with “fine” and be done with it?

So, in general, asking questions is a skill that I really need to work on. When those questions that I need to ask are personal, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing that all the conversations were done by email, because my face turned shades of red that I’m not sure have even been discovered yet. Think about it, how often do you ask sex questions to a member of the opposite sex who is not in a relationship with you? And in my story, the sex doesn’t even happen in front of the reader! So it’s not even like I needed all the nitty gritty details. It’s even better when your husband walks in, asks what you’re doing, and you reply, “I’m talking about sex with a strange guy.” My husband is the most understanding man, EVER! J

Most of the questions I answered had to do with psychological issues and feelings—another minefield when I’m dealing with a stranger who is maybe only half convinced that I’m actually who I say I am. As a result, my questions were very long, with lots of “If you’re uncomfortable at all about answering this question, I totally understand” thrown in.

But amazingly, despite all of my HUGE misgivings, I found a very nice man who was willing to talk to me. I also found a few odd birds who were SO not going to be able to help me. But the guy I ultimately ended up talking to was very nice and we ended up forming a very nice, short-term, friendship. I think he was happy to have the chance to help me portray a character that’s not often seen in romance in as realistic a way as possible, without making him into some wimp. Whether or not he’s happy with the finished product, well, that remains to be seen. I tried really hard and could not have written the story I did without research. But, as they often say in the acknowledgements, any errors or misrepresentations of the character are solely my doing.


  1. I think it's great that you managed to find someone willing to talk to you about his disability. I understand the feeling that you are being 'too nosy' and/or that you are stepping over some invisible line. Obviously the utmost tact and sensitivity are required, which you clearly demonstrated in order to get this guy to talk to you.

  2. Wow, Jennifer! Kudos to you for portraying an unconventional hero. I bet you had no trouble selling this book. The world needs books that open people's hearts and futher social justice.

  3. Hi Jennifer,

    That was a tough call you set yourself. Wow! And, like Ana, I think novels with unstereotypical heroes stand out. They also tend to touch readers hearts in a way the standard hero might only stir mild emotional response, simply because he's from a well-used romance hero mould. ;)


  4. Even when we're writing things we're familiar with, getting all of the details right is so important. To ourselves and to our readers. Especially when we do things a bit out of the ordinary.

    Nice job, Jennifer!