Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Occupational Hazards

At one time, it seemed to be the norm that a hero in a romance novel had to have a glamorous, high profile or ‘macho’ job (think Italian count owner of vineyard, head of multi-million corporation, Greek ship owner, etc). When a heroine was actually allowed to have a job (other than nurse, secretary or governess), then it had to be something supposedly ‘feminine’ like interior or fashion design or florist.

Today’s heroes and heroines don’t necessarily have to be at the top of their profession. They can be cops or doctors or lawyers. And in fact, heroines could, and do, have those same jobs. At least now we have some kind of occupational equality in romance novels.

However, my dilemma is that I don’t really know anything about different occupations. Having spent almost all my working life in a High School environment, I don’t have a clue about other jobs. In fact, having retired from teaching about 15 years ago, I’m totally out-of-date with the teaching profession too. And I don’t know any lawyers or PR/advertising executives or hotel owners etc etc etc.

So what do I do?

I’ve taken a chance and had two heroines who were actresses since I do know a little about that profession. Another was a TV reporter turned college lecturer, so at least I didn’t have to give too many details about her earlier career and could concentrate on the educational background. Another was a tour guide on a Nile cruise ship. I’m not sure that a week on a Nile cruise qualified me to write about that, but I did my best.

As for my heroes, the first one was a producer/director in London’s West End theatre world. What did I know about professional theatre? Nothing! At least, not from an insider’s POV. I drew on my experience of amateur theatre, did quite a lot of research and no-one’s challenged me (yet!) on anything wildly inaccurate. In fact, a lot of people have actually commented about their enjoyment of the theatre world I portrayed.

Then I had a journalist/novelist - again not too difficult, except when he was researching an article on alternative fuel sources. Why couldn’t I have had him researching something I actually know about? But - he led and I followed.

My next hero was an archaeologist, Okay, I know something about archaeology but still had to spend hours reading up about the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Next came a volcanologist! The sum total of my knowledge about volcanoes before this could have been summed up very briefly - they erupt sometimes and create ash clouds and lava rivers. So I had a mass of research to do – most of which I never actually used in the book, but I’m quite proud of the fact that I now know what a correlation spectrometer measures – and I laughed my socks off when this actually came up in an online trivia quiz I do regularly!

I swore my next hero would have an occupation I knew something about. But no, he decided he’s a veterinary surgeon. So now I’m researching vets.

I’d be very interested to know how other writers choose the occupations for their heroes and heroines. Do you go for jobs about which you have a personal knowledge, or know someone in that profession? Or, if not, how do you research occupations about which you have no real knowledge or experience?


  1. Hi,

    Ha ha, nothing wrong with ordinary heroes. Why not? Even in my latest Regency Romance & Murder Mystery the hero is a lawyer, and when his life is turned around by murders he doesn't want what becomes his by due rite! He wants to be what he is... ;)


  2. I admit that I pick jobs that work for the story, without worrying too much about them. I've done a lot of online research and gone to message boards to talk to people about their jobs--it's been a fun way to meet people and adds that reality to the profession so I don't sound like an idiot.

    I'm still in awe of your volcanologist, though!

  3. Francine, I wonder if it's eeasier or harder to write about occupations in the past?

  4. Jen, agree that you need to pick jobs that work for the story - hence my volcanologist, and now my vet! Haven't found any real-life or even online volcanologists to talk to, but found plenty online about volcanoes in general (a lot of which I didn't understand LOL!)

  5. I try to give my characters jobs I'm somewhat familiar with or know someone who can give me an inside scoop so characters can do authentic and appropriate things. I did make one of my heroes a Secret Service agent and had to do a bit of research about that, which was fun!

  6. Debra, if I was making my hero a Secret Service agent, I'd have to base him on the agents I saw in 'The West Wing'! That constitutes my entire knopwledge about agents!

  7. I've tried to stick to professions I know a little about. Angel is an accountant - mediator. I've guessed about the mediator's part but do know what I have to do for our tax accounting. I can ask our CPA, too. My first WIP is a rancher. I know cows and fencing and the like. I know tractors better than horses. I may be able to answer a vet question for you, Paula. An outlined story-in-the-works features an herbalist vs a physician's assistant. I prefer herbal - homeopathic. I've done much research about the drug cocktail intended to kill the heroine's incarcerated father. I love the researching!

  8. Hope no-one looks at your computer history of research about lethal cocktails, Ana, or they'll start wondering why you need that information ;-)
    And I will probably need to take you up on your offer about vets! Thanks!

  9. Sounds like there is a lot of research involved in writing to make your stories believable and authentic. Very interesting blog!


  10. You know--I've always been told "write what you know" and that leaves very few options for me as well. However--I have a lot of family members in various occupations--and I learn a lot from them just by talking to them. So--it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to venture into other occupations if I needed to. Great post!! Cheers, Jenn

  11. This was a great post, Paula! In my creative writing class, we had to write a fictitious story, which is hard for me. My main character was a happily married woman and house wife, who before she got married, would indulge in her passion of art: sketching, painting. So, her husband unexpectedly died, in the midst of their perfect marriage and family. In her solitude, she rediscovered who she was and went back to her passions, took off for Rome to soak in all the art she could...etc. So, I could not believe all the research I had to do for her adventure in Rome! Everything from air fare to hotels, museums, paintings, restaurants in Rome! It's hard work! I salute you, Paula Martin! ;)

  12. I actually haven't gotten that far in my writing to pick a profession for my characters. I'm still laying out the storyline and will then fill in the details.

    What I do know is that when I finally pick their professions...I'll have to do a lot of research.