The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the tag “research”

Tick off a writer and s/he will kill you in the next book

Or so they say.

Okay, it could happen, perhaps it has happened, and–if so–it might happen again.

Truth is, authors are influenced by everything that happens to them, the people they know, the offices where they work, the regions where their families came from and where they grew up, and by all the places they’ve visited. The rely strongly on these even though their fiction may well be a long way from autobiographical.

I’ve written novels and short stories set in the Florida Panhandle because I grew up there. I’ve used Montana because I worked there and have been back for numerous vacation visits. Decatur, Illinois, has figured in my stories because my mother grew up there, we visited my grandparents there while I was growing up, and one of my brothers was born there. So, it’s fun using my knowledge of these places–and, the little known legends from these places–in my stories.

None of my friends, family or enemies has been killed off in any of my books.

Like many people who have visited Paris, London, and Berlin, I have often thought about getting a story in one of those places–or, maybe a scene. I set a couple of scenes in the Netherlands because I worked there one summer while in college. As for the other places, I think I would be behind the eight ball trying to catch up with the common knowledge about those places that’s firmly known by those who did live there and/or who have spent a considerable amount of time there. It’s very difficult–if not impossible–for an author to write a credible story set in a known place if he doesn’t really know that place.

There are a lot of reasons why my Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman novels are set in the 1950s. Primarily, it’s because the racist situations my characters fight against were common then. But there’s also another reason: that’s when I lived there, and I haven’t been there since 1986.  My knowledge of the Florida Panhandle as it is now isn’t strong enough for me to write a book set there in 2017.

One can get around this to some extent if one gets a grant that includes travel, if one has a bestselling author’s budget and can travel there or pay a staff to travel there. You’ve probably heard the expression many times that “the map is not the territory.” Likewise, I think that–for a writer needing facts that are only apparent when s/he lives in a place or can afford extensive visits to a place–the Internet is also not the territory. One cannot Google his or her way into knowing what a native knows.

I’ve never felt limited by restricting my self to places I’ve lived or worked or seen extensively during trips. The joy for me is having a wealth of information that can become part of the stories in such an organic way that no reviewer can say “my research shows.” That usually happens when a writer doesn’t really know a place, does a lot of expensive research, and tries to jam it all into a novel whether it naturally fits or not.

One of my characters in the 1954-era novel in progress just took some photographs on a Florida road with a Brownie Hawkeye Camera. I’ve seen that road and I took pictures in that area with a Brownie Hawkeye when was a kid. I still have the camera. Using such details–things that relate to my life and experiences–is a lot more satisfying than writing down the names of people who tick me off so that they can be “taken care of” in my next novel or short story.

At least, this is my story and I’m sticking to it.





Briefly Noted: ‘Florida’s Wetlands’

What does an author do when s/he can’t visit the locations used in a novel? One could hire a team of researchers or use Google Earth to look at the chosen place. Using a guidebook such as Florida’s Wetlands is an easier way. The guidebook won’t tell you everything, but it may tell you enough to accurately sketch in the world where your characters live.

Publisher’s Description

“Taken from the earlier book Priceless Florida (and modified for a stand-alone book), this volume discusses Florida’s Wetlands, including interior wetlands, seepage wetlands, marshes, flowing-water swamps, beaches and marine marshes, and mangrove swamps. Introduces readers to the trees and plants, insects, mammals, reptiles, and other species that live in Florida’s unique wetlands ecosystem, including the Virginia iris, American white waterlily, cypress, treefrogs, warblers, and the Florida black bear.”

This wonderful guide is enhanced through its use of short descriptions, easy-to-navigate sections, photographs, and lists of the flora and fauna in Florida’s variety of swamps and marshes. These lists make it easy for the writer to find additional information on the Internet about a particular tree, fish, flower or bird. Once you know these names and the habitats they call home, it’s easy to do follow-up research online or in other books for more details. In Florida, for example, you can use the information gleaned from this book to explore the online Florida Natural Areas Inventory or the detailed information you can find from a specialized guidebook such as Florida Wildflowers: a Comprehensive Guide by Walter Kingsley Taylor.

Such books, and the sites they’ll lead you to, are windows into a world that’s out of reach due to time constraints, health, jobs, and family responsibilities. And then, too, you’re writing a novel and not a habitat handbook, so you don’t need lengthy and/or definitive descriptions of your locations.

Fortunately, writers can find such popular guidebooks for most states and countries.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” set partially in the wetlands of the Florida Panhandle.


Research falls out of the sky from the strangest places

Writers never know when a fact’s going to be needed. So, we jot things down in notebooks and/or keep links in a DOC file.

adamI like looking at the wild sheet music covers on American Memory, the Library of Congress site filled with recordings, photographs and articles from long ago. There’s a lot of good stuff out there even though the search engine can use some work; by that I mean, stuff shows up in the list of hits that has nothing to do with the search terms.

Old sheet music had covers that don’t match today’s political correctness, music lovers’ styles and fads, or even the kind of music we like. That’s why they’re fun to look at.

Needless to say, when I saw the cover for “Why Adam Sinned,” a song written in 1904 by Alex Rogers and performed by Aida Overton Walker, I wanted to know why.

Due to copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the lyrics here, though you can find them elsewhere if you keep looking. But the why of it is this: He sinned because he didn’t have a mother to teach him right from wrong.

Now, since Eulalie–my African American conjure woman in “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman”–is also a singer and makes a lot of references to music, this “why” about Adam is perfect for her to say in a conversation about the good Lord. Who knows when and where I’ll use it, but sooner or later she just might tell the deacon something like this:

“‘It’s just like the song testified about: He didn’t have no Mammy to teach him right from wrong,’ said Eulalie.”


“‘It’s just like Aida Walker sang: He didn’t have no Mammy to teach him right from wrong,’ said Eulalie.”

The deacon probably won’t like hearing that, but she won’t care because she likes stirring things up.

Writers collect bits and pieces of stuff like some people save baseball cards or have rooms filled with old car parts or stuff from along the side of the road that might come in handy some day.

You just never know. . .


cwcBoth conjure woman novels are available in audiobook, e-book and paperback from major online booksellers; you can also ask your nearby bookstore to order them from their Ingram catalogue.

Traveling through Pinterest

Pinterest has been called a “A Database of Intentions.” In this article in “Atlantic,” co-founder of Pinterest Evan Sharp said, “I define it as a place where people can go to get ideas for any project or interest in their life. And as you encounter great ideas and discover new things that you didn’t even know were out there, you can pin them and make them part of your life through our system of boards.”

pinterestFLIt’s another way of finding stuff on the Internet that’s decidedly different than Google, Facebook and Twitter. It’s visual, almost like stamp collecting or memory collecting, or what we used to do in another era, clipping pictures and recipes and vacation ideas out of magazines because they appealed to us for some reason or we think they might come in handy or they were just fun to look at.

It took me a while to warm up to Pinterest. When I went out there, I saw tons of recipes, pictures of celebrities, vacation type pictures of beautiful places, arts and crafts, pets, and I thought, really, do I want to look through strangers’ scrapbooks.

My feelings changed, I think, when I saw how much fun it was to pin pictures of things that mattered to me and then to find other boards created by people with similar interests. Then–for a writer, anyway–it became a bit more than a hobby. In some ways, it’s another way of doing research. The things that matter to me are the things I put in my fiction. Seeing other people’s boards on Pinterest can be a form of finding helpful facts and ideas.

My boards include those on Florida, Conjure, the Blues and The Crown of the Continent (Montana Rockies). I’m a long-time fan of jazz and the blues, my fiction is set mostly in Florida and Montana, and my latest novella is about a conjure woman. As authors, we’re often told to spend more time talking about the themes and subject matter of our books rather than giving book reports and sales pitches that (horrors) start sounding like SPAM if we do them too often.

pinterestBLUESSo naturally, I’m going to talk about Glacier National Park, blues and jazz, folk magic, and the Florida Panhandle. Since I’m interested in these subjects and talking about them, it became natural to pin places on the Internet on one or more of my boards the way my mother used to clip recipes out of magazines. She wanted to try out those recipes and I want to learn more about my favorite subjects. Sometimes what I learn isn’t necessarily facts but more of a new way of seeing a subject. At other times, I’ve found some very informative sites.

If you’re new at writing and looking for something to say other than “buy my book,” Pinterest is an interesting place to (figuratively speaking) talk about the subject matter in your books. Almost every location setting, hobby, job description, and theme that you’re focusing on in your latest story or your next novel might make a great board on Pinterest. Pinterest is a project done over time. Surf around and pin a few things one one board or another on a lazy afternoon. Click on some of the pins others have placed. No need to rush it. After a while, your boards will begin to have depth and a collection of followers.

Who knows where it will lead. Twitter, I hear, isn’t doing as well as it once was. Maybe Pinterest will become boring after a while or lose favor with the masses like most CompuServe forums and Myspace. Until then, it’s work that doesn’t seem like work. Plus, when you least expect it, a picture of something somewhere may even lead to a new story idea!

You May Also Like: 20 Inspiring Pinterest Boards for Writers


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a novella with a lot of blues in it.

It’s difficult to write with all that hammering

The company that built our current home last year finally sent out two people to take care of (we hope) the uneven floor in the hallway and the kitchen. We reported the problem in June and they finally decided to address it.

repairmanIssues like this invariably get in the way of one’s writing. First, anything that’s not going smoothly in one’s life tends to interfere with the creative process until the thing is resolved. If getting it resolved is maddening, it’s hard to get it off one’s mind. This problem isn’t confined to writers, of course.

If you work at home, having repair people come out is a disruption. First, the time they show up is something like between 8 a.m. and noon or between noon and 5 p.m. That places one into a waiting mode. When they show up, they create noise and other disruptions.

That’s when I turn from actual writing to research. I spent the morning looking up more information for my work in progress. There’s always plenty of stuff to look up, especially if one’s book is set in the past and slang, clothing styles, news of the day, and other such things need to be nailed down.

If you write, what do you do during a day when you’re waiting for repair people and then waiting for them to stop all the noise and finish their work? Can you keep writing? Or, do you head out to Facebook and play games and leave comments? Or, better yet, is there something productive you can do so the day’s not a total loss?

  • Adding more information to your website.
  • Updating your Amazon author’s page.
  • Fine-tuning your page.
  • Finding new sites to add to your Pinterest boards.
  • Looking up things you need to verify for your short story or novel.

Obviously, leaving the house isn’t an option. So, anything that makes productive use of the time at home is what I’m searching for.

The writing biz has plenty of fun and tedious chores attached to it, so when the repair people show up, I pick one of those chores and try to get it done. That feels better than a day spent playing Angry Birds.


KIndle cover 200x300Coming soon, an audio edition of “Conjure Woman’s Cat”




Writing what you don’t know – a suggestion

If you watch Hell's Kitchen, you know he can be scary when people don't know what they're doing - Wikipedia photo

If you watch Hell’s Kitchen, you know he can be scary when people don’t know what they’re doing – Wikipedia photo

Would you like to walk up to chef Gordon Ramsey and describe to him in very detailed terms what it’s like for a sous chef to to make a perfect cheese souffle in the busy kitchen of a five-star restaurant? Sure, you could read a dozen recipes first and even practice a bit in the kitchen.  But, unless you’ve worked as a sous chef, it might be difficult to get it right when you eyeball to eyeball with a man who’s done it hundreds of times.

Whether it’s souffles, police and ambulance procedures, attorneys in court, fire departments responding to a fire, or people surviving in the wilderness, writers often worry about how they can “get it right.”

When you don’t have a research team

I’m talking about the majority of writers, which means I’m leaving out famous writers who have or can hire researchers, or people who are famous enough to gain access to sources that won’t give the rest of us the time of day. I’m also ruling out authors who have the time, perseverance and resources for working on one novel for 15-20 years during which time the research can become a passionate avocation.

Minimize what you don’t know

You're NOT trying to replicate this - Wikipedia photo

You’re NOT trying to replicate this – Wikipedia photo

Cutting to the chase, my suggestion is that you minimize scenes that require a step-by-step description of the character doing something or observing something about which you have little on-the-scene knowledge. Do you really need your sous chef protagonist to perform a tricky cooking operation in front of your readers? Or, can you show bits and pieces of it as it occurs or mention it after the fact, creating the illusion that your protagonist knows what s/he’s doing?

If you’re lucky and put yourself out there to find resources, you can talk your way into a restaurant kitchen and watch what happens, and then maybe interview some of the workers after the restaurant closes for the day. The more you observe, the greater your chances are of creating the illusion in your novel that the readers have seen more than you’ve really shown them. And yet, you’ll never create the perfect chef’s handbook or an encyclopedia–that’s not your job anyhow.

A lot of writers I know try to do most of their research on the Internet. One danger here is credibility.  I prefer professional sites and books to Wikipedia and sites that are maintained by non-experts more as a hobby than as an outgrowth of their work.

Experts are great when you can find them, and when it comes down to it, a surprising number of people will answer telephone and e-mail queries from authors about the subject matter of a novel. Some will talk back and forth at length, while others really expect you to confine what you want to ask to a few narrowly defined questions.

And, for goodness sake, if the expert has written a definitive book about the subject, buy the book and read it rather than wasting his or her time asking questions that have already been answered and that can be easily found on Amazon.

Worrying about getting it totally wrong

And, you also don't have a television producer's resources. - Wikipedia pohoto.

And, you also don’t have a television producer’s resources. – Wikipedia photo.

What most of us want to avoid is getting it totally wrong. But just is dangerous, is the reliance upon only one source. What you might not be able to tell might be something readily apparent to people in the field when you choose one author or one site and treat that information as gospel without getting second and third opinions. People in the field will know if any particular source is credible and/or out of date and/or doing or saying something that’s out in left field.

Be careful of popular TV shows. Most hospital and police shows have an endless line of critics saying that such and such never happens in real life even though those shows have experts on hand as consultants. If you watch NCIS, for example, do you wonder (as I do) if NCIS agents can take over a local murder investigation by police simply because the victim is in the service? I don’t think so. If you watch BONES, do you notice that the FBI agent character is getting involved in cases outside normal FBI jurisdiction? Popular shows get away with a lot of “artistic license” that can quickly sink a debut novel.

Research thoroughly and then sketch in enough to make the boom seem realistic

In this one post, I can’t possibly cover all the ways authors learn enough about what they don’t know in order to write a novel that includes those subjects. To some extent, one has to work the way a good reporter, private detective or professional researcher would work and track down everything possible to get the details and the sense of what a particular job, industry, religion, or city is like.

My idea, then, is that whenever possible, consider sketching in the details of certain things rather than addressing them head on. Sometimes you can’t do that. When you can’t, you’ll spend more time researching the subject than writing the scene, and then if you know somebody in the field, ask them to read anything where your little bit of knowledge might lead you toward making a ghastly mistake.

Books from people who know really help as long as you don't copy them or stray past what you can learn from them.

Books from people who know really help as long as you don’t copy them or stray past what you can learn from them.

Most writers aren’t doctors, lawyers, policemen, chefs, truck drivers, or CEOs who know how to take their own 9-5 professions and turn them into stories that are accurate to a fault. We base our stories on people and the circumstances of their lives and then have to bring in the facts of their hobbies and careers a bit on the sly.

As a case in point, in a recent novella of mine, one of the characters was a deacon in a sanctified church. I read a lot about this, but still felt that while I could have the deacon talking to others about his church or about a funeral service, there was no way I could replicate a sermon or a funeral as a major scene in the book. So, my characters referred to such events after the fact or concentrated on other things if I showed them in attendance.

You can do this with a lot of professions where you don’t have the time or resources to portray moments with photographic accuracy. In fact, past a point, most readers don’t want your scenes to sound like they came out of a training manual.

We deal in stories and illusions, not textbooks

As always, we create our stories out of multiple sources, ideas, bits and pieces of conversation, and more ideas than we can possibly describe to a non-writer. That’s because our stories are, to some extent, smoke and mirrors in which the tale to be told and the lives of the main characters are more important than a photographic presentation of what real life would look like if if you had a 24/7 webcam. The facts are important and can’t me made up by saying, “this is fiction.” If the facts are obviously wrong, nobody will trust the parts of the book that are right.

That’s why writing what you don’t know is always a bit of a juggling act between what to say and what to imply. Our first duty is to be good storytellers, not to become a professional chef so we can write a chef story, not to then become a policeman so we can write a good crime story, and (in most cases) not to research a subject to twenty years so we can put more nuts and bolts in it than most readers even want to see.

The fact that the facts matter doesn’t mean you have to include all the facts, much less those you don’t have a clue about. We’re illusionists on stage, so to speak, not Gandalf and Harry Potter using real magic in front of an audience.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” (magical realism) and “Sarabande” (contemporary fantasy), both of which are available on Noon and Kindle and in paperback.


American Memory – A great place for research

americanmemoryI discovered the value of The American Memory database maintained by the Library of Congress back in the 1990s when my wife and I were restoring a Pullman rail car used by President Harding.

If you’re writing fiction or nonfiction that touches on the past, this site has multiple sections filled with photographs, original documents, advertising, oral histories, and literature that will often facilitate your understanding of an era.

Mission Statement

American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.

When I was in high school, I would often get distracted when looking things up in dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference books by entries that I had nothing to do with the term paper had been assigned to write. The same thing happens to me now when I search for things on American Memory. I may not always find the exact thing I want, but if I’m not careful, I can easily spend an afternoon reading other stuff. When I was working on the rail car project, I was interested in railroading music.

Be careful: if you start looking at the wild and crazy covers of old sheet music, you can be trapped just as surely as if you’d stepped in a faerie ring.

Hoyt’s Cologne

Advertising Ephemera Collection - Database #A0160  Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project  John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History  Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Advertising Ephemera Collection – Database #A0160
Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project
John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Hoyt’s cologne is an old style toilet water that used to be very popular. Oddly, you can still buy it now, though its aroma probably isn’t going to work well in most circles. I searched on American Memory for it because I was working on a novella about a conjure woman and discovered that a lot of people thought the cologne brought them good luck.

I’m a big fan of old advertising. I love the fact that, by today’s standards and sensibilities, ads like the one shown here seem pretty much over the top. Needless to say, this and other references to Hoyt’s Cologne on American Memory–as well as other sites–gave me enough information to mention the cologne in my story.

Sometimes you’ll need to be creative with your searches because, for reasons I don’t know, things that I know are out there don’t always show up when I enter the most logical search words. So, be creative if you don’t find what you’re looking for there on your first trip. Those who manage the site are very helpful, especially when you need copies and re-print permissions or even if you find a photo of a place you know well that has the wrong label on it.

Yes, Wikipedia is tempting and a lot of museums, historical societies, libraries and state and local agencies are putting more facts and photographs on line these days. The writer’s researching job is becoming easier, but nothing beats original sources whether they’re experts, project managers or the documents and pictures you can find in the Library of Congress’ collection.




A writer’s research: an everyday scrap

honestscrapEver since I took an advertising course in college, I have been intrigued by vintage ads, posters, signs and packaging. You’ll see a lot of these for sale on eBay and at other online auction houses. You’ll see a few in Cracker Barrel restaurants and old-style general stores.

This week, while working on a novella set in Florida many years ago, I decided that my female protagonist needed to chew tobacco–not dip it as is more common today, but chew it.

Talk about changing times: I was in a volunteer group in the 1960s that took a tour of a Dutch cigarette factory. Mostly, we viewed the automated process through glass windows. Near the end of a tour, there was a large bin of tobacco leaves used in the company’s chewing tobacco. We were all invited to grab up a chaw and try it. Naturally, we did.

As we worried the thing around in our mouths, the tour moved on. Later, I wondered if the tour guides watched for our reaction. Today, I suppose, there would be hidden cameras and hapless tour group videos would appear on YouTube. The problem? There was absolutely no place to spit out the juice, much less discard the messy wad of leaves. The place was pristine, so spitting on the carpet wasn’t an option. Most of us finally spat the mess out in our mouths and carried it until we finally reached a trash can.

Ihonestscrap2n spite of that experience, I want my lady to chew. So, I started looking for vintage brands of chewing tobacco that would have been around when the story is set. Odd, there are videos and print descriptions on line that explain how to chew, but for all the information out there on there Internet, there appear to be no sites that say what years the various brands of chewing tobacco were sold.

I’ve always suspected the movie industry has a giant database of this kind of stuff, because their sets often have products and signs purportedly suitable to the years in which the films are set. At any rate, my love of old signs drew me to a vintage advertising poster for the brand named “Honest Scrap,” scrap being one of the terms used to described leaves intended for chewing. In fact, it often was scrap left over from making cigarettes and cigars.

The slogan “an every day scrap” fits my character’s vocation and point of view. So, I couldn’t resist the brand. It also provides the kind of ambiance in the story that comes from historical detail whether it’s slang, clothing styles, product names, places, books published, and newspaper names that an author can wrap up into his plots and descriptions.

The novella won’t be ready for awhile, but when it is, I hope you’ll like my tobacco chewing lady.


coracoverMy Kindle short stories set in Florida include “The Land Between the Rivers,” “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Cora’s Crossing” and “Emily’s Stories.”

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