Yep. It takes courage to research. I’ll admit, some of it is so much fun and so interesting that I can disappear for hours into the research hole. I’ve come out feeling dazed and excited at the same time. Learning new stuff is exhilarating.
But then there’s the other kind of research that can strike fear in our hearts or make us squirm and wonder, “Can this be true?” This kind of research usually involves personal participation of the third kind…contact with something I may dread—like flying in a small plane when I fear flying in anything, braiding a horse’s mane and tail when the horse acts like it would like to kick my lights out, or maybe digging into the darkness and reality of casting spells and discovering there are truly people who worship Satan and are willing to do unspeakable things to children and animals.
I discovered this scary side of research years ago when I wrote my first novel which, by the way, has never seen the light of day. The story involved horses and took place in the southern United States prior to the American Revolution (and that was the fun part of the research). I knew zip about horses except for that one horse ride back when I lived in Omaha, Nebraska. The horse spent most of its time in the alfalfa field and then, upon seeing the barn as we were returning, took off at a full run straight into the barn almost taking my head off in the process. Maybe I should have taken some riding lessons before I went with my friends on that excursion. Anyway, it left me with a fear of riding any more of those big critters. I still can’t figure out why they do what people want them to do when they’re way bigger than us. Needless to say, writing about something you only know about in a negative experience requires a new experience and some dang courage.
(This is not a picture of me, by the way. I didn't look this good on a horse)
So, when a friend of mine from CCU told me she had a daughter who competed in hunt seat riding and asked me to go along, well hey, I was all in. I agreed to braid that horse’s mane and tail even though I was in a cold sweat doing it. She taught me so much during those competitions like the different bits used for different purposes, feeding and caring for horses, and that horses remember people who do them harm and might even take revenge. Yikes!
Sometimes the things we fear the most are the things we wish we could do. As much as I am afraid of heights and terrified to fly, I always thought how neat it would be to deliver medical care as a bush pilot in Alaska. See what I mean? There’s no way I would ever do that unless I was crazy drunk…but one of my characters might. In the first book of the Legends of Winatuke trilogy, Dark Isle, I created a character who flew planes—like for fun. Hawk, the only shifter I ever wrote, was a detective for the Wilmington, North Carolina police department whose daily encounters with death and the dark side of life was beginning to eat at his spirit. He flew to get his happy place.
Well, if I was going to have a character who flew planes, I was going to have to know something about flying so I kept bugging one of the ER doctors who flew to give me details. He told me a few things, but then he said the only way I was going to be able to write a believable experience about flying, I needed to fly. He taunted me with, “Come on. You’re a writer. You can be brave for the sake of a story, can’t you?” Well, that got me. So, with extreme trepidation, I took him up on his offer and I flew. Sick with fear, I clung to the back of his seat and a hand bar by my door. He said, “If the plane did go down, do you really think hanging on to the plane will save you?” I gave that thought and concluded it might even make things worse, so I let go. One thing about taking a big risk and doing something scary is that, once I’d overcome my dread and done it, I felt this exhilarating feeling of accomplishment. I get it why some people are driven to do crazy scary things. There’s a high that follows the rush of fear and adrenaline I can only describe as wild, uncontained euphoria.
In both the Dark Isle and the third book of the trilogy, The Light of Valmora, I wrote a villain who loved chaos, bloodshed, and inflicting pain on her victims. Mahara was a witch of the dark and deadly kind who was out for revenge and a vendetta against the patriarch of the McKnight family, Raven, who had escaped her clutches years before. To enhance her character I needed to research dark magic and all that lies beneath.
It just so happened, while I was researching for this character, I went to an emergency nurses’ convention in Fayetteville, North Carolina. One of the workshops titled, “Ritualistic Child Abuse”, turned out to be about satanic cults and their use of children in their rituals. That workshop opened my eyes to an evil subculture of people who are capable of anything. The knowledge that there are professional people like doctors, lawyers, judges, and successful business men and women involved in these dark activities shook me up. I read some books on spells, the kind white witches perform—not too scary. But then I found a book about witches and witchcraft that related true stories of people who participated in the dark arts and ran into crimes against humanity and creatures so heinous, I had to stop reading it. Even the evil Mahara would not do some of these monstrous acts. I couldn’t finish that book. Not even research for a story could make me reopen that book.
When I stood browsing the bookshelves for that book about black magic, I found it near the satanic bibles. Something repelled me from even touching those bibles. Ordinarily I am a realist. I don’t believe in ghosts and such, but just standing before those bibles gave me the creeps. A man came around the shelves and pulled out one of those bibles and started thumbing through the pages. His presence gave me such an uncomfortable feeling down into my core, I had to leave.
What are some of the brave or unusual things you’ve done to research for a WIP? Have you ever entered into a dark place that made you want to run? Are you able to tell when an author has done their due diligence in researching for a story?
THE LEGENDS OF WINATUKE is available in print or ebook including Kindle or you can buy the books, DARK ISLE, LAKE OF SORROWS, and THE LIGHT OF VALMORA, may be purchased separately. Each book is a standalone, but has a common thread with the trilogy.
DARK ISLE, Book 1
The legend begins when love and evil collide.
LAKE OF SORROWS, Book 2
The legend continues with a curse, a quest and undying love.
THE LIGHT OF VALMORA, Book 3
A quest for an enchanted light...a Gypsy’s love...and a warrior’s sacrifice to save Valmora.
PENNYTOOK, a short story included in the anthology, MYTHS, LEGENDS, and MIDNIGHT KISSES, is about the wise Gypsy, Pennytook who befriends the brave crusaders on their quest against evil. He likes to party and has an unusual knowledge of magical relics and uncanny intuition about the other adventurers. In this story, he finally finds love.
Logline: Myths are supposed to be false…but some are terrifying and true.
Legends of Winatuke trilogy: (all 3 novels for 99 cents!): Buy Link
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: