Research As a Brainstorming Tool

Today Misty Beller is giving us some good tips on research, and howbeller2. it can help contemporary writers as well as historical writers.  Misty writes Christian historical romance.  She was raised on a farm in South Carolina. She lives with her husband and two daughters.

Research as a Tool for Brainstorming Plot?

 I love research. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of starting a new novel. When I begin researching, I usually have a general idea of who my main characters are, and I might know in which state the story will happen. Maybe I know a high level idea of what the plot will be (e.g. a woman escapes her fiancé who’s trying to kill her, then accepts an ad for a mail order bride). But at that point, I get started with my research. It’s amazing what wild stories you’ll turn up that really happened! Real life is such amazing fodder for the writer’s mind to run with.

Now, I know all you contemporary writers are saying, “Of course. Research is important to you because you write historicals.” Yes, research is a sure requirement for a historical fiction writer. But I’ll make the crazy claim that research can be one of the most helpful brainstorming tools for any writer.

In my current work in progress, I knew I wanted my heroine to be born in Mexico, lose her father and fiancé in a war, and travel with her deceased fiancé’s mother to Texas (kind a spin-off of the story of Ruth). While researching Mexican wars in the 1870ish time period, I stumbled upon a skirmish between the Texas Rangers and a band of irregular Mexican militia over a large herd of cattle at a Mexican ranch. Bingo! My writer’s mind took off. Because the Rangers killed her father and fiancé, my heroine will hate any kind of soldier, especially a Texas Ranger. So what happens if my hero is a Texas Ranger? And even better, what if she meets and falls in love with him before she knows he’s a Ranger? Hmmm… sounds like the makings of a great western romance!

And just think, the strongest areas of tension in the story I just outlined, came from what I discovered during my research.

So how can research help the plot of a contemporary novel?

Beller - Mountain Man coverFor starters, there’s always the historical angle. We all know the past shapes the future, and history tends to repeat itself. If you’re brainstorming a novel that has something to do with a Chicago gang, do some research on the history of gangs in the Windy City. Maybe even the mafia. Maybe you’ll discover the great-grandfather of your protagonist once killed a mafia leader and stole the family’s most prized possession. (I’m not sure what that possession might be, but I bet you’ll find something perfect in your research!) Now your protag finds that family heirloom hidden in a crack behind a kitchen cabinet, and must choose between what’s right and what’s healthy.

Another way research can help the contemporary fiction writer is by learning what happened in the past, and repackaging it in a modern setting—with a twist. Here’s an example off the top of my head. I did some quick research on the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, and learned that Buffalo Bill Cody had applied to have his Wild West Show included as part of the Fair, but was denied. So he set up his show just down the road and drew in the crowds that came for the Fair. Now in your modern-day speculative fiction, maybe your antagonist is an Olympic hopeful who narrowly missed her chance to compete in one of the horseback categories. Maybe she meets a technology nerd who has just developed a top-secret technology that can control an animal’s movements through infrared technology. They team up to take out our protagonist, who has the spot on the U.S. team the antagonist hoped to have. Wow, lots of opportunities for conflict there!

Hopefully this gives a glimpse of what possibilities research into history can yield for the future. A quick Google search can kick-start a world of creative fodder!

Now I’d love to hear from you! How have you used research to brainstorm your plot? Do you have any favorite research tactics? Please take a moment to leave a comment to share.


JIM:  We can all use help on brainstorming ideas.  Thanks, Misty.  To learn more about Misty, check out her website at:



The Wonders of China

I don’t want to make this blog a travel log.  But a number of you have asked about the trip and China.  So I will do a few posts on China, maybe on an every other week basis.  And I’ll try to keep them brief.

 First the overall look.  We spent three weeks visiting Beijing, Xi’an, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Yichang, the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges project, Chongqing, Guilin, and Hong Kong.  We flew between most stops, cutting down travel time. Between Hangzhou and Shanghai, we took a 180 mph, very smooth train.bldg -ibm

 Let’s start with Beijing.  A city of 21 million, it is modern, clean, with a lot of beautiful landscaping and amazing architecture.  We saw more imaginative architecture in Beijing that in all of the U.S.. 

 Tian’an Men Square, the largest such square in the world, is a vast open concrete area flanked by Mao’s mausoleum, the China National Museum and jim in tian'an men sqflower basketvarious government buildings.  Here are two pictures we took in the square.

 Close by is the Forbidden City, the exclusive domain of the imperial court of China for 24 emperors over a period of 500 years. Completed in 1420, it provides a wealth of magnificent  imperial architecture. great wall crowded

 And of course, The Great WallConstruction on this phenomenal structure started roughly 700 years before Christ and continued for nearly two thousand years, although it’s generally dated back to 200 B.C.  Most of what survives today was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.).  During the Cultural Revolution (late  1960s), the Chinese were encouraged to take bricks from the wall to build their houses.

 great wall - topIt is generally considered to be about 4,000 miles long. It is roughly 25 feet high and varies in width from 15 feet to 30 feet.  As many as 63 million people visit the wall in a year.  We walked part of the wall.

 One of the things that impressed us was the sense of history here. The people think of how things fit into the dynasties.  They talk about things that happened 3,000 years ago.  All in all, an impressive country, whether you like its manufacturing, its politics, or its current activities. 

 More in two weeks.  Please ask questions if you’d like, and let me know if you want more on China or if I should just stop.  Thanks.  

Jim Callan                         



An Author Needs a Teachable Spirit


This gallery contains 2 photos.

This week, I am privileged to have the multi-award winning author Lena Nelson Dooley.  Lena had sold over 800,000 of her books, spoken to groups in six states, and co-hosts a blogtalk radio show.  She and her husband live in … Continue reading

How the Book Developed


This gallery contains 2 photos.

Today, Cyndi Lord is providing a guest post on how her Amish book came about.  Before devoting full-time to writing, Cyndi had a career as an investigator and research paralegal. Cyndi lives in northeast Texas on a ranch with her … Continue reading

Murder in the First …


This gallery contains 3 photos.

Today’s guest blogger is Marja McGraw and she’s talking about mysteries. She should know, since she has worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement.  She writes two mystery series. And having read some, I’ll add my endorsement.  She’s lived … Continue reading

The Thing Writers Need


This gallery contains 2 photos.

Today, I have a guest post from Jennifer Slattery who writes soul-stirring fiction for New Hope Publishers.  Her debut novel is Beyond I Do.  She tells writers about one thing important to success. This one thing has the capacity to set … Continue reading

The Secret to a Happy Marriage


This gallery contains 2 photos.

Today, we have an important post for those not well-published.  It comes from Kimberly and Duke Pennell, the driving force behind Pen-L Publishing.  They’ll give us some advice to use before we say “I do.”   The Secret to a … Continue reading

The Key to Writing the Short Story


This gallery contains 2 photos.

 Galand Nuchols grew up on a farm in Southern Illinois before moving to Texas and attending college here.  She taught for twenty-two years, ranging from second grade to high school. When she retired, she began writing.  What a great move that … Continue reading

What’s the Deal with Back Story?


This gallery contains 2 photos.

While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, Ane Mulligan has worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that’s a fancy name for a lobbyist), drama director, playwright, humor columnist, and novelist. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora … Continue reading