Melanie Dobson

A former corporate publicity manager at Focus on the Family, Melanie Dobson has worked in journalism and publicity for more than fifteen years. She is the author of six contemporary and historical novels including Together for Good; The Black Cloister (winner of the Gold Medal in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards); Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana; and Refuge on Crescent Hill. Melanie lives in Oregon with her husband, Jon, and their two daughters, Karly and Kinzel.

Write What You Don’t Know

Researching with Purpose and Passion

Friends often ask what I enjoy most about writing. I explain that my favorite part of “writing” isn’t the actual writing. Its the research. I love exploring houses and museums, tracking down names and places, and turning the crisp pages of a diary written more than a hundred years ago as I gather information to shape a story. Over the past decade, I’ve discovered it’s honing the descriptions and unusual facts that add authenticity to both historical and contemporary novels.

Writers are often told to “write what you know,” and while I include small portions of what I already know in my novels, I really don’t know that much—at least not enough to sustain a career in novel writing. But I do enjoy learning new things, so when I begin writing a novel, I slowly put together the pieces of my story puzzle by visiting the location, interviewing experts, exploring museums and landmarks, invading the library, and surfing the Web.

Visit the Location
Last year I spent days exploring hidden places in homes near Liberty, Indiana, that had once been stations along the Underground Railroad. I drove through the surrounding forest at night, and when I stepped out into the darkness, owls hooted and cloud cover masked the stars. My heart raced, and I felt terribly alone—a glimpse of what a runaway slave might have felt in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs.

In one house, I climbed the secret staircase hidden in a closet and crept over the exposed nails and boards to the room where the Quaker homeowners once hid runaways. The winter air chilled my bones in that cramped attic room, but even as I shivered, I sensed more determination than fear. The runaway slaves were determined to find freedom.

Not only does visiting a location allow you to appreciate what your characters might experience, it provides the opportunity to smell the scents they might have smelled and even taste what they could have tasted. For some reason, my characters have the urge to drink a lot of local coffee and taste the pastries, so as a writer, I feel compelled to follow these urgings as I travel.

If you can’t visit the place or places where your book is set, the terrain and photo features on Google Maps and Google Earth help tremendously with geographical details. Unfortunately, no one has figured out yet how to taste a good cup of coffee when you click on Seattle, or smell the aromas of salt water and seafood in Cape Cod. By the time this article is published, maybe someone will have activated some sort of “sensory” option on Google Earth, but if that technology ever becomes available, I’ll still continue to travel—I believe experiencing a location firsthand gives fiction writing an authentic edge.

Interview Experts and Locals Most people love to talk about their hobbies or area of expertise. If you tell them you write fiction, they’ll probably give you much more information than you will ever need for your story. Or at least, more than you think you’ll need—an interview often changes the direction of a story.

Because I write both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed detectives and history buffs about everything from how to sell stolen goods online to the technicalities of delivering mail in the late 1800s. I’ve spent hours talking to experts about a wide range of topics, including the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and the details of rescuing a dilapidated house from being destroyed through eminent domain.

The most important interview I ever did was with an Amana woman named Emilie. I asked her a simple question—what were Amana women passionate about in the nineteenth century? The answer to that question, friendship, shaped my entire novel.

Explore Museums and Landmarks
Living farms, museums, and historical villages like Williamsburg or Old Salem offer a unique and educational window to the past. For my historical novels, I learned how to run a printing press in a tourist village, how to cook on the open hearth at an old home

in Indiana, and how to drive an Amish buggy at a museum in Walnut Creek. While landmarks and museums are open to the public, many will give private tours to writers, and their tour guides often have accumulated more information in their heads than most reference books have between their covers—and you can ask a guide direct questions for your WIP.

Invade the Library
The manor in my latest novel (Refuge on Crescent Hill) was inspired by a beautiful mansion in Ohio that was built before the Civil War. As I tried to find information about this house, the town’s librarian uncovered the mother lode—a research paper written sixty years ago that included pictures, historical detail, and folklore about a secret tunnel that ran—and maybe still runs—underneath the mansion. This one paper gave me the information I needed for the details of my fictional house and, like my interview with Emilie, helped form my plot.

Newspapers, magazines, diaries, archived research papers, and, of course, books provide basics like how people dressed and what they ate during a specific era as well as more abstract concepts like how they approached life and what world events shaped their thinking. Novels set during specific time periods have been invaluable resources as well. My WIP takes place in the 1920s, so F. Scott Fitzgerald tops the reading stack beside my bed.

Surf the Web
How did writers write before the Internet? I ask myself this question almost every day as I search for a word that is on the tip of my tongue (using the reverse dictionary on or look for the year a word originated (via Merriam-Webster Online) or find information on Wikipedia and then verify it.

The most effective way I’ve used online research is to establish contacts where I can get additional information about a difficult research topic. In one novel, for example, I needed specifics on how a telephone would work in 1890 but couldn’t seem to find this information anywhere. I found someone online who sold phones from this era, and we dialogued via e-mail for a few days as he patiently answered my many questions.

As I research for a novel, I input the interviews and details into Scrivener, and once I’m finished with my work, it’s time for me to close my books and start the writing process. But please don’t ask me how to write a novel—I’m too busy researching at the moment to actually write one.


Refuge On Crescent Hill