Posts tagged with: research

Origins of Christmas Traditions

Pine trees are being strapped to vehicles. Giant sized socks are being hung in the living room. Blue, white, and multi-colored lights are flashing all over the place. I’m forcing my kids to smile with threats of no electronic gifts to get a decent photo. An overweight man in his 60’s has sent elves to spy on my ten-year-old.

If an alien race was to observe us right now, they’d be totally confused, decide the depleted ozone must cause brain damage, and move on to conquer other worlds. Thus, leaving us to enjoy another fantastically, peppermint-sticky, tinsel-encrusted holiday season.

Where did these well known traditions start? 

There were many pagan celebrations centering around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (December 21st). Christmas was originally called the Feast of the Nativity. It was originally thought that Jesus was born in the spring. However, in 350 AD Pope Julius I chose December 25th in an effort to absorb the traditions of the pagan Satumalia festival, a hedonistic festival lasting a full month when food and drink was plentiful and Roman social order was reversed (slaves became masters and peasants were in command of the city). Christmas was celebrated in England starting in the 6th century.

In the middle ages, a Lord of Misrule was elected to rule over the Christmas festivities. Quite the jester, if people did not follow his proclamations they often were terrorized with mischief. In Scotland, this character was called the Abbott of Unreason. In France he was called the Prince des Sots.

When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they cancelled Christmas. Charles II, the Merry Monarch, reinstituted the popular holiday when he was restored to the English throne. However, in Scotland, even though the ban on Christmas was lifted, people did not observe it since the strongly Protestant nation felt it was a Catholic holiday. Scottish people did not start celebrating Christmas, with a day off work, until 1958! That’s 400 years of little or no Christmas.

The pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, so they didn’t bring the holiday to America. In fact from 1659 – 1681 Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings! Talk about Bah Humbug! It wasn’t until June 26, 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States.

Christmas Trees:

Evergreens have been a symbol of health and renewing life for thousands of years. Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when they would bring evergreen trees into their homes. Some built wooden pyramids and decorated them with evergreen branches. Martin Luther, the 16th c. reformer first put lit candles on his tree to recapture a beautiful starlit night sky he saw through the branches of evergreens.

The first record of a Christmas tree on display in America was in 1747 by German immigrants, but many saw it as a pagan symbol. It wasn’t accepted by most Americans until after the 1840’s.  In the 1890’s tree decorating was on the rise in America. In Europe, celebrators kept their trees small (about 4 ft high) while Americans liked their trees to stretch from floor to ceiling. In the early 20th century Americans decorated their trees with homemade ornaments. With electricity came Christmas tree lights, making the trees a popular decoration about towns.

The huge Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City started off as a small, unadorned tree placed by construction workers in 1931 at the center of the construction site. Two years later another tree was placed there with lights. These days the giant Rockefeller Center tree is a well known symbol of the holidays and holds over 25,000 lights.


The idea of the Christmas stocking came to America from the Dutch. In Holland, the children kept their clogs near the hearth, filled with straw for the reindeer. They also left a treat for Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) near the fireplace. In return for the treats, Sinterklaas left some gifts for the children.


St. Nicholas, a monk born around 280 AD in modern-day Turkey, is credited with being the origin of the familiar jolly elf. He was admired for his piety and kindness, and thousands of tales of his charitable work with the poor and sick abounded. He became known as the protector saint of children and sailors.

St. Nick became popular in America towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, a New York newspaper reported that Dutch families were honoring the anniversary of the saint’s death (Dec. 6th). The name Santa Claus evolved from Sinter Klaas, which was shortened from Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for St. Nicholas).

In the early 1800’s, Santa Claus was described as everything from a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and Flemish trunk hose. It was Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, who in 1822 wrote the long poem ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas for his three daughters. It was originally titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” and is still read today.

In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on the poem to create the modern Santa image. He gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with fur, the North Pole workshop, the elves, and his darling Mrs. Claus.

These are just a few of the Christmas traditions we know today. It’s fun to dig into history to see how the customs we’ve lived with our whole lives began. For an author of historical fiction, I also make certain that I don’t force my characters to follow anything outside their historical customs. No, Mr. Darcy, you may not dress like Santa Claus in a bright red suit to hand out gifts to poor orphans to win the heart of Elizabeth Bennet.

Luckily, my Christmastide Highlander romance takes place in the 1520’s, before Christmas was banned. In THE ROGUE OF ISLAY ISLE, my characters bring in a yule log (originally it was a whole tree, burned over the twelve days of Christmastide) and the Abbott of Unreason.

I’m sure some of you have special holiday traditions. What does your family do to make the season bright?

Getting to Know Your Characters Through Audio

I’ve been an avid reader ever since I learned to decode strings of printed letters into words, but it’s only now that I have a smartphone that I’ve really gotten into audiobooks and podcasts. I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of listening to fiction—it takes me way longer to listen to a book than to read it, and once I’m into the story I want to load it into my brain as quickly as possible.
Close-up of a microphone
But I love using audiobooks to research my characters.

When I started writing Marriage: Impossible, which featured a Navy SEAL hero, I was lost. I didn’t have any close friends or family in the military, and I certainly didn’t have any firsthand experience. How was I going to get far enough into my hero’s head that his dialog and internal thoughts would sound like those of a Navy SEAL? I started watching documentaries and reading blog posts.

But audiobooks were what really helped me. To get to know my hero, I listened to all kinds of audiobooks, from autobiographies of Navy SEALS to journalists’ accounts of modern warfare. If I was working out, cooking dinner, or doing laundry, I was also listening to my latest audiobook.

Immersing myself in my hero’s world on a daily basis flipped a switch in my brain, so that the mindset and word choices I had been struggling with began to flow. Finally, my hero sounded like a Navy SEAL.

I also discovered self-publishing podcasts. My current favorites are The Creative Penn, featuring an eclectic selection of guest interviews, covering everything from using dictation to increase your daily word count to Facebook ads. Joanna is such a great interviewer that I tend to come away with useful information whatever the topic. For a more marketing-focused podcast, I also love the Self-Publishing Formula.

What about you? Do you listen to audiobooks or podcasts for fun or research? What are your favorites?

Creating Realistic Settings with guest Monica McCabe

Today on the blog, I’ve invited a special guest. A friend of mine who not only loves adventure, but *loves* writing about it in faraway places! I recently read her debut book, DIAMOND LEGACY, and not only did I thoroughly enjoy the romantic suspense and adventure, but I got swept away in her locations! So, I invited her to share with us how she manages to write so believably in places she’s never visited.

Take it away Monica…

Ever have a yearning to write a book set in a distant land? I do, all the time. I’m currently working on a Jewel Romance series for Kensington’s Lyrical Press and the one thing they all have in common, besides the jewel thing, is that each book is set in an exotic locale. A faraway place that I’ve never been. Yet reviews coming in on book #1, Diamond Legacy, consistently remark on the vivid scenery, sensory detail, and the way story location takes on a life of its own. The question is – how can I set a book in Botswana, Africa if I’ve never prowled the savannah or drifted the waters of Okavango Delta?

The answer may be easier than you’d think. Three words – global satellite imagery. It’s one of the best things to come down the pipe for us writer types. From the comfort of our recliners we can zoom in and spy on virtually any place on the planet. You can measure distance, determine the geographical lay of the land, scope out cities, find street names in Paris, New York, or Istanbul. Get directions, note landmarks, this is nearly the next best thing to traveling there yourself.

worldMy favorite site is Google Earth because it’s user friendly, has 3D capability, street views, and historical data. How cool is that? But it’s not alone in the market. Here’s a sampling of some sites I’ve used. 

But the research has just begun. There’s much more needed to give your location an intimacy that feels genuine. One important factor is weather. For example, our winter is Australia’s summer. That’s an important piece of Intel for me, because one of my jewel  books is set in Cape Tribulation, the heart of Aussie’s northern territory. But what about my current release, Diamond Legacy? What if I’ve painted a beautiful sunny day in Botswana, Africa, but my timeline has the characters there during monsoon season?

I’m in luck, because there are sites that offer atmospheric data, weather patterns, average temperatures, ocean currents, even shipping lanes.

Research: Unexpected Consequences

One of the things I love the most about writing medical romances is the research. I’m a sucker for all of those not-so-common ailments and spend far more time than I should perusing medical sites and my trusty Physicians’ Desk Reference.

Tina and Dolly--stuck inside on a rainy day

Tina and Dolly–stuck inside on a rainy day

There are a couple of problems with research, though. One is that I’m not squeamish. At all. And my filter for knowing what others might find icky seems to let all kinds of things slip through. I have a friend who just had surgery on her foot. She has a long line of stitches on the side of her big toe, another line on the bottom of her foot (where a neuroma was removed) and more stitches on three of her smaller toes. Well, she posted pictures of the stitches on Facebook. I studied them, commenting about how good they looked–not much redness or puffiness–and only realized later that other people were writing things like “Ack!!” “Frankenstein’s foot!” and other similar comments. Yep. No ick filter.

There’s another side of research, though, that involves the heart and not the mind. About a year and a half ago, I began writing a story about a hippotherapist (a therapist who uses horses to treat cognitive and physical challenges).

I’ve been around horses for many years and have always loved them. In fact, several of my books have horses mentioned in them. But a strange thing happened as I was researching this newest book. It engaged something deep inside of me. So when I went with my husband to his (mumble mumble) high school reunion a couple of months ago, we were chatting with one of his friends, and hubby mentioned my love of horses. The friend stopped in her tracks. “You know horses?” It turned out she works at a nearby equine therapy stable, and they desperately needed volunteers–as in they might have to cancel one of their classes, if they couldn’t find a few more people to help out. Coincidence, anyone? It was the perfect storm–in the best sense of the term. I jumped at the opportunity! So now I’m a side-walker for a precious little girl who stares longingly at the horses as they’re led into the arena. An expression of love that I recognize from my own childhood days.

Research. Sometimes it has unexpected consequences–of the best possible kind.

Have you ever read (or written) a book where the subject matter touched you deeply or made you want to get involved in some way? I’d love to hear about it! Oh, and here’s the cover of the book that started my journey:Tina_Girl

It’s Hot in Here: Researching Fire Fighters

Minden fireman Tony Hall demonstrates how to wear the equipment

Minden fireman Tony Hall demonstrates how to wear the equipment

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s July already…and I can’t believe I’m facing the start of another book. My fifteenth Superromance. Yeah. Crazy.

So I pretty much thought by this point, I’d run out of ideas. It’s been a constant worry – what if the story ideas just stop? But, like most of you, something triggers an idea and BAM! I’m off and running with a new story. So when this particular one came to me, I knew where I would start, I knew what kind of heroine I was dealing with, and because my hero Jake is in other books, I knew the charming, devil-may-care firefighter hid dark secrets and a tragic past. What I didn’t know was anything about being a firefighter.

Kinda a big problem.

You see, both Eva and Jake are firefighters which means much of the action will take place on scene of fires and at the fire house. Much of their conversation will revolve around their fellow firefighters. Heck, they’ll be sharing a shower in the firehouse. So I sorta had to know what being a firefighter was all about.

Clueless, I took to Facebook to ask for some recommendations. And as you suspect, I got lots of help. Seems everyone knows a firefighter. Cha-ching!

So that got me to thinking about how writers do research about things they have no clue about. So, I’m here to share my experience in working with experts because I’m fresh off of being a good researcher after my field trip to a local fire station yesterday.

First, think about what you will need to know. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge just the amount of information you’ll need. Do you need to have the ear of an expert in the field? Or is it something you can easily look up on the internet? In other words, how integral is the research? There have been books where I needed a small fact which was readily available with the click of a mouse. For example, when I wrote chef Rayne Rose in A Taste of Texas, I scanned an article on the latest trend in culinary arts, chose one and after a few clicks found a few recipes that sounded perfect for her. At that point I knew could toss in dialogue about making a reduction or chopping cilantro she’d grown in the herb garden and it would read as authentic without my having to contact a chef and grill him or her (punny, huh?)  But this wasn’t the case when I wrote a college football coach. In Under the Autumn Sky, the plot centered around recruiting violations and watching Friday Night Lights, while helpful in a lot of ways, wasn’t going to teach me about recruiting schedules, NCAA sanctions or scouting reports. I needed someone who could tell me exactly what recruiting highly rated high school players was all about.  So assessing how important your research is to the plot is the first thing you need to do.

Next, determine the best expert source. This can be hard, too. In the case of my current wip, I knew I needed to talk to a firefighter. But not just any firefighter. I needed one from a small town roughly the size of my fictional Magnolia Bend and I needed one who had been on the job for at least a decade. Finding this fireman wasn’t hard to do. I grew up next door to him. But when I wrote about sugarcane farming in The Sweetest September, I didn’t have that luxury. I live in North Louisiana. We don’t grow sugarcane here which meant I had to find an expert willing to talk to me about harvest, crop rotation, pesticides who didn’t live right around the corner. Or when I wanted to learn about whooping cranes. Not so easy since their habitat is not my area. So often you will have to do some digging to find the best source and expert. Luckily, we live in a time of social media, so a nicely-worded plea will often reveal a friend who knows an uncle or a cousin who works with someone who knows exactly what you need to know. There are days I truly bless the wonder of FB and Twitter (and Google!) in finding what I need.

Next, make contact with the expert. A polite, professional email usually does the trick in establishing first contact with an expert. And strangely enough, people are willing to help in most cases. Why? People love to talk about what they do. Truly. Well, pretty much. I’ve met with detectives, football coaches (this is the research trip my husband actually went on!), doctors, attorneys, bankers and now a fireman. I’ve had phone interviews with the head of the sugarcane league, a Mardi Gras float builder, and a surgeon. I’ve exchanged emails with wildlife biologists, police officers and secret service. It amazes me how considerate and enthusiastic people can be about meeting with a writer.

Next, be prepared. Go into the interview with prepared questions. Bring a notepad to jot down incidental notes, and take your camera to capture pictures. Have your business card ready and behave in a professional manner. If the expert relays that he or she only has a certain amount of time, respect that time, and always ask for permission for any sensitive information. Leave your contact information and ask for further contact information from the expert…or other experts who might aid you. If you are doing the interview via telephone or email, make sure the expert is agreeable to further follow up questions.

Finally, thank the expert. You can do this in a variety of ways. I brought cookies (cause what firefighter doesn’t want a plate of cookies to snack on during the domino game on their shift?) But a lovely thank you note works well, too. And if you want to mention on your dedication page the help you received from your expert, that’s a really lasting way to show your appreciation for the help you had on the research.

So there you have it. It’s a bit common-sense, but it’s always good to  be reminded. Haphazard research can lead to frustration during edits…or really nasty reader letters. You can have a great plot, great characters, a high concept and strong marketability, but if your research is dodgy, you’ll have regrets. So the next time you’re starting a new book, take the time to do proper research…and don’t be afraid to tap an expert on the shoulder and ask for help.

Oh, and so you know, my upcoming August book The Sweetest September includes research from experts in banking, law and sugarcane farming, and my November anthology Cowboys for Christmas includes research on women’s volleyball and being a large animal vet. I’m pretty sure I can deliver a breech foal now. So tell me what is the most interesting research you’ve done? What experts have you contacted or met with? I’d love to know.


Pipe Dreams, TV, and Random Research

002A writer looking out the window is a writer at work.  A writer sitting on a bench eavesdropping on a conversation is a writer at work.  Even a writer crammed into a tiny, cluttered space searching the internet while a cat wiggles his way into more and more of her chair is a writer at work—as you can see.  The list of things writers do that others see as wasting time or daydreaming is endless.

However, sometimes, even for writers, daydreaming is just daydreaming.

This is a healthy thing.  It’s a broom that sweeps all the cobwebs and mind-clutter away, opening the space, banishing the musty, and letting in new and fresh possibilities. It’s also a time for the great What if and to ponder the Why of whatever strikes your fancy.

It was in this state I started watching this season of Dancing with the Stars.

Free-for-All Friday: What are you researching?

Thriller writer Chelsea Cain recently tweeted:

ChelseaCain Tweet


I see I’m not the only writer who has these concerns, especially given recent revelations about government data collection. Um…NSA? FBI? DoJ? LMNOP? You know that very specific research I did recently, with the body decomposition rates in a very specific geographic area under very specific weather conditions?

It was research. Really. Kthxbai.

Every story, regardless of its historical era and no matter how reality-based or speculative the world, requires research to maximize the story’s authenticity. My recent research forays have included hematology, twerking, theoretical physics, burner phones, the House of Draculesti, Tasers, and Justin Bieber’s latest unfortunate tattoo.

Any government agency trying to build a digital profile of any author is going to have a mighty hard time. 😉

What are you researching right now? Please share some of the weird, unexpected, notable, or interesting areas you’ve researched for a recent writing project. Did you learn anything that surprised you?


GIVEAWAYS! Today, Ruby Sister Hope Ramsay and I are two of the featured authors at Dear Author‘s August Giveaway Extravaganza, celebrating romance readers for the entire month! Pop on over to have a chance to win our books.

Psssst! You don’t have to go to Dear Author to learn that my self-published Underbelly Chronicles e-novella, TOUCH ME, is free at Amazon Aug. 9-11! Grab one, fast! 😉 And if you’re so inclined, I’d appreciate your honest review!



Hidden Gold

I attended high school in the days when we had to go to a bricks-and-mortar library to write a research paper.  I had to read books, scour through the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature, and ask questions of the experts–if I could figure out where to find them.

Fast-forward a decade (or three). I write historical fiction, which takes tons of research.  Fortunately, I don’t have to leave my bricks-and-mortar home to discover what I need to know. Reference books are now just a click away.  Search engines scour content for me. And the experts can be anywhere in the world.

Along the way, I’ve found some amazing online resources. In the spirit of giving, I have a gift for you: websites with free stuff.

Don’t Let Your Savvy Reader Down

Romantic suspense readers are savvy.  They know their stuff.

Some RS readers enjoy reading stories set on foreign soils. The unfamiliarity of the setting might add to the reader’s intrigue. Or, this reader feels more comfortable knowing the danger the characters face is far away from their safe world. Others, on the other hand, might get an extra charge knowing the dangerous world unfolding between the pages could be set in their own neighborhood. These are the readers that sleep with their lights on and double check their locks. You the author must decide what is the best location for your novel, and know stuff.

What stuff?  Well, besides general setting, which is a no-brainer, and since we’re discussing romantic suspense, you need to know what law enforcement agencies are found in the region you’re using, and, very important, which agencies would be involved in your case at the particular time frame of your plot.  Nothing is more annoying to a savvy RS reader than the author using the wrong agency.

Has it happen?  Yes. It did for me and I promptly returned the author’s work.

Did you know…

…most cases are initially handed at a local level. Under certain circumstances state or federal agencies are involved. There are many partnership tasks forces in place. That is not saying the state and federal resources and data banks are unavailable to the local agents. Those data banks are always available. Always check state and local procedures to involve federal agents.

…the CIA and FBI are both members of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The CIA, however, is not a law enforcement organization. Its function is to collect information only regarding foreign countries and their citizens and analyzes the information vital to the formation of U.S. policy, particularly areas that impact USA national security. It is said, that the CIA is prohibited from collecting information regarding “U.S. Persons,” (U.S. citizens, resident aliens, legal immigrants, and U.S. corporations, regardless of where they are located.)

…The FBI is a primary law enforcement agency for the U.S. government, charged with enforcement of more than 200 categories of federal laws. The FBI task forces have proven to be a highly effective way for the FBI and federal, state, and local law enforcement to join together to address what are called concurrent jurisdiction cases, where a crime may violate local, state, and federal laws all at the same time. Task forces typically focus on terrorism, organized crime, narcotics, gangs, bank robberies, kidnapping, and motor vehicle theft.  To learn more about what the FBI investigates visit;

…Single-mission agencies such as DEA which is in charged with enforcing drug law and the ATF, which enforces federal firearms statutes and investigates arsons and bombings works closely with the FBI on cases where jurisdictions overlap.

…US Marshals Service (USMS) is the nation’s oldest and most multi-talented federal law enforcement agency. The Marshals occupy a uniquely central position in the federal justice system. Its mission is to protect, defend, and enforce the American justice system. It is the enforcement arm of the federal courts, and as such, it is involved in virtually every federal law enforcement initiative. The U.S. Marshals Service has been designated by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as the primary federal agency for apprehending fugitives that are wanted by foreign nations and believed to be in the United States. Additionally, the Marshals Service is the primary federal agency responsible for tracking and extraditing fugitives who are apprehended in foreign countries and wanted for prosecution in the United States.

…there were five branches of the armed services. Yes, five.  Marines, Navy, Air Force, Army and the Coast Guard. The United States Coast Guard is the one branch of the armed services that does not trace its chain of command through the Department of Defense. It falls under the Department of Homeland Security and as such it is responsible for protecting our shores and inland waterways.  As we all know, the Coast Guard does so much more.

When I brainstormed the plot for my most recent RS release, SEIZED BY DARKNESS, I knew three things. One, I wanted the story to be set in my backyard, northeast USA.  Yup, I’m a making-sure-my-doors-are-locked-and-gun-loaded kidda of girl. Two, the story was going to be about a kidnapping victim reclaiming her life, which meant the FBI probably had been involved in the case but since years had passed my heroine’s case was probably buried under thousands of others. Finally, I wanted the hero to be a part of an elite division of a U.S. agency. But which agency?

Since I was planning a series revolving around a top task force, I needed an agency that is constantly involved in a wide array of cases and the setting could be anywhere in the world. After some research, which led me to the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act of 2006, the decision was a no-brainer for me. I went with the US Marshals and my C.U.F.F. team came to life.

As a result of the Adam Walsh enactment, the USMS established the Sex Offender Investigative Branch (SOIB) in August 2006.  The USMS is the lead law enforcement agency responsible for investigating sex offender registration violations under the Act.  This information and more took my story on a different path—a more emotional one.

So far I’ve referred to USA law bureaus, but if you’re writing a foreign setting you’ll need to know the appropriate law enforcement agents there.  A simple search, as I posted below, can start you on your way to learning facts that will set your novel apart from others and ensure accuracy.

Did you know…

… it is the French DST, “Département de la Sûreté/SécuritéTerritoriale” (Department of Territorial Safety/Security), commonly referred to as la Sûreté that is equivalent to the American FBI.

…the equivalent to the CIA in China is guó ān bù 国安部. Qíng bào bù 情报部 is military intelligence.

…In Britain SOCA (serious organized crime agency) are the UK FBI equivalent. MI5/ 6 are the equivalent of the CIA. (Enter James Bond.)

Once you know the agency, you can gather details about the organization and their agents that will enhance your story and bring your characters to life. Taking the time to research will earn you the respect of serious RS readers.

It’s All About the Story

Though I’ve lived in California all my life, up until February, I hadn’t been to Disneyland in seventeen years.  Seventeen years without Space Mountain.  Without Pirates of the Caribbean.  Without those strangely delicious corn dogs.  So when my husband asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, I had my answer ready.

Next Page »

The Latest Comments

  • Autumn Jordon: You’re very welcome. I learned a lot.
  • Bev Pettersen: Such a helpful post, Thanks Autumn. And also thanks to Vivi, Rae and Judy!
  • Autumn Jordon: Everyone of these cover designers is so talented. I wish I had their eye for detail.
  • Autumn Jordon: I totally agree, Kate. I think it takes a certain eye to make an awesome cover.
  • Autumn Jordon: They did a amazing job answering my questions, didn’t they. I also learned a lot.