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Eileen Dreyer: I Swear, Honey, It’s Research

Petit Fours and Hot Tamales are proud to welcome NYTimes Bestselling author Eileen Dreyer.  Eileen, known as Kathleen Korbel to her Silhouette readers, makes her first foray into historical romance with BARELY A LADY, the first of her Drake’s Rakes series for Grand Central. A member of the RWA Hall of Fame, she lives in St. Louis with her family. She has animals but refuses to expose them to the glare of the limelight.



I Swear, Honey, It’s Research

When I decided to try my hand at publishing a book, one of the most important things I had to learn was how to research. I know. Anybody who’s ever done a term paper on Algeria had to figure out how to use a library. Not so much. After all, I’m a nurse. Nurses don’t use libraries to research. We play with things (try learning how to give a shot via a book. It’s  more fun injecting vodka into oranges. And much more delicious).

My first books, I admit, stayed pretty close to home. There were a lot of nurse heroines, and they lived mostly in St. Louis. But I knew I could ride that gravy train only so long. I had to figure out how to overcome my deficit.

My first revelation came when I realized that instead of reading books (did I also mention that I have ADD? I have the largest collection of forensic research books south of the medical examiner’s office, and I haven’t made it past the first chapter in any of them), I could talk to people. People love to tell you about a)what they do or b)what their passion is. So I sat with everybody from cops to Olympic Athletes to fertility specialists and learned not only their secrets, but their lingo. Their routines. Their problems and their habits.

Great. But I couldn’t set every book in St. Louis. Which brings me to my second revelation. If I went to Hawaii, I could set a book there.

I know. You’re rolling your eyes and saying, “What a flimsy excuse.” But no. It’s not just that. All right. I admit it. If I have an addiction, it’s travel. I love discovering new places and people and foods. I yearn to wade in oceans and hike mountains and sit at streetside cafes sipping wine. And like any author, I feel compelled to share what I’ve seen and heard and tasted and smelled.  But it’s more than. It’s about giving veracity to the story.

To give you an example, my friend Elizabeth Grayson wrote a historical called Colors of the Sun that involved wet plate photography. Her descriptions still stay in my mind. Her research was (and always is) breathtaking, so detailed that you could see and hear everything. But she did all her research via phone and email. When we finally got to visit the studio of the man who had helped her, two things immediately struck me. One, that because of her book, I felt as if I’d already walked through that studio and watched the photographer develop his photos. Two, except for one thing. The minute we stepped into the room, we turned to each other and cried, “The smell!”

Because the photographer had never thought to mention it, Karyn didn’t realize that the studio reeked of the chemicals used to develop his pictures. The cloying sweetness of collodion, the astringent bite of cyanide, and, most amazing, the soft whisper of lavender, which was used to set the photo. The smell was so pervasive that it was an integral part of the character of the room.

Because of that, when I did my first suspense, I asked a homicide friend of mine to take me to his office downtown. “Why?” he asked. “I can tell you what’s there.”

“I need to smell it,” I said.

When he came back with predictable, “Huh?” I asked. “What does homicide smell like?”

He paused and shrugged. “Homicide.”

For the record, back then the St. Louis Homicide Unit smelled of coffee, cigarettes, floor wax and bad air freshener, with an underlying hint of popcorn (the preferred meal for those who keep missing lunch breaks–take it from a trauma nurse). Suddenly the place was alive for me.

I got to do the same thing for my new series of historical romances.  No, I didn’t get to Waterloo, where BARELY A LADY begins, which I will always regret. But I was able to go to England. I was able to walk every street in Mayfair and St. James, peeking in the windows of Berry Brothers  and the Burlington Arcade. I drove the Cotswolds, not only recording the gentle, sweeping hills and valleys, the lush rivers, thick whitethorn hedgerows and neon yellow fields of rapeseed, but the scent of farmyards and fresh grass, woodsmoke and bluebells (who knew they smelled like hyacinth?  (Read an excerpt of Barely a Lady here: )

I sat in the Old Bell Inn in Malmesbury and listened to the locals discuss town politics, and spent two nights in theFrampton Court Estate, a Grade I historic home where my characters might have spent a country weekend, and I interrogated everyone I met about the architecture and furniture and traditions, the people who lived there and the lives they led. I really did smell the beeswax on the gleaming wood banister and see dust motes float in the shaft of sunlight that poured through the fanlight over the doorway. And it will all end up in my series.

Now, everybody doesn’t research like this. Jeffrey Deavers has said that he only researches on the internet. Other authors I know, like my friend Karyn, can play libraries and the internet like a Steinway. But I just can’t get the marrow out of those bones. So I walk the streets of Mayfair. And, for the next book of my Drake’s Rakes series, Calcutta. I can’t wait to share those sights and smells and sounds.

What works best for you?

Leave a comment today to be entered into a random drawing for a copy of Eileen’s Barely a Lady.  Winner’s name will be posted tomorrow in the comments and on the sidebar!

Visit Eileen at her website,  or even better, read an excerpt of Barely a Lady here:

Noelle Pierce - July 21, 2010 - 12:34 am

I have a list of places I want to go to and just have to save up the money to go. One day. But until then, I have the Internet (thank goodness for Google Earth with satellite images and photos of the scenery), friends in England who are generous enough to talk to me about the sights and take pictures (and they’re all writers, too, so they understand about the smells and other sensory information). A couple of friends are actually historical experts in the Regency, so when I can’t track down information on my own, I can email them.

…but none of that is an adequate substitute for actually being there. I *will* go one day. I WILL! (I shouted so hubby would hear my determination). :-D

Great post! x♥x

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Noelle Pierce, PetitFoursHotTamales. PetitFoursHotTamales said: New blog post: Eileen Dreyer: I Swear, Honey, It's Research […]

Marilyn baron - July 21, 2010 - 3:07 am

I loved your post! You have mastered the art of description. I usually set my books in places I’ve been — Bermuda, Florida. But I also love to travel and I’ve traveled to many more places that I haven’t yet used as settings so I have to write a lot more to catch up with my travel addiction.

I once heard Nora Roberts say that she does most of her research via Internet so it really works for her because you feel like you’re there when she writes a setting.

My problem is I was born without a sense of smell, so no matter how I try to include smell in my books, I will probably never get it right. But since I don’t have a sense of smell I make up for it with another senses, an intuitive sense or what people refer to as a sixth sense.

But you’re right, talking to people is a great way to do research.

Thanks for an informative post.

Marilyn Baron

Sandra Elzie - July 21, 2010 - 6:44 am

Hi Eileen,
Very interesting post. I’ve only set books where I’ve visited, so for the most part, they’re all in the U.S. I’ve traveled to Mexico, (the ruins, not the tourist spots) and Israel, but just haven’t gotten the urge to write a romance for those areas.

I use internet, seldom the library, but I try to be careful about things like one-way streets.

I read a book once set in Sacramento, CA and the author had the hero driving out of town on “P” st. “P” St is one-way INTO town. I closed the book…never finished it.

Thanks for joining us today.


Dianna Love - July 21, 2010 - 7:35 am

Hi Eileen –
I love to “walk the land” as I call it and get a feel for the location. I loved that about how Elizabeth did such a fabulous job and found out about the smell later. Who knew. My husband is always up for going somewhere for research. He’s a good study partner when I’m out walking the land. He points out something I might have missed and I we sometimes have different impressions of an area, which gives me another to look at the same location.

So nice to see you on PHFT today.

Maxine Davis - July 21, 2010 - 9:17 am

Great post. I love reading how people do research. Sounds like you are very good at it! Me? I set a book in Italy with the hero as the “olive oil king.” I used the internet and a couple of books of people that went on an olive oil tour to get good oil. I felt like I knew more about olive trees and the olive oil business than I’d ever need! Made writing a whole lot easier. I didn’t think of the “smell” part. More research and I’ll include it! Thanks.

Tami Brothers - July 21, 2010 - 9:57 am

Great post, Eileen! I LOVE the “feel” of your words and I could really smell the scents you described. I’ve heard many times how important it is to include all the senses, but until you described the smell of the developing studio, I didn’t really “see” the problem. Although Elizabeth created a wonderful story, I can imagine how much richer it would have been with that choking sense of smell you described. I could actually feel my throat closing up. LOVE the description of the homicide unit!

Thanks for some great tips and a really neat way to look at using these senses!


Debbie Kaufman - July 21, 2010 - 10:07 am

Love the picture of Frampton. I’m bad about forgetting to include the smells of the place. My current WIP is set in a country where I’ve never been and it’s been a challenge to include smells and tastes. Thank goodness for the internet, although I’d rather write from personal experience. My next story will be set in Mobile, AL and I’ve been twice now for the research.
Thanks for being with us today, Eileen!

Susan - July 21, 2010 - 11:08 am

I have wonder lust. I love to travel.Doing research is a wonderful way to make the stories come alive. I’m in the process of gettint the IRS to understand its importance right now.Knowledge makes the story richer,stronger.Thanks for join us.

Carol Burnside - July 21, 2010 - 11:25 am

Most of my stories (so far) are either alternate worlds, or right here in the U.S. I’m lucky to have lived in 9 of those states so I have some experience to draw on, but I LIKE your excuse! My hubby is the sort that would be delighted for me to use it more frequently. ;)

Whenever I do travel, I try to remember the scents and sounds because that’s one thing that doesn’t transcend the internet.

Enjoyed your post. I love the way you describe things – even here.

Darcy Crowder - July 21, 2010 - 12:21 pm

Hi Eileen! I love this post. Thank you so much for being here today and giving us such a detailed description of your travels. I can’t wait to read your new historical to see how all those wonderful sights and smells were included.

As for me, I’m still in that write what you live stage…lots of mountains, woods, that sort of thing. I love to travel, though I don’t get to very often. Maybe it’s time to stretch my wings and take a page from your book – so to speak. :)

Eileen Dreyer - July 21, 2010 - 1:54 pm

Hi, all. My thanks to the Tamales for the invitation. They let me write about my two favorite things: writing and traveling around. It’s really neat reading how everybody else researches. That’s the fun about hanging around with writers. Each one of us does it differently, and sometimes you just haven’t hear yet what would work best for you. I’m just lucky that my friends research much like me and don’t mind standing out in a field in the middle of nowhere for an hour just listening and breathing.(much more fun than doing it in an ER. I know how those smell. Besides, stand still for ten minutes and you’d get knocked down).
AS for using the senses, I’ll tell you exactly who I learned that from. Nora Roberts. Every time I feel that I’m not really getting the meat of my writing, I pick up a Nora, and suddenly I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah. There are curtains, and in the dark they’d be that ghostly white, lifting in the breeze, and the breeze would smell like what’s outside…maybe gorse if you’re in Ireland(coconuts) or the salt of the ocean if you’re on the coast of Maine, or hops if you’re in South St. Louis where the Anheuser Busch brewery is.Of course, I’d much rather say to my husband, “Honey, I need to go to Maine.”(I already know what South St. Louis smells like)

Tamara destefano - July 21, 2010 - 4:39 pm

You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned smell. Smell works best for me in research. It’s really hard to pin down the fragrance of things even if you’ve inhaled them. It’s almost impossible if you’ve never had the chance to breathe them in at all. Like a Georgia paper mill. If you’ve never actually smelled one, you’d have a he’ll of a time describing that stench.
Yep, smell is a great feature in world building. I love to add aromas, good or bad to my books because it helps put readers there, in the moment, experiencing the same things our characters are.
Of course, the other senses are just as necessary. And, like you said, traveling to a place might be the only way we can see, taste, feel, smell and hear enough to write a truly evocative story.
Excellent post! Your descriptions here were as wonderful as they are on the pages of your stories.
Have a great evening,

Sally kilpatrick - July 21, 2010 - 7:47 pm

Eileen, wonderful post–I can’t wait to tell my husband that we need to travel for research purposes.

Oh, and you guys need to travel to Eileen’s hometown–Saint Louis rocks! If I were to describe it, though, all of my descriptions would probably revolve around food!

Eileen Dreyer - July 21, 2010 - 9:04 pm

Ooh!Ooh! Tamara, I know what a Georgia paper mill smells like. What always amazed me was how pervasive it was(my husband used to sell machines to them).
Sally. Thank you for the plug for St. Louis. I think it’s the greatest undiscovered gem in the US.

Anna Doll - July 21, 2010 - 9:36 pm


Great post. I love to travel and always try to use what I learn from it. And I agree with you and Tamara…you’ve got to smell it!

Am looking forward to reading Barely a Lady…historicals are my favorite subgenre to read!


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