Alison Hart on Research (the Key to Great Writing)

Emma's RiverWhirlwind

Alison Hart is one of those gifted, accomplished, yet unassuming authors.  I mean, over SIXTY books?!   And they’re ALL GOOD!  I remember writing book reviews a couple of years ago and, sometimes, the batch you receive is not so wonderful.  I picked up GABRIEL’S TRIUMPH and was riveted!  I ignored my family.

“What’s for dinner, Mom?”


“Who’s taking me to practice?”


“I got an F on my math test.”

“That’s nice.”

I think only, “I found your secret chocolate stash” would’ve gotten my attention, and I’m not entirely sure of that, either.

From the American Girl series to police books (my son’s favorites) to horse sagas, there’s a range for all kids.  Now, Alison has come out with another book, EMMA’S RIVER.  If you’re a librarian or teacher, you probably already have some of Alison’s books and know to buy more.  If you’re a parent who doesn’t, I highly recommend that you buy one for your child.  He or she will thank you.  And you’ll be rightfully pleased with yourself.  Unless, of course, you’re trying to get your kids to do something and the only reaction you get is, “Mmm-hmm,” “uh-huh,” “that’s nice.”

Check out Alison’s website ( and read on to find out why Alison’s books are so captivating!

Research: The Key to Great Writing

When writers begin the journey of writing to publish, they often rely on their own experiences. The idea for my first story, published in Highlights in 1984 about a lost pony, came from one of my third grade students. My first complete novel (unsold) was based on a horse-riding accident when I was sixteen.  In my first mystery Shadow Horse, my experiences as an advocate for foster kids helped shape my story. However, since I am neither a world traveler nor a famous equestrienne, my life as inspiration quickly came to an end.

Fortunately, I discovered the wonder of research. Whether an author writes contemporary or historical works, research is the key to creating setting, characters and plot that ‘sing’ to agents, editors and readers.

Historical fiction obviously requires research. Steamboats of the Western River, a detailed history, gave me the plot for my newest book, Emma’s River (Peachtree Publishers).  I read true tales of steamboats exploding, sinking, catching fire, and running aground. Who knew? I also read journals and diaries such as Ham, Eggs and Corn Cakes: A Nebraska Territory Diary (Bison Books) for observations, details and language that are often absent from history texts. A tour on the steamboat Louisville Belle helped flesh out my setting and focus the plot, and soon Emma, Patrick, Twist, Mama, and Doctor Burton boarded The Sally May for a suspense-filled journey on the Missouri:

“Haul it, yer slimy frogs!” The first mate struck right and left with his stick, taking out his anger on the deckhands. They heaved the gangplank onto the bow. Steam rose from the chimneys with a piercing hiss. The paddlewheels turned with a thunk, thunk.

Goosebumps prickled up Emma’s arms as The Sally May backed from the St. Louise wharf. The mighty Missouri was taking her, Mama, and Twist to Papa, the West and adventure!

Contemporary novels also need research to make them stand out. In Shadow Horse and its upcoming sequel Whirlwind (Random House 2010), I used my own experiences with foster kids and the court system to write about Jas and her situation. But I also interviewed a case manager, a social worker, a lawyer and a probation officer. To create a realistic setting, I visited a rescue farm for horses, taking photos and asking questions. Did all my research pay off? Based on one young reader’s review, it did: “I was able to see the story the whole time I was reading it. It seemed so real and live, like I was there the whole time.”  For me that’s the highest praise.


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8 responses to “Alison Hart on Research (the Key to Great Writing)

  1. Thanks for introducing me to Alison! And Alison I’m with you on the research! So much fun.

  2. Great introduction Kathy–I need to hire you as my publicist! (Alas, if only I could afford one!)

  3. Great to learn more about Alison, a true writing guru!

  4. For my current WIP, I’m researching snakes. It’s actually quite fascinating. Never would have done it, if I wasn’t writing.

  5. Great post! You’re so right. And it doesn’t hurt that researching is fun, anyway 🙂

  6. Thanks so much for the post! I’ve always been in awe of the research part of the writing process. It’s so daunting! Where to begin?! Just one more reason that you writers are awesome.

  7. Sara

    This was so much fun to read! Both because Alison Hart has always been a favorite author (hi!!), and because research is my One True Love. I always forget to actually start the writing my research is based on. Which becomes something of an issue when working on a thesis. *cough* Anyways, wonderful, interesting post!

  8. Hi Sara! you are obviously a writer, too. Good luck! And Meredith, you begin by reading about something that fascinates you–and it will take off from there.

    And NKrell–have fun with snakes!

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