Circus on PBS

Research Time: Giving Your Story Believability

Research is incredibly important when it comes to world-building – even more so if it’s based in a world of reality, with a topic you might not know much about.

When I set out to write GIFTED, I began writing about a girl who could control fire. She would be familiar with her gift (as opposed to coming into it at a certain age or it surprising her with a particular emotion or event), but not so much with everyone else that I didn’t have good reason to explain to readers how the gifts worked. For a while I was stumped, until the imagination fairy smacked an idea into my head: put her in a supernatural circus.

There was only one problem: I hadn’t been to a circus since I was a kid and didn’t know jack about circus life. The solution? Research, research, research.


One of my biggest resources for my Donovan Circus books is the PBS documentary CIRCUS. Six hour long episodes take the viewer behind the scenes of the Big Apple Circus, where you learn about the performers, workers, leaders, and more. This was fantastic – I got to see how things worked in a real circus and see how I could apply it to my fictional Donovan Circus. I gathered ideas from their grounds setup, their performance acts, and their people. Like it or not, there’s a class hierarchy in that kind of show business. Several of the non-performers tend to run away to the circus to escape, from things like shady pasts or simply nowhere else to go and it’s the only job they can find. Even if I hadn’t been researching, I still found it fascinating to hear what it was like for some to “run away to the circus.”

Now, I wasn’t looking to make a historical piece full of facts or even imitate circus life completely. It’s a supernatural circus, so I took several liberties with what I learned. When I went to write out my circus setting, it sort of took on a life of its own.

Photo Jun 02, 10 13 18 AM

I also bought “Under the Big Top” by Bruce Feiler. His book chronicles his journey with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. He spent a year performing with them as a clown, interviewing members and getting their personal stories. Reading some of their stories seemed outrageous (and perhaps they were – outsiders are not to be trusted, and clown or no, Feiler was an outsider, so they may have enjoyed messing with him a bit). Either way, the book was not only entertaining, but informative. I was surprised to learn a few common phrases come from circus life, such as “hold your horses”, “rain or shine,” and “get the show on the road.”

The whole idea of the circus is used as a backdrop, a setting where the story takes place. That being said, the circus itself isn’t of terrible importance – while some readers may have wanted to see more performances in the ring, for me, the story takes place outside the tents. The focus of the plot just happens to take place at a circus. So while my research was incredibly important, I felt it was okay to twist things to my needs. As writers, we can create any kind of world we want, no matter how big or involved. But I think, if there’s any reality-based settings or information, it’s the research that keeps our noses clean, if you will, and lets readers sit back and enjoy the ride without too many questions.

How do you go about researching for a book? Or do you just fly by the acrobat wire and jump right in to tell your own interpretation of the story?

11 thoughts on “Research Time: Giving Your Story Believability

  1. Thomas Rydder says:

    That’s brilliant, Liz. And just so you know, the work you did on research paid off large. The circus part of Gifted didn’t dominate the book, but it DID blend seamlessly into the whole plot. I felt completely like I was in the circus itself and observing circus characters – albeit rather unusual ones. Kudos, my friend…well done 🙂
    Now, when is the sequel coming out?


    • LizLong says:

      Hey Thomas good to “see” you! Thanks for your nice comment – I am so glad to see it paid off!
      The second in the series is being written right now 🙂 As always, I appreciate your support!!

      • Thomas Rydder says:

        Very cewl! Can’t wait to read it…
        I’m still rolling on my first and have a ghost anthology of two shorts and a novella coming out in about a month or so…then maybe the sequel. You really dressed your blog up…it looks fantastic 🙂

  2. C.B. McCullough says:

    Very cool concept! I might have to check out Gifted once I catch up on my reading list… As for my own research, I find myself doing more research during the second draft than the first, and Wikipedia is my best friend. The nice thing about being a writer, you can justify just about anything as research! For instance, I wanted my most recent project to be a science fiction mystery, but with a ’40s film noir feel to it. So, I watched a lot of movies from that era, taking notes on setting, clothing, dialogue, etc. The result is kind of like Humphrey Bogart in space.
    Cool post! Thanks for sharing.

    • LizLong says:

      Thanks so much for your great comment! I love Wikipedia for quick fact checks. I agree about justifying it – this way if any circus member were to get annoyed at how I differ from their everyday life, at least I can give them a supernatural reason! LOL I love the idea of Humphrey Bogart in space 😉

  3. Nyki Blatchley says:

    That’s great. I don’t understand people who regard the research aspect as a chore – it’s a chance to learn about something. I’m not sure I could pick out a single big bit of research like yours. I did some research on styles of wooden shipbuilding for At An Uncertain Hour, as well as reading up on pregunpowder battles. And when I was writing something set in mediaeval Europe, I just had to go around as many mediaeval castles and cathedrals as I could. A hard job, but someone’s got to do it.

    • LizLong says:

      If you couldn’t tell, I’m quite a nerd and LOVE learning new things through research. It’s not a chore at all to me and I don’t think it should be to any writer who is building up something special! And at least this way, readers who check up on you can be sure there’s validity there in you know what you’re writing about! 🙂 Thanks so much for reading!

  4. Gwen says:

    First off I want to say great blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like
    to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself
    and clear your head before writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out.
    I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to figure out
    how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Thank you!

    • LizLong says:

      Hi Gwen,
      I’m more of the type who simply sits down and dives in. That and turn off my internet to prevent getting sidetracked by Facebook 🙂 If it helps, I always recommend putting your ideas down pen to paper and sketching an outline – that usually gets me thinking about the scenes and how I want them to go, which in turn gets me writing. Thanks for reading!

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