How To Research
Learn How to Research Non-fiction, Novels and Anything Else...
By Stephanie Cage
Have you ever thought about writing non-fiction but been put off by the amount of research involved? Writing about what you know helps, as you’re likely to have the information you need at your fingertips, or at least know where to find it, but if you’re anything like me, you will still need to check up on a detail every so often.
The truth is, research is hard to avoid. Even as a fiction writer, you will still need to check facts once in a while. It might be a historical detail (would your hero have been wearing a top hat or bowler?), a fact about a place or person, or even the lyrics of your heroine’s favourite song.
Sometimes you can avoid the problem by being vague. Instead of naming the song, say, ‘He was humming that annoying tune again.’ If you don’t know exactly how big the boat was, say, ‘It was about the length of a swimming pool’. However, do this too often, and you lose the sense of reality, of a scene coming alive, that comes from a precisely imagined and described story world.
So how do you go about finding the information you need to fill the gaps in your story or article? As a researcher, there are five main sources of information I turn to, roughly in this order:
1 - Home reference books
Looking things up at home is quick and convenient, and a good encyclopedia can fill in background information on a huge range of topics. However, it may not contain the specific information you’re looking for, and sometimes even if it contains the answer, it may be hard to find. For example, if you know want to find out more about Ellen MacArthur, it’s great, but it’s not much help if you can’t remember the surname of ‘that woman who sailed around the world - Ellen someone.’
2 - The Internet
The Internet is a great starting point if you can’t remember the exact details of what you’re looking for. Type ‘Ellen’ and ‘around the world sailing’ into Google and the odds are that sooner or later the name ‘MacArthur’ will crop up. It can be useful for tracking down poetry and song lyrics too, because it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember the title or first line - if it’s on the Internet, then typing any line into a search engine will help you track it down.
3 - Libraries
If you can’t find what you need at home, in most cases the next stop will be your local library. They will have a wider range of reference books, as well as other subject-related books. For example, if you need to add colour to your novel about a woman sailor, you could look out for interesting details in a biography of Ellen MacArthur.
If you’re really new to a subject, start from scratch with a child’s reference book. They’re often surprisingly informative as well as having lots of helpful illustrations.
If your local library fails, you may have to resort to a larger library further afield - main copyright libraries have every book you could wish for, although it’s worth calling in advance to check that the book you’re looking for is immediately available.
4 - Tourist information
Sometimes libraries aren’t much help because the information you’re looking for changes frequently. This is particularly true in travel writing, where you can end up looking foolish if a hotel or restaurant has closed down since your visit, or a museum or gallery has changed its opening hours. That’s when the area’s tourist information is invaluable.
5 - People
If you haven’t found what you’re looking for using any of these methods, or if you want more details than the average reference book provides, you’ll need to look for someone in the know who can help you out. For general information, museum curators, gallery owners and librarians are often very helpful, but sometimes you’ll need something more specific.
In that case, the best tactic can be to find an association related to the topic. If you want to find out about details of the Civil War for your battle scene, is there a re-enactment society near you? There’s bound to be someone who can answer your questions, and you might even get a chance to see the atmosphere of a Civil War battle for yourself and pick up some details you’d never have thought to ask about.
Finally, if that fails, fall back on the theory that everyone on the planet is connected by just six links and ask everyone you know (work colleagues, fellow writers group members, friends and relatives) whether they know anyone who might be able to help you. Tell them it’s for a book (or magazine article, or whatever) and most people are glad to help - that’s the beauty of being a writer.
About the Author
Stephanie Cage is a writer and researcher based in Berkshire, UK. She writes regularly for The Agony Column and newbooksmag and has also been published in e-Quip (the e-zine of the British Society of Comedy Writers) and Link (the magazine of the National Association of Writers’ Groups), where this article first appeared. Visit her at www.stephaniecage.co.uk
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