[box]Steve McLain and I spent this week discussing research. While several writers love digging up details, others dread it. Like it or not, at some point in your novel, you’ll need to do some fact finding. Here are five tips to help you do it well (and have some fun in the process). Listen below, or on Stitcher, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the file here. So many listening options! We try to make it easy for you.
We’ve all been there before: stymied as to what type of gun our character would carry, how many rounds it might hold, what a doctor might do if her patient flat-lines on the table, what type of slang 18th century sailors might use, the common symptoms of an obscure disease, or the proper term for the hard part on the ends of your shoelaces (aglet, btw. You’re welcome.) This is where research comes in handy. Of course you could simply fictionalize all of these, but why? Adding real details makes our stories come alive. Taking a few minutes (or in some cases, a few hours or days if you’re traveling) can unearth the proper details that will ignite your story with the flame of tangibility and reality. But don’t get so bogged down in the details that you stop writing.
Often, writers will insert brackets and/or, in some cases even the word research, into their scene and keep writing. When you do this [research], you can easily search for the term after you’re done writing the scene. If you’re in the moment, stay in the moment, let the creativity pour out. You’ll have time to dig up facts later. The important thing now is to finish what the muse has so graciously demanded you write.
Once done, you’ll want to put in those details. Here are five great tips to help you out.
1. Utilize the internet: Of course we’ve all heard that the internet is not an accurate place to get your information (see the Northwestern Tree Octopus). This is mostly true. However, if you use it cautiously, the internet is the fastest, easiest way to get details. Consider Wikipedia. While it’s open source, and anyone can edit it, the staff maintains high-level standards. When an entry doesn’t meet the standards, they post warnings on the information. What you’re left with is a great place to start your research. However, we highly suggest you scroll to the bottom and use the external links to make sure they’re valid and that the information in the entry can be verified in multiple sources. Also, if the information you’re researching is easy to find and can be easily obtained in several places online, you’re probably good to go. The easy stuff, like George Washington, or the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or the date of Kennedy’s assassination doesn’t need a lot of corroboration to be taken as fact. Here are some good, reliable resources you can trust: Google Scholar, Google Maps (great for satellite imaging), and WebMD for all your medical conundrums.
Also, be aware of bias. Because anyone can publish online, personal biases (especially on blogs, etc.), can cripple your research. This is why you should verify your information in multiple places. It’s important to hear several voices and many sides of an issue to be certain you’re not taking someone’s opinion as fact. For example, if you’re writing about a volatile subject like abortion, and you’re staunchly Pro-Life, you’ll be tempted to give your Pro-Life character the best arguments and your Pro-Choice character the weakest. To protect yourself from falling into the didactic trap, consider the other side. Find the best arguments for it, and present them in a way that isn’t demeaning to your opposition. If the reader can’t tell where the author stands on an issue, the fiction will be stronger.
You’ll also want to be wary of e-mails that circulate and perpetuate misinformation. For example, there is no kid dying of cancer who’s final wish was to see his e-mail go around the world. Bill Gates will not send you $1,000 for forwarding an e-mail to your friends. The Nigerian Prince who wants to deposit $4,000,000 in your bank account is lying. The computer virus going around that will make your computer explode in your face? Not real. And, sadly, you did not win the British Lottery. Here’s a good test to see if those random e-mails you get are true: Does it say FWD: in the subject line? If so, it’s probably fake. A better source to debunk e-mail and internet misinformation is Snopes.com. We like them. They tell us the truth.
2. Use Books and Libraries: Remember libraries? Those ancient structures constructed for the soul purpose of housing books? They still exist, and they’re not just for books anymore. They have DVDs (if you’re looking for a documentary on your subject, they might have it) and Video Games and even Comic Books (Nathan Bodell of Wednesday Comics utilizes this for his research). However, we’re primarily interested in research, and books are an incredible resource. If a book is published, it’s been checked to ensure the accuracy of the information, which makes them more reliable than most of the information available online. However, you still need to be wary of bias. This is why you’ll want to check out several books to ensure a clearer picture of whatever it is you’re looking for. Of course, if you’re made of money, you might simply purchase the books from Amazon. If you do, make sure you’re reading the reviews. You’ll want to ensure that you’re getting a book with the information you want. Nothing worse than picking up a book and not finding what you’d hoped to see in it. If the book you’re looking for is out of print, or is public domain, you can probably find it (free) on Google Books, even when you can’t find it anywhere else.
3. Interview the Experts: So you’re writing about a doctor, but you’re not a doctor. Sure, you could read a book on the subject, and even spend hours on WebMD. But none of that will tell you what it’s like to lose a patient in the middle of surgery. One option is to reach out to a doctor. If you do, make sure you treat him as a professional. Let him know you are an author, and you’d like to ask him a few questions in regards to a book you’re writing about (insert your topic here). Let him know it will only take a few minutes, and then stick to the quoted time. These are professionals, and if you’re not paying for the time you’re spending with them, they’re losing money.Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to correspond via e-mail. This allows them to get back to you when they have time. Still, you want to be respectful of their time, so keep your messages brief and professional. Ask specific questions, and if possible, ask if you’re able to follow up on their answers. This kind of dialog is great because it allows you to go back and read their responses whenever you need to.
If you’re able to, meet with them in person. Sometimes you have to immerse yourself in their work environment to know what it’s really like (the sights, sounds, smells, etc.). See if they can take you on a walk-through of their typical day. Again, be aware of the time. Don’t keep them too long. Have a list of SPECIFIC questions written out (including follow-up questions if applicable). Make sure you have a recording device (provided they give you permission to record). This will prevent you from worrying about taking notes and will free your mind up to ask follow-up type questions. Also, you can listen to the answers again at your leisure. Stick to your quoted time, and when it expires, excuse yourself or ask for an extension. That might sound like this: “Looks like my fifteen minutes are up, Doctor Greg. I appreciate your time. Would it be possible to set up a follow-up interview?” Many will invite you to stay beyond the allotted time (if you’re nice). But if they’re busy, they’ll appreciate your punctuality. Which reminds me: BE EARLY! Lastly, ask the professional if you may contact him later if you have an additional question or two. This provides you the opportunity to expand the interview into an ongoing relationship and a consistent resource.
4. Travel: If you’ve got the money to travel, it’s a fantastic opportunity to get a sensory experience of a new place. Often, if you’re going on a business trip, you can do double duty by taking good notes while you’re in the location that will serve as the setting for your next novel. Take a camera, a video recorder, and a notebook. These things will serve you well. Be sure to pre-plan your trip as much as possible. Just as you wrote a list of specific questions to be answered by an expert, bring a list of questions you want to have answered by the time you leave your destination. Avoid the trap of only visiting tourist attractions. If you’re visiting New York, you’ll need to hit the main attractions, sure, but don’t spend too long there. Remember, most locals don’t go to the Statue of Liberty every day (unless they work there). Try to get to the heart of the city by talking to the locals. Where are the best places to eat? How do people spend their Sundays? How is Friday traffic different than Monday traffic? How do they recognize tourists? If you get a chance to talk to the locals, you’ll get a good sense of the true heart of the city (or town or village).
5. Twitter: The secret weapon! Fast, immediate, global connectivity. Twitter gives you an easy way to interact with authors of books, experts in their field, and locals in the setting you plan to feature in your notebook. No matter how obscure your topic, you’ve got a good chance, with enough effort and polite communication, to get in touch with someone who knows about it: including 18th century mercantile vessels. Just ask Steve. With a few well-timed, well-searched, well-worded tweets, he tracked down an expert on Naval history, who referred him to an historian who just happens to specialize in 18th century maritime and naval histories.