The Joy of Research

What’s black and white and red all over?

Or is it “read” all over?

No matter.

The answer is: The desk of a writer.

Covered in words and, yes, sometimes blood, my writing nooks are piled high with books, inch-thick binder clips full of internet printouts, magazines, journals, sticky notes and more. Commonly known as research, this is what the necessary, most rewarding (and fun!) part of the novel-writing process looks like.

Many novels are character-driven, so some folks might not think research plays much of a role in writing a solid story, especially if you’re following the old adage, “write what you know.” However, for characters to have depth, you have to know them. Really know them. You have to know their hobbies, their likes, and their dislikes. You need to know what it felt like to grow up in their hometown and region. You need to know what it feels like to live in the current story setting as well.

So, if you’re new to the writing process, I thought I’d share three research tips with you today.

Research tip #1: Libraries are not dead.

When I’m in all-out research mode, you can find me at my local library at least twice a week, if not more. I live in a relatively small town, so sometimes the strange call numbers I need are not represented on the shelves. But thanks to an amazing, free system called Evergreen Indiana, I can (and do) check out books from all over my state. In fact, Evergreen offers over 2.6 million bibliographic records and provides access to over 6.2 million items. (I think I’ve checked out 1.2 million so far!)

The internet cannot replace the richness of photography and history found in books. Also, books make me feel hot on a story trail like a blood hound after a fox, especially when references at the back of one book open up a wealth of resources and other books I never considered.

The other great (and possibly the best) thing about libraries: there’s no dust or laundry vying for my attention.

Research tip #2: The internet rocks.

If you’re as old as me, you might remember when the go-to resources for current event research were microfilm reels, aperture cards and microfiche. Only after thumbing through phone book-thick books of references could one find relatively current articles on a research topic. Then, there was no guarantee the library carried that journal or magazine. And if it did, squinting through the microscope-like lenses to try to find the information led to headaches and frustration.

Thank goodness for the internet. A few key strokes and you’ve got a gold mine of information to cull through. Here are a few of internet research sites I find especially helpful:

Research tip #3: Master the art of conversation (or listening, rather).

I’m lucky to be a nurse as well as a writer. Not just because it allows me to have enough money to eat, but also because it offers me so many chances to talk to and learn from folks I’d otherwise never meet. My favorite patients are octo- and nonagenarians, because I can pick their wise and nimble brains for topics like what it really felt like to live through the depression and what really makes a marriage work for 60+ years.

But you don’t have to be a nurse (or a patient, for that matter) to enhance a story. For one of my novels, I spent an afternoon talking to a local bar owner five states away, just to hear what he had to say about local lore and life.

Take time to listen to people,  and you’ll gather interesting story ideas otherwise never imagined.

What about you? What are your favorite research tools? Websites? Resources?

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29 thoughts on “The Joy of Research

  1. Wonderful post! I relish the research process, and I completely agree that libraries are vital to this. I have found that university libraries make great use of their websites sometimes (combining your first two points!) to provide access to some of their special collections (i.e. historical photographs) online.

    Also, I’ve found that when I get stuck at a plot point, often delving in for a little research helps solve the plot problem. I can find some actual historical event to include that will add intensity, intrigue, or sense to the action.

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  3. It’s like being back in school (which I enjoyed – except for the being broke all the time).

    I’m writing a thriller set in North Korea. I just finished a couple of months of research for it. In addition to international news articles (NY Times, CNN, etc.), various (and sometimes dubious) websites, travel blogs I’m tracking a couple of English language Korean online Newspapers.

    There’s actually a lot more information about that country than you’d expect…

    And not that I’ve started writing the first draft, all of that info is sitting in my head waiting to show up when it needs to.

  4. Ack.

    If there’s any way you can take the second Tony McFadden off that last post, it would be great. (Daughter freaking about a spider in her bedroom – so I was a bit too rushed)

  5. This almost makes me wish I would have wrote novels instead of non fiction in my writing days (um, 15-20 years ago). Research is like archaeology or treasure hunting (well, sometimes) because you’re looking for gems to build a better story…diamonds to make it richer. I wish I could write fiction, but my left brain is predominate. Thanks, Amy, for this thoughtful post.

    • Thanks, Greg, and indeed! Had I known what fun fiction was, I might have started off with it in the first place. You never know–the other side of your brain could take back over someday! 🙂

  6. Great post Amy, thanks for the reminder about the library. Might just be the perfect place to hide when I get tired of my writing cave. And I agree totally about listening, especially to those with more experience. Good points, and I plan to use them. Thank you.

  7. Amy, terrific post! I love researching through old newspapers and records, channeling my author side into genealogical research now. But you suggested a few internet sites that I had never heard of, so thanks for the info. I love that you weren’t afraid to call a bar owner five states away. I love everything about libraries, even the smell of books, but sometimes talking to a resource is worth a hundred books in the library. Once I called and talked to the C.I.A. public relations officer in Washington about a topic I was writing about. What a wealth of information he was!

    • Ooooh, are you on ancestory.com? Geneology is amazing. And the phone calls, yes, they’re such fun. So far, I’ve found folks become really eager to talk when they find out you’re writing a book about their town. 🙂

  8. Have to tell you, I love the pictures you put on this post, made me smile. You’re right the library is an awesome resource, and I’ve used ours a lot. We also have an inter-library loan system. Speaking with the elderly is a wonderful way to learn about their time. When my daughter was younger, I was a Girl Scout leader (also Boy Scout den mother). My Girl Scouts made sure to go to nursing homes on off season (not the normal holidays), and we visited with the residents. They were a shy lot so I would give them questions to ask the residents – what games did you play as a child? What was your favorite book/movie? Etc. It helped break the ice and the residents had fun remembering.

  9. When you’ve exhausted Google and the local library, county courthouses can be good sources for hard-to-find facts. Research teams are great for getting at those details. I used a team of helpers for the historical novel I’m currently marketing—I needed local courthouse-type facts from locales that were several states away. My assistants were retired teachers and editors—the best kind of helpers. 🙂 I also like Google Earth. It’s like having a spy-cam! It helps with modern stories when you can’t quite remember the layout of a city location or need some info about the entrance to a building or whether there’s a subway stop nearby.

      • Among my extended family are many helpful and intellectually curious teachers, several retired farmers (great for historical fiction set in rural Oklahoma), two textbook editors, and one librarian (my father). They offered to help me with my research. In every way, they exceeded my expectations. I am very grateful for my family. And yes, they have been known to do laundry. 🙂

  10. With the easy availability of information on the internet, it’s easy to forget we have libraries at our disposal. The best resource in the libraries are easily the librarians. They may have no idea about the topic I’m researching, but are a wealth of knowledge on how to find the information I’m after.
    Since I write historical fiction, my research has to be very thorough. If it isn’t, I’m sure to get someone who’ll question me. I often find myself reading books that my fifteen-year-old self would have turned her nose up at (The South Carolina Tricentennial Report on the British Occupation of Charleston, anyone?), but are now fascinating to me.

    Thanks for the links! I would add census records to the list. They are great for character names, population densities, occupations, etc.

  11. I used to practically live in my local library. Alas! I now live in Mexico, which is wonderful for so many reasons, but I do miss my library. The best I can do is to use my library card from up north to download books to my computer or MP3 player.

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