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?