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?

Besides Using Google, How Can I Do Research for My Book?

Research Tools for Fiction and Non-fiction Writers

The majority of writers know how to use the Internet when they need to investigate a topic. Most of us pop onto a search engine like Google, bing, or Yahoo! Search and type our subject of interest into the search box.

But let’s say you are researching a term like “cancer.” Thousands of sites are going to show up. Some may offer helpful material, but many of the links are going to be useless. You may get scams and offers of miracle cures all mixed in with legitimate websites.

So how do you sort through all the extraneous material to get to the good stuff?

Here’s a simple trick I always use: Type the words “site: edu” after the term you are searching. (Don’t use quotation marks.) Inside your browser it’s going to look like this:

cancer site: edu

Now, the first websites that are going to be listed have been sifted through an educational institution. You are much more likely to find helpful material for your writing.

I write about self-care, so let’s say I have a question in my mind like, “I wonder how listening to music benefits cancer patients?”

Once again I could Google my question, but how will I know if the answers are valid? Maybe someone wrote them on a blog post without verifying the facts. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the answers have been studied scientifically? Vetted by other scholars? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how the study was done, and whether the research was current?

Even as recent as ten years ago, you had to search tomes or giant stacks of professional journals in an actual library in order to get valid research. But with today’s computer technology it is simple to access serious research for your fiction or non-fiction book.

Hang with me here. It’s not as difficult as it might sound.

My library here in Littleton, Colorado (Jefferson County Library) lets me access professional journals from my home computer. I’m going to show you how Jefferson County’s library system does this. Your library system may vary, so If you need help, ask your librarian for assistance. Also, you need to make sure you have a library card so you can access the system. Here’s what I do:

  1. I go to Jefferson County Library’s web site
  2. I click on the maroon icon labeled, “Research Tools”
  3. I click on “Magazines and Newspapers” (on the left-hand side)

*My library subscribes to something called EBSCOhost, which provides online databases to libraries worldwide. All libraries are different, but most will give you access to two “workhorse, all-purpose” databases: Academic Search Premier and/or ProQuest. These allow you to search specific topics under a broad umbrella rather than having to narrow your research to certain journals (e.g. nursing journals or psychology journals).

Now you’re going to guess at some key words to put into the search box. I start by entering the words:

 affects music cancer patients

This next part is important:

Before I click the search button, I narrow my search by using limiters:

I want to limit my search to scholarly material because I don’t want information to come from non-scholarly magazines such as People or Newsweek, so I check “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals.”

I only want to look at the articles where I can read the entire article, not just the summary or abstract, so I check “Full Text.”

And lastly, I want the research to be current, so I’ll limit the date to the last ten years.

As I find articles, I look to see which key words are noted so I can try searching those if I’m not finding what I need. When I find my article, I can read it online, print it out in PDF format, or even email it to others or myself. If you are a visual learner, maybe a video showing how I do research will be a helpful addition.

 Do you have some research tips to offer other writers?