Posted by: H.P. Ward | October 3, 2012

Research for writers

Would you rather know a lot about a little or a little about alot?

If you, like me, have decided to journey into writing or if you’ve been there already chances are you have had to incorporate things into your writing about which you originally knew nothing.

Put it this way, if I only wrote about what I knew my subjects/characters would be limited to house cleaner, summer-camp cook, nurse’s aid, archaeologist and medical coder.  The character/profession can each play a part in a novel, or two, but if that’s all I’ve got- it’s already old.

I’m not going to intentionally seek out a new career of my own just for a novel (I haven’t got the brains for biochemistry, computer science or drug dealing.)  Instead, I start researching.  I try to skim the cream off the top of the milk to gain enough of make a character/subject as clear as it can be through my own lens and the lens of the story.

When I think of research my mind goes automatically to college.  The view of Olmestead Hall and the fountain from the top floor of the Bower-Suhrheinrich Library and the smell of dusty tomes.  My mind remembers the view first, not the research. Research has a hard time competing with a nice view.  I was only able to work if I faced away from the windows.  It was nice to know the view was there when my eyes would need the break.  Every 5 minutes.

Research, these days, is more than sequestering in a library.   The internet and electronic copies, for those with access, put information at or near our fingertips.  This week’s blog is dedicated to getting at that information.  I am going to share some sources for beginning researching with and my own odd research methods. I’ll deal with my method first, if you want the links please skip down to the bottom, you might feel saner skipping my stuff.

My research begins after the first plot bunny hops into my head.  There’s inspiration and a bit of an idea. Do I know anything about this subject at all?) If the answer is no I hit the computer the first chance I get after I jot down the particulars in my note book. (Under the heading plot bunnies-you want to nurture these little guys. When they’re happy they make more of themselves…in typical rabbit fashion).
If I know nothing I head to Wikipedia. (As I type this, somewhere a high school English teacher has just felt cold chills on their back.)  I stand by my process, if you know absolutely nothing Wikipedia is a good place to start (especially when the article has the foot/source notes at the bottom), followed quickly by Google or another search engine.  I bookmark (label by subject) and make notes of key points and write out ideas for further research expansion.

Then I start outlining/writing (snippets).  Once my muse has enough it gets going.  The idea expands and sometimes changes into something unrecognizable.  It doesn’t matter if other ideas spring up they get the same internet treatment, notes, etc.   Then my brain plays again. And again.
Once  the key plot points are concrete (i.e. they are a solid part of the story) then I “get serious” about research.

Kind of backwards?? Bad research strategy you say?? Not as bad as spending days researching something only to have the story evolve to the point where the information I spent days collecting doesn’t exist in the story any longer. I may use the info someday but so far I haven’t.   Hence my method.

Now the means.

Another reason I enjoyed the college library was the “free” access to scholarly journals.  JSTOR anyone?  http://www.jstor.org/  Now my access to JSTOR is almost nil. They do offer a few free things. I have access to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology….working backwards from 1860.  There are a few full access articles http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/650480 for example.  Of course you can pay, but that adds up. I like free.
A more affordable (free) source is the Directory of Open Access Journals:

http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=home&uiLanguage=en

It offers more with saveable PDF articles!  Example: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_journals/bmsaes/issue_18.aspx

But scholarly articles are boooring.

That’s fine, but they are peer reviewed and that means they are more trustworthy than Wikipedia. The real research means you get your information from as reliable a source as you can!  If you are developing a monster virus to turn the world into zombies then learn about how a virus works (even if you’re going to twist it). Learn how a path lab at a hospital works. What safeguards are in place?  It will make your outbreak ground zero as accurate as possible.
Maybe no one will care if the nuances aren’t perfect.  Maybe.  I remember one class in college were we picked apart the movie Gladiator looking for the historical inaccuracies and outright impossibilities. Some/all path lab workers who read the novel might get annoyed at your lack of basic research.  I wouldn’t want to tick off any person with access to a zombie virus.  Maybe that’s just me.

People appreciate it, most of them understand when things are stretched for the sake of plot, but when they are ignored, when huge chunks are ignored it’s just sad. I won’t get started on Indiana Jones.

Let’s not forget the most obvious place to research. It’s also the best one if you are able. Writing about an accountant? Do you know and accountant?  There you go, call them.  Writing about nursing or a hospital and you know a nurse, or you know someone who knows a nurse, network, ask politely for a favor, bribe with dinner or candy. Don’t forget to thank them. It works.  If you’re writing about an archeologist (or a retired one)…bribe me with cookies.

Below are more links to start the research hunt if you haven’t come across them already.  I hope they help.

http://www.jstor.org/

http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=home&uiLanguage=en

http://www.biomedcentral.com/about

http://www.snopes.com/

This was useful, but they might be changing some things around now due to this:

http://www.eric.ed.gov/pdf_availability.html

Also this article with more links:

http://writetodone.com/2008/03/24/research-sources-for-writers-a-guide-to-backing-up-your-words/

And some very good advice here on interviewing:

http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/paranormal-novel-excerpt

I should not have to say it but I will. The library is a good place to research.  If you live near a university or a big city spend a day or more at their book prison too.  If you’re in college, ILL (inter library loan) and print off everything you can think of for your stories before you graduate.  I did.  It might be the only chance you have,unless you attend/attended one of the lucky places at this link:

http://about.jstor.org/service/access-alumni

Good luck and happy writing!

H. P. Ward

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