Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Researching For Your Writing by Carol Baldridge (CB)

Researching For Your Writing

Whether you write for school or for fun or with the idea in mind of getting your poetry or essay or short story or novel or non-fiction book published, somewhere along the line you will probably need to do some fact-finding and fact-checking. 

Fact-finding and fact-checking are better known as research. Research, ugh! Too often, that’s a dirty word and one many writers don’t like to think about. There’s an old adage: “Write what you know.” That’s good only so far.

What if you want to set a story in the Regency era?  Or if you want to visit faraway lands?  Or if it’s speculative fiction and the world might not exist?  Research can help you write that. Research can transform a story from “pretty good” into “wow, that story was so real I could taste the muffins!” 
Here are some good research tools:

1. Libraries -- Start in your own community by getting to know your local library and librarians; they can often provide a wealth of information. Some libraries even maintain reference librarians who will research questions for you. Even if this service isn't available, they will teach you how to research databases, electronic and paper card catalogues, and archives.

Historical resources can be either primary or secondary. Primary sources are, for instance, diaries or letters from the time period. People who wrote these diaries and letters used the language, slang expressions, and phrases of everyday life. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are written after the fact and are “heresay.” Always check and take note of the primary sources listed in the bibliographies, resource lists, and notes in secondary sources.

a. Use the libraries all around you -- not just your own public library but area public libraries, college/university libraries, museum libraries, corporate libraries, special libraries. Learn how to use WorldCat and other library databases to find helpful books, newspapers and magazines/journals, photographs, and ephemera of all kinds.

b. DOUBLE-CHECK everything. New knowledge or evidence may be available. Check the publication date, and compare with other books or sources. Also, EVALUATE your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up.

2. Use the Internet, but DO NOT rely on the internet for everything. Yes, it's handy and you can find heaps of things there, but it should be only one of your sources. There are many, many websites that are created by people with a specific interest in a subject. That doesn't mean they're experts. BE CAREFUL! Here are some reliable websites --

a. Infoplease -- From current events to reference-desk resources to features about history, this site puts a remarkable array of information within reach. Guides to the nations of the world, timelines of political, social, and cultural developments, and much more!

b. The Internet Public Library 
Unlike other reference sites, the IPL is a portal to other Web sites, brimming with directories of links in topics like Arts & Humanities. (Dictionary of Symbolism? Check. Ask Philosophers? Right. Legendary Lighthouses? We’ve got your legendary lighthouses right here.) If you need any background information, stop by for a visit!

c. The Library of Congress 
The online presence of the official repository of knowledge and lore of the US is an indispensable resource not only for nonfiction writers seeking background information for topics but also for fiction authors seeking historical context.

d. Merriam-Webster Online 
The publishing world’s dictionary of record is at your fingertips online, with a thesaurus and Spanish-English and medical compendia, to boot. You’ll also find video tutorials on usage from dictionary staff, a Word of the Day feature, word games, and a variety of language-watch features.

e. Refdesk
Refdesk.com, like Infoplease, is a clearinghouse for online research, with links to headline news and timeless information alike. You can easily get lost in its Daily Diversions directory, which includes links not only to humor, games, and trivia sites but also to more respectable resources like DailyWritingTips.com (whoo!). If you have a question, chances are you can find the answer on this site.

f. Snopes 
The fine folks at Snopes.com will set you straight about any one of hundreds of posts — each with a prominent judgmental icon plus commentary to back it up — about that one thing you think you remember you heard about that one thing. (For example: Posh comes from an acronym for “port out, starboard home” — the ideal respective locations for accommodations on a luxury liner — right? Cue the buzzer. BOGUS.) TruthOrFiction.com is a similar site.

There are many warnings against using Wikipedia as a primary source for research, but don’t hesitate to avail yourself of the wealth of information available — much of which is written by subject-matter experts in the field in question. Then go further by clicking on linked names and terms in the body of the article or by clicking an online source listed in the footnotes or bibliography. AND check unlinked citations in WorldCat in order to locate and obtain those that are not online.

3. Go to locations where parts of your story will take place. Walking along a beach or wading across a creek or going to a pick-it-yourself orchard or Christmas shopping in a crowded mall will help you write those scenes with more authenticity.

4. Interview people who know about the things you are writing about. Ask hobbyists and experts and even travel agents who will enlighten you on auto mechanics, tourist traps and local attractions, care of tarantulas, police work, local history. Prepare good questions beforehand, then tape the interview and/or take good notes. References librarians are often good sources for the names and contact information of local experts. AND the Internet is a great way to meet people from other countries and from other cultures.

5. Read novels set in your chosen time period to see how other writers deal with inserting facts into fiction, how they weave the setting and background and historical information together without lapsing into info dumps. We can learn by reading the best AND the worst.

6. Watch films and plays about your chosen time period. A lot of movies aren't exactly accurate with their costumes and architecture, but they help to give you the 'feel' of the time period.

7. Check out area restaurants that feature the cuisine your characters will be enjoying. Interview the chef or cooks. Taste the foods your characters will eat in your novel. Visit Internet cooking sites for recipes and ingredient lists. Most of the time, characters eventually eat something! Oh, speaking of that, a new genre of foodie romances has arisen. Some even include recipes.

8. Do the work needed to make your story authentic. Writing a medieval romance? Learn to ride a horse or shoot a bow and arrow (or crossbow) or do embroidery. Writing a mystery set in ancient Rome? Learn how to make pasta from scratch or take a beginning Latin class. At best, it will add to your narrative, delight your readers, and at worst, you may find an interesting new hobby.
DON’T SKIP THE RESEARCH! “Hey! I’m here to write a story, not read a bunch of stuff and make notes for junk that’s not going to be in the story!” But plenty of stories have been ruined by not doing the research ahead of time.
Doing all of the above allows you to inject detail into your work—nuances that writers might not know unless they’ve been somewhere, eaten the food there, and talked to the locals. Such details will make your stories more real.

AND DON’T FORGET TO RECORD YOUR SOURCES! Keep your background information in a tabbed notebook or in file folders or on index cards or in Word-type files. AND back up computer files and links on a flash drive. You never know when you might need a detail, a link, an obscure fact again -- or might need to verify where you found it.

Carol Baldridge (cb) is a retired librarian. She has been a regular in the chatroom for some time, and has recently started helping with topic chats. You can visit her cats...er...her blog at http://ceebeeskittykorner.blogspot.com/ 

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