“By seeking and blundering, we learn.”
~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, novelist and dramatist.
Good, thorough research is a critical part of the writing process — regardless of whether the book you’re writing is a work of fiction or non-fiction. There is nothing more damaging to a writer (aside from plagiarism!) than to misrepresent a technical, geographical, or historical fact. A word to the wise: always assume that your readers are smart. They may possibly lose interest at the first blatant mistake.
Research, if done properly, will likely take more time than actually writing the book. It may seem like a gargantuan effort but, in the long run, it will be time well spent. Hopefully, the following research tips and tools will help to make the process less daunting.
- Compile a list of all the areas in your book that will require additional research, outside your own personal area of expertise. This list will not likely be exhaustive because as you navigate through your book, you will no doubt feel compelled to add to the research. A word of caution: since most writers are avid readers and information seekers/gatherers by nature, it is easy to forget that “thorough research” does not mean “excessive research.” Don’t get carried away. Remember, there’s still a book to be written!
- Develop a research methodology or strategy. This will assist you with categorizing your research and will save you a lot of time. Decide how you want to handle your primary and secondary sources. When interviewing a source, determine in advance what questions you want to ask. Do you want to quantify your research over a period of time? Should you segment your research — chronologically, by theme, by geography, by chapter, or by subject matter? Personally, I favor the “by chapter” approach. I write very detailed outlines (for each chapter) and use the chapter outlines as a guide to determine the primary and secondary resources that need to be gathered.
- Compiling the research. Whilst there are many writers who function quite well in a state of “organized” chaos, I strongly recommend a more streamlined approach. There is nothing more annoying than misplacing interview notes or a critical quote citation! Many writers use several sets of index cards (one set for note taking, another for bibliographic info, and so forth). The cards can be color-coded by chapter, theme, or subject matter. I suggest that they be stored in small folders or pouches, so that nothing gets lost. Another option is to tack them to an easel, storyboard or wall. In lieu of index cards, a notebook and folder will do. Moleskines are widely used by writers. Of course, you could always opt to go paperless. A digital voice recorder is a must-have for face-to-face interviews.
- Information dissemination. Again, you have to know where to draw the line. Carefully pick and choose the most relevant information from that mountain of research material you’ve gathered and put the rest away. You don’t want your book to be a regurgitation of facts and figures.
- Citation, citation, citation. Although your book is a unique and creative endeavor, do not take liberties with other people’s words. Quote your sources accurately. And remember, there is a fine line between paraphrasing and plagiarism (more on that in a later blog post), so do be careful.
- Where to get information? As you know, the Internet is a vast cyberlibrary …. however, you have to be very discriminating as to the reliability of site/source. And, then, nothing beats spending a day at the library (with books that you can touch and feel!). The archives found in most University, public, and private libraries contain a treasure trove of source material. If the information you seek is historical in nature, contact/visit the appropriate historical society — a great source for historical maps, documents, photos and diaries.
RESOURCES & TOOLS
Internet: In addition to the standard search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, AskJeeves), here are a few additional sites that may be of help:
♦ Bartleby.com – unlimited, free access to books, famous quotes/proverbs/maxims.
♦ Google Books – free access to full or partial text of print books (and out-of-print books).
♦ Encyclopedia Britannica – ahhh, I used this all the time … back in the ’70’s! This is the online version.
♦ Wiley Online Library – great for historical research.
♦ Ancestry.com – a good genealogy source.
Software Tools: To help organize your bibliography and reference citations (especially helpful for writers of non-fiction), you may want to check out Bibus bibliographic database software or EndNote. If your research involves any quantitative analysis, software programs such as Excel, Paradox, SAS or SPSS will be helpful.
I will sign off with this great quote from Ray Bradbury:
“You must write every single day of your life…You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads….may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”