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The Writing Life: Research, Part II

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How do we inject realism into our writing? Research is one of those harder-than-it-seems actions that those with “google-fu” excel at, but the rest of us sometimes struggle to start. The bottom line in my experience is to just start. And to stay organized. And to be ruthless.

To start, plug general terms for your research subject into your chosen search engine. Browsing will turn up repeated words. Plug those in as keywords. As your brain starts to digest the terms, you can plug in specific questions- you never know what doing so will turn up! For example, researching family dogs, you notice “hypo-allergenic”, “soft mouth”, and “protection” showing up. Search those terms with “dog” and “family”. A specific question may be, “can protection dogs have soft mouths?”

Stay organized by making notes. Bookmarking online is useful only if you are organized enough to create subject specific folders. On paper or notecard or document, note the most useful links. As you scan info, jot down the other interesting tidbits that will help you find further info. For example, researching lighthouse keepers, you notice a reference to a lighthouse keepers’ association or a museum. Or you notice a type of fuel used that might provide a way to start a fire – which might provide a plot point or just a detail your character needs to keep in mind.

Be ruthless in sticking to your quest. Yes, it is interesting that the Lumbee tribe never had a “Chief”, but if you’re researching the Cherokee, nuke that link! If a random Lumbee character shows up later among your Cherokee, you can go read up on the Lumbees then. Be ruthless in your search. Don’t be satisfied with a general knowledge and a guess. Don’t assume West Virginia handles forest fires through the same agency as Florida does. If it’s happening in your story, find the info you need by following general links to more detailed information or calling the WV Fire Marshall service to ask. Be ruthless with your words once you are in your third or fourth story draft. Do you really need to include the pay specifics you looked up for your military character E-7 with thirteen years of service in October 1979 or did you just need to know she can afford her lifestyle?

If you get frustrated, take a breather. Make a list of search terms. There’s a way to get to an actual person to speak with through all those web-links. And there’s a website for everything! Need a good name for a man from Ohio who was born in 1972? https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

General: For any subject, as you go, brainstorm from general to specific and think of CONNECTIONS. Let’s say you want to research gangs – you might start at the FBI: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/the-gangs-of-los-angeles-part-1 You decide you want to research MS-13 https://www.fbi.gov/@@search?SearchableText=MS-13&pageSize=20&page=1 , http://www.insideprison.com/prison_gang_profile_MS-13.asp

and maybe MS-13 in NC https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Gang-Related-News?st=NC&p=36 CONNECTIONS: MS-13 in prisons, MS-13 tattoos, MS-13 in military, MS-13 crime, NC State Bureau of Investigation, Charlotte PD, MS-13 business affiliations, MS-13 guns

Specifics: When all your keyword searches don’t get you there, there are writers’ sites for specific questions on most anything or if you need to find an ailment for your character that will result in a permanent limp or if you need to know if a horse can carry two riders for twenty miles and how long that would take: https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/32269/are-there-any-real-world-ingested-poisons-with-these-characteristics , http://little-details.livejournal.com

Medical: https://www.nlm.nih.gov , https://www.researchgate.net/search Good places to start medical research. Also check major hospitals like http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions for info and right on down to specific ailments such as what functions are affected by injury to certain parts of the brain http://neuroskills.com/brain-injury/brain-function.php

Law Enforcement: https://www.criminaljusticedegree.com/40-informative-forums-for-law-enforcement-professionals/ Requires sorting and some of the links are dead, but this is a convenient place to start if you just can’t find what you need. Includes law enforcement and lawyer forum links. I actually have it bookmarked.

https://forum.officer.com , https://www.policeone.com/police-forums/   Great for attitudes, lingo, occasionally specifics.

http://www.leoaffairs.com There are forums for different states, including FL. Personally, I mostly use this as a great place for generating story ideas.

Start at state level http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/cms/home.aspx Remember some states have state police integrating highway patrol and some have separated highway patrol https://beatrooper.com/recruiter-contact/ Drill on down to county level http://www.sheriff.org And then city level- http://www.miami-police.org/index.asp And possibly even institution level https://umpd.ref.miami.edu

Military: Every branch maintains a website and there are multiple forums for every specialty. For military research, specific keywords work very well. Personally, I don’t rely on what individuals tell me except for flavor, attitude, lingo, and story/plot ideas. The rules, equipment, and conflicts change often and so do the attitudes and lingo, so verify, verify, verify with multiple sources regarding details of the time period and location of your story.

Let me know of the websites you’ve found useful below and any thoughts you have on researching in general! Join me on the first Friday of each month for exploration, discovery, and discussion of the writing life.

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Elle Andrews Patt's speculative and literary short fiction has appeared in markets such as The Rag, Saw Palm, and DarkFuse, among others. She has earned RPLA awards for her published short fiction, a published novella, Manteo, and an unpublished mystery novel. Her short story, "Prelude To A Murder Conviction" won an Honorable Mention from Writers Of The Future. She'd love to hear from you! Website

5 Responses

  1. Karen Coody Cooper
    | Reply

    I’m Cherokee citizen and author and just moved to Florida. Made me happy to see your good advice regarding writing about American Indians. Thank you!

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      You’re welcome, Karen, and welcome to Florida! I lived in NC for fifteen years and became very familiar with the history of Native Americans in the state. I have written Native American characters into several stories and it always takes extensive research. I hope to meet you at conference!

  2. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Wow, these are some great resources! Thanks for sharing, Elle.

  3. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Thank you, Ken!

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