Occasionally as writers we run up against the notion that we are simply “making stuff up in our heads and writing it down”. For fiction writers that notion is partially true, but relates, for the most part, only to the progression of our plots. Non-fiction writers also have occasion to be creative— descriptions, changed names, aggregated characters, condensed dialogue— but all based on what is known to have happened. The vast foundation of any type of writing is research.
Research can take many forms- reading, interviewing, conversation with anyone with knowledge of the information we need. And applies to not only what we don’t know, but also to those more nebulous “facts” we just picked up along the way in life. My expert knowledge consists of very little, so double-checking what I think I know has saved many an embarrassing gaffe. Research takes time, but the overall knowledge we gain on our subject seeps into our writing, regardless of the amount of specific information we end up including in our final draft.
In my opinion, internet keyword searches are the best place to start researching any subject, whether for general knowledge or a tidbit. Wikipedia articles can be very useful for their sources. I always scroll down to the sources first and plumb those for reliability and usefulness. Every fact you glean should be verifiable with at least a second, if not third, independent source. The internet is rife with multiple sites all taking info from the same singular source. Keyword searches give us not only internet sources, but also forums, books, and people to contact.
Internet forums are particularly useful because they offer up-to-the-minute information on any given subject and people we can develop relationships with for both their intimate knowledge and our personal enrichment. In my case, I regularly troll the law enforcement, military, legal, and paranormal forums for situational knowledge and insight into how I might shape my characters’ backgrounds, attitudes, and dialogue. If people have an interest, somewhere on the web there will be a forum with those people chatting away about it and generally happy to include you if you are respectful, polite, and positive. Except in the case of directly contacting someone by private message to conduct an active interview or ask in-depth question, I generally do not identify myself as a writer. I’m more comfortable as a fly on the wall who occasionally asks a specific question.
Those Amazon book pages that show up in keyword searches can provide amazing details that lend authenticity to our work, but sometimes we need more. Yes, reading whole books on background material or subjects that only comprise a small portion of the work we are creating takes time. But it is so worth it when it infuses our writing in a wholly unexpected way. And it does, without us actively trying to do so. Can I prove this? No. But the ring of truth is an enhancement we all, as readers, recognize. So why do some stories set in the distant past or far future or featuring aliens or on seemingly impossible ships in deep space “feel” true? Those stories are grounded in our real world as we know it. Science, biology, physics, social sciences, history, politics. No matter how outlandish our universe-building becomes, it will feel real if our starting point is based in real-world fact and human emotion.
Interviewing experts in any given field is easier said than done, especially for unpublished writers. Keeping our writer’s antennae tuned while in social settings gives serendipity a chance to help us out while seeking knowledge. Start with asking friends if they know of anyone with the expert knowledge you’re seeking. As you progress, you’ll bump up against people you can approach at conferences, in forums, or by email—speakers, frequent posters, authors who have written books you are using. Reach out to the particular places you are including in your work to ask if they have someone on staff who can speak with you. Do we risk rejection doing so? Of course. Expect to be told no, accept it, and move on to the next person. When you do land that interview, be prepared in advance with a specific approach of inquiry and at least ten questions to stimulate a give and take conversation.
Research Part II will address research issues that have arisen in my own experience as a writer and links that I’ve found useful. Join me on the first Friday of each month for exploration, discovery, and discussion of the writing life.