Research Part 1- Use All The Tools

I research constantly. I question everything. For every fact, I challenge myself to find the opposite. My journey has been a learning one, and I use my research to write, to create fantasies.
Part one explores the basic tools to get started in your research, no matter what you're building, it's nice to have the right tools.

Use all the tools at your disposal

I start my search here. I'll find an assortment of articles and books to research further. Use; Internet, google search, archives, articles, newspapers, databases of all kinds, follow blogs, subscribe to newsletters. Ask around for specialised sites. Here are a few that get my search started.

The important thing to remember is to BEGIN here, not let it end here. Follow links, make contacts, find those specialists to answer your questions.

Our local library allows us to go online to order books from every library in the province. That's a lot of books, and they come to me. Perfect. Order fiction and non-fiction ones. Drown yourself in your new world.

Local newspapers have archives you can search. Go prepared, these archives or not like a virtual search, they take time to hunt through. Know what you want. I'm not sure about provincial newspapers, I've never used these archives, since I've found them in the library historical archives.

Don't limit your research to provincial or library archives. Both come in handy. I've dug around virtual data bases and driven three hours to search them hands on, but the best archives I've found, were hidden ones.

Don't limit yourself to your own language. If the language in your area was different a hundred years ago, find someone to help you translate documents.

There are so many boxes lost in attics, churches, old stores. Visit people, let them know you're researching.

A gentleman brought me minutes from a school board meeting, dated back from 1904. Wow, school teachers were underpaid! It supported a few other facts I'd been researching about discrimination in the area at that time. Strangely, it was the opposite of what I'd previously found. Interesting... I dug deeper.

Not saying you have to go to jail,
but if you did, now that would help.
Visit the scenes that will be in your book, even if you plan to rewrite them, make them fiction. You'll be surprised what little details stick with you. 

Take pictures for inspiration. In fact, travel with your camera, you never know what you might see.

I spent a day in a cemetery to get inside my characters' heads. What were they feeling while they stood in this cemetery a hundred years ago? What smells came to life? The emotions? Why were there 20 stones dated the same day? Got me curious. I dug deeper.

I explored tunnels, toured a jail, went horseback riding... things a klutz like me, really has no business doing.

I have an incredible imagination, but visiting these places made things come to life for me that I would have missed. I had no idea tunnel walls would crumble under my touch and leave my fingers smelling... yucky. I had no idea making ice cream was so hard.

Writers are generalists by nature, we know a lot of weird things, but everyone, anyone, can be a specialist. These guys and girls rock. They know everything about a very specific thing.

Ask them questions, go with your gut 
What started out as an interview about a threshing machine, turned into an hour discussion about a bedroom in 1936. It was the perfect room for the series I was writing. The walls, the smells, the curtain down the middle of the room... It came to life for me, and he was thrilled to tell me about this room he had to share with his 13 siblings.

Ask family and friends the more personal things
Friends will discuss more intense things like how much blood is at a scene when someone slices off a finger, to date rape. Shockingly, people need to talk about these things I don't ever want to experience. They are happy to answer my endless questions. I use their emotions, their facial expressions to build scenes in my fantasy world. Let them read these scenes if you need feedback.

Everyone loves talking about their experiences, knowledge
Know who to ask for help, let them know that you're writing a book and have questions. I haven't met anyone yet who turned me away, and I've asked some strange things.

"Did that tattoo hurt? For how many days was it swollen? Did your parents like it? Did you feel the needles? Where did the artist buy their ink? Can I come watch you get your next one?"
They look at me strangely. "You need to know this for a book?"
I need to know everything.
Even if the scene reads like this;

Damn, that hurt. Mable said it wouldn't hurt. I knew she was a blasted liar. It hurt. How could it not? This guy was shoving soot under my skin by candlelight with a needle that looked as old as him.
He wiped the soot off roughly, reached for a jar of ink, then he ran his leaking nose on his sleeve while he settled in again. Great.
He was too close to me, so close I could smell his gross breath, rancid like... oh crap, was that dizzy cigarettes I smelt? Was he stoned?
Why was I doing this to myself?
Oh yeah, to piss my brother off.
"Got a joint for me?" I asked, afraid he might say yeah.

What tools do you use in your research that might help others?


Lindz Pagel said...

Wow! Great post. I love delving a little deeper into some of the mechanics of my work, and this is definitely a great post on some ways to get that going. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Yes, wow, thanks for all those research tips.

I gave you an award the other day and forgot to come tell you. Here is where you can pick it up:

We'll have to keep our conversation going about teaching our children that other language. I don't have the option of a French-immersion school but I sing to them in French and sometimes we actually practice.


Gina said...

Great post! There's no research like experience. As a reader, you can tell when someone is fudging details and I strive not to fudge.

Also, for the moments when you're questioning your grammar (at least I do), I've found the Grammar Girl site invaluable!

Michael Offutt said...

I love researching too. I've worked on one book for over a year and there was so much research to do that I've only penned like maybe 60,000 of the 120,000 words that is my goal. I think that research gives a level of authenticity that will make the story better which appeals to a more intelligent audience.

Richard said...

I'll be glad when you publish something. It'll be a very interesting read, I'm sure. And you've given me a lot of ideas that I'll run with in the future.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wow, that's a lot of details! As part of the FFW, we all posted about research yesterday, but my piece was very... short.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow - lots of good recommendations - loved your idea of visiting the cemetery to get into your characters' heads --- I'm a crusader who's slowly getting around - nice to see your blog.

Jess said...

This post is super interesting and full of great info and links! Really great advice here, so thanks!

I really like the photo of the little kiddo in a jail cell too :)

Arlee Bird said...

Great tips. Like you, I am always prying and asking questions. My wife says I'm nosy, but to me it's all research. Often asking experts or others in the know will uncover much more information than you originally came for since a lot of these people are so fanatical about their specialties that they will keep talking until they are ready to stop.

Good post.

Tossing It Out

WritingNut said...

I love researching too! :) These are great tips... thank you so much for all the links!

Linda Gray said...

Very impressive! If you do this much research, your work is definitely going to shine with authentic detail. You've inspired me to dig even deeper than I usually do!

The funniest experience I ever had researching was when I asked a locksmith to explain lock mechanisms in detail so I could write a scene where my protagonist picked a lock. The scene was great as a result, but I didn't get EVERY detail from the locksmith. He pulled himself up short when he got to the most sensitive point, and refused to go further because, he said, he couldn't be sure I wouldn't start picking locks!

E.C. Smith said...

Very cool! I love chatting with people, so I always end up coming away with interesting tidbits of information in the strangest places. I once learned all about old printing presses from an elderly gentleman in a grocery line. So cool!

Big wave from another Canadian, Tanya! I'm heading to check out that Canada History site.