Writing, research, and how to do both

The book I’m reading to do research

Life after returning from the AWP conference has been filled with work, writing, and not enough sleep.

But it feels great to be back at the blogging controls! I’ve missed writing about, well, writing. However, it has freed me up to work on a short story which is quickly becoming a novel. Yes. A second novel.

So while I’m doing some preliminary writing for the “novel”, I came across a problem: research. My story takes place in 1943 in the South and moves to the Midwest. I know nothing about that time and less about the area in the MidWest where the story ends up moving to.

This presented a unique problem that I thought you guys would be interested in: Research for writers? 

I have to admit that I’m pretty lucky to be a reporter. We research a lot so I had some idea on how to collect information. Here’s the game plan I came up with.

Internet searches

The Internet is a wondrous thing but at the same time it’s filled with misinformation. I did a couple of quick Google searches for several items. First, I wanted to get a good sense of thing, like an aerial shot before going deeper. It was very much like wading into the water before diving in. Could I do this? Was I right to go down this road? What as it like to live in this time of American history?

Then, as with any research, I considered the source. For example, Wikipedia is a great resource but its so easy to get wrong/bad information from there. So I looked at these sites knowing that I’d have to have a second source to confirm the fact I had found.

Books/journals/research papers

Here’s an interesting little tidbit: use the library! I was surprised at how I had forgotten about the library. We pay taxes for it and it’s free to use. What a great resource to look up books and research papers on what you’re looking for. Adding to those resources are librarians who not only know where everything is but can point you to other resources you haven’t thought about yet like telephone books of the era or, if you’re library is anything like mine, the genealogical section with photos and artifacts from the era.


So the great thing about library and Internet searches are that they are great places to find sources. If you’re not in the journalism game, sources are people to talk to. With all that information, I’m sure there will be questions that pop up. Calling or emailing the person who wrote a study would be a good idea. What is also good is interviewing people who lived in the era. It’s worth the time to get some tidbits that are not academic. This is how you build a world in your fiction if you’re writing about a certain historical period — learn the rules. How did it all function? What were the societal norms? What did people in that era aspire to? The answers will help develop the stage that your story takes place in.

Go to the places, literally and virtually

As much as interviewing and reading will help, nothing really puts things in perspective as much as going to the actual places and, in lieu of that (should money and/or time is a worry) pictures. JoAnna Penn of The Creative Penn talked about knowing what a certain American desert looked like while writing her novel. However, she never left New Zealand. How did she know? She used Flickr and Google Images to help fill in the gaps.

I’m a great supporter of the “being there” theory. If I can, I’ll travel (hopefully in the way my character did) to the place. I write down what it felt like (tiring, difficult passage or just long) what they would have seen (was that building there in 1943?) and what goes through my mind as I look at the window (wow, it’s REALLY flat out there.) All that is what my character would have seen/felt/experienced and are all valid descriptions to put in your story.

Extra tip: I try to get the music of the era and upload it into my Ipod as I’m traveling.

Novels of the era

This tip is what my advisor Aimee Liu once told me. As she’s working on a project, she constructs a reading list that help prep her for the project. Read books written from the era, which is not the same as fiction books about the era. Remember, those writers had to do their own research as well (if they did at all) so you don’t want to contaminate yours with theirs.

I posted the question about research to my writer friends and here’s some advice a couple have shared.

Jennifer Peebles, a journalist in Houston for TexasWatchdog.org said:  For a story of any depth or complexity, I start with an outline. Before I make an outline, I may do some “mind-mapping” on a legal pad or even a piece of poster board, and then group my individual points into sections for the outline. For keeping up with tidbits of info I find in reporting a story, I use Evernote and save links with delicious.com.”

Nathan Weaver, a fellow writer gave a detail description: Spreadsheets are priceless. You can outline your stories in them, for one, but in relation to the question of research, I recently started to use a spreadsheet for a science fiction novel I’m working on. The spreadsheet currently has three worksheets. The first is labeled Characters, the second Worlds, and then Outline.” You can read the rest of his answer here.

My friend Natasha Oliver answered my question on Facebook. This is what she said: I now use Scrivener. I also create a bookmark folder for info I find on the web. I’m doing fantasy, so I’ve got notes about my notes. Lol. I also have a black book that I used to write EVERYTHING in. It has all my notes on currency, etc. I use PowerPoint for my maps, though I’m sure there must be a better software. Basically, I try now to keep everything in the cloud. And what I can’t gets paraphrased and put in my black notebook.

Here’s some links to other resources on how to fiction writers conduct research:

Write On!

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