back-to-school for writers: research

Hello, September! Time for changing leaves, ripe-on-the-tree apples, cooler weather (once this heat wave breaks!)… and going back to school. Here in the Gale household, we’ve been doing school since the second week of August, but everyone else is finally catching up to us (slackers! *wink*). So, I thought it’d be fun to do a  continuing education series for writers this month.

As writers, we not only have to perfect our own craft, we also have to familiarize ourselves with the professions of others as needed. As worldbuilders and character developers, we find ourselves stepping into the roles of: linguists, physicists, forensic scientists, homicide detectives, medieval warriors, Roman soldiers, calligraphers and carpenters, and thousands more besides, including some that don’t actually exist–like dragon keepers, mages, xenobiologists, and more. And we need to do this accurately, in order to maintain the illusion of truth that is good storytelling.

So we have to do our research.

Sometimes the research is quick and easy, like when we need a minor factoid such as, say… oh, what kind of rock tin is found in. A simple Google or wikipedia search should suffice (looks like tin ore is found in igneous rocks). Other times, though, we need to immerse ourselves in a whole new culture, whether it is of a previous era of time, a madeup world, or a profession we have no real-world experience in.

Here’s my strategy for doing that kind of research. I start off on the Internet, to get a feel for my subject area and figure out what kinds of questions I should be asking. I’ll make a list of likely-looking books as resources. Preferably ones with pictures.

Then I’ll hit the library. If I’m a complete newbie to my research area, I’ll start out in the children’s section. Hey, I can benefit from the simple language and colorful pictures and cutaway diagrams. Once I get my basics down, I can move over to the same topic in the adult section. If my library doesn’t have a book I desperately want, I order it through interlibrary loan.

I’ll often go for biographies and memoirs to give me a sense of what everyday life in the culture I’m exploring is like. It also helps to visit museums and other places of interest. If I can’t hop on a plane and fly across the world (which is 99.99% of the time *grin*), I’ll look at coffee-table books or do an image search online for visuals. Many touristy spots also have good websites full of information like maps and virtual tours.

Sometimes, I don’t require knowledge so much as a skillset. My character may be a gardener or a glassblower. In order to get into that character’s head, I need to know how he does his job. In that case, I can visit a glassblowing factory or take a community course in gardening. There are lots of free or cheap events, workshops, and courses offered by various organizations on any number of topics.

The next step would be to consult an expert. I’d only do that after having done my legwork, so I can ask intelligent and specific questions, not basic ones that I could find the answers to by reading “So You Want to Be a [Insert Relevant Profession]” from the library.

So, that’s my approach to research. How about yours? Any tips to share?

In the meantime, here are some research tips you might find useful:

How to teach yourself anything in less than three months

Research in Pajamas: Five ways of researching online.

Need to brush up on calculus, musical theory or art history? Here’s a list of universities that offer free online DIY courses. Includes universities like MIT and Stanford.

10 Research Tips for Fiction Writers: Good tip about watching movies (and documentaries, too!) to get a feel for a time period.

A ton of research links for science fiction writers here. And more on finding credible academic research. Oh, oh, and a large compilation of links of interest to the researching writer.

What are some of your favorite places on the web to go to for research?

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    • Rabia says

      Ohhh, finding that right search string is such an art, isn’t it? One that I’m not very good at. My Google-fu is weak. 😛

  1. says

    I’m a Google chick, too, but feel the need to break out and try other search engines, if only because I worry that Google is taking over the world.

    Wonderful, useful post, Rabia! I’ll keep it in my inbox for “future reference.”

    Let’s see: the past couple of days I’ve helped another writer with some car issues and found links for some gun stuff. Mainly, I’ve been researching sailing yachts. Oh, how painful is that? My heroine gets to do things I’ll probably never have a chance at, so I’ll live a little through her. Hope the readers can, as well.

    • Rabia says

      Ha, yes! Funny (funny-creepy, not funny ha ha) how the ‘don’t be evil’ slogan can actually be frightening. 😛 Of course, I love my gmail and my feed reader and all the other google apps. 😛

      For some reason or the other, I always ALWAYS end up working on a story set on a wooden sailing ship about once a year. And honestly, even with all the research I’ve done, I’m still so clueless about sailing. It all just falls right out of my head. I think it’s one of those things I need to see and do instead of just read about.

  2. says

    I usually start off on Wikipedia, then check out references, citations, and see also’s. Note what questions this brings to mind. Then start hunting the world wide web. Find books to check out. Determine whether they’re worth it. Keep writing. Figure out exact questions. Locate insitutes and organizations specializing in my subject. Check out THEIR material. Keep writing. Go get specialized required materials to finish up. In the case of In This Wood, ask expert in subject (professional) to read final result. Edit. :grins:

    • Rabia says

      *grin* I’m glad to see that actually writing out the story doesn’t interfere with the research. 😉 I like your combination of research and writing–sometimes I don’t know what specifically I should be hunting for until my hero gets invited to a Mongolian victory feast and I have no clue what will be served, who will sit where, and what all the protocols are.

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