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Top 5 Research Tips

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Say the word “research,” and even the most seasoned academic might give you a long sigh. But as authors, it’s part of our job to create a gripping fictional story that seems like it could be true, simply because we’ve done enough research to make it authentic. Whether that’s finding a map of 19th century New York for a historical novel, or learning the intricacies of international flight for a character traveling abroad, the better we can establish parts of our story in reality, the more our audience “buys” the idea. Also, you won’t have to worry about ticking off those who are “in the know” on a subject if you cross your t’s and dot your i’s. Besides, no one wants their book reviews to be filled with comments about errors that could have easily been avoided!

In that vein, the members of the WWAT team are sharing their best tips for making sure your research backs your story up…and just maybe, adds something to the plot you never considered before!

John: I know, I know, I know the internet has great resources, but when I’m doing research I tend to be old school. I like to look up non-fiction books related to the areas I’m knowledge-deficient in. I read the reviews of the books covering the topic I’m interested in knowing more about and ultimately order the one(s) (e-book or print) I think can help me. Like I said, I know the internet has a ton of free information, but by doing my research this way, I feel like I’m helping a fellow author. Furthermore, when I’m done writing, I have all of those great resources on my shelf to remind me how my work came to be. (Not to mention, if I’m reading a physical book or one on my kindle, I’m somewhat removed from the temptation of surfing the internet. And I struggle with distraction…Squirrel!)

Anna: You’d be surprised at all the resources a library can offer you!  It’s more than just books.  There are databases with historical maps, images, and first-hand accounts to help you get a better perspective.  There are videos and documentaries, like everything Ken Burns has ever done, to help you experience the time period, the places, and the people.  There’s music to download or checkout on CD to put you in the right mood and inspire you.  And if you need a more in depth approach, why not ask a librarian!  (It’s what we LOVE to do!)   

Linda: Ah, the internet – a vast expanse of knowledge at your fingertips. One note of caution: Don’t believe everything you read. With that being said, almost anything you want to research you can find on your computer. From Victorian fashion to future technologies, the internet has is all. For the best results, be specific. The more input, the better the results. Not only will you have an encyclopedia of knowledge, but you can find photos, video, sounds clips, and much much more. The speed, ease, and sheer amount of information make computers one of the best resources for research.  

Megan: I’ve found that sometimes a good chat over lunch or on the phone with an expert can help me avoid potential issues in my story. While working on a piece titled When the Monsters Come, I met with a licensed counselor to ask her any questions I had that might relate to the interaction between my fictional teen character and her own counselor. While working on another contemporary novel, Tree of Knowledge, I reached out to a colleague who had left Iran at the same time as the father of one of my main characters. Even though I had read books about Iranians coming to the U.S. or growing up here, my interviewee gave me insight that related directly to the scenes I had planned in my book. While it’s not always easy to shuck the anxiety of calling someone up and asking them to help with a book project, the willingness to do so has saved me some major errors, so it’s no longer a last resort, but a place I start.

Jess: Maybe the information you wish to get right is dialogue, scene, or authenticity of character. Or maybe you wish to research ideas for a book in general. I’ve found subscriptions to the newspaper and any deals I can get on magazines very helpful for these reasons. Popular Science has often gotten the what if questions rolling. Local interviews can give ideas for dialogue and potential character voices. Obituaries can even lead to an idea or too as well. They are stories themselves, told to honor those deceased. They are people and people are the heart of stories. The pictures from these two sources are great for research as well. I was just flipping through National Geographic and it’s beautiful photography. There were quite a few pictures I kept because there is definitely a story in the images. Pictures are great ways to set a scene. So what if you are writing a story that takes place across the country or on another continent. Pictures of said area can help the writer set the scene appropriately and even give small details that make it come alive in the work. The best thing about these sources is that you can get your hands on them for free with a library card.

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