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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Research Tips: How to Find Your Information Without Losing Your Mind

Every writer, at some point, will need to do a little research. But most writers I’ve spoken to just don’t know where to start…or don’t have the time. Being one of those weird individuals that enjoys research and studying, I spent years learning and practicing how to research. Now, the tips I will list here definitely do NOT include any and all possibilities. This is simply how I go about finding those obscure little facts that give my manuscripts that extra ounce of authenticity.

When I first started to really pursue writing, I focused mainly on historical settings, which, as you can imagine, requires a LOT of research. Though my genres have changed a bit recently, research is still a very important part of my writing process. As a stay at home mom with two small children, I don’t have the time (or energy) to attempt to do research in a library as I once did. Before having children, I would spend hours wandering among the shelves, pulling book after book and relaxingly browsing for the information I needed. With a three year old and a five year old and a husband who is very often out of town….this just isn’t an option for me anymore. Therefore, I do most of my research on the internet.

1. First of all, you need to know what exactly it is that you need to research.
Do you need to know if toilets were widely used in 1856? Maybe you need to know what a bottle of poison would have looked like in 1662, or what a pistol from 1734 looked like and how it was used.

  • Make a list, keep a binder, create a spreadsheet. You need to have some way of recording your information. For me, I create a document in my word processor and a file folder for research within the file for whatever Work In Progess I happen to be working on. I also print a copy of whatever information I record and keep it in a WIP binder. When I am writing, it is actually easier for me to refer to the binder than to flip back and forth between Word documents.

Once I know what I want to look for, I hit the internet. Google is my best friend. It really is amazing what you can find online.

2. Book Search.
When you google a topic, it almost always pulls up Amazon.com with a few titles. Many times, you can search the index or table of contents of these books on the Amazon site. This is very helpful. You can also specifically google for books on a particular subject. If you need info on toilets, google for “books on toilets,” or “books on the history of plumbing,” etc.

  • Utilize Your Local Library. Once I get several titles that look promising, I get on my local library’s website and see if they carry the books in question. As I live in a tiny town, my library very rarely has the book in which I am interested. However, I can request the book through interlibrary loans without ever having to leave my home. When they come in, all I have to do is run down to the library and pick them up from the desk…relatively simple, even with two children in tow.

3. Scholarly and Scientific Journals.
These are a great place to find information Again, this is something you can plug into Google.

  • Search For Your Topic. Do a google search for “scholarly journal articles on pirates in the 16th century” and see what pops up.
  • Utilize Your Local Library. Many scholarly journals will require you to have a subscription or membership, but again, here is where online library tools come in handy. Even if you can’t get the full article online, you can usually get enough of an excerpt to see if it will help you. If it is something that you need, but you can’t get it online for free, check your local library. Libraries carry many, many scholarly journals and magazines. If they don’t have what you are looking for, they should be able to get it. And with journal articles, many times they are able to just email or fax you a copy of the article in question.

4. Online Sites and Sources.
There are also many, many online sites and sources of which you can take advantage.

  • Personal Websites and Forums. When I was doing a search for 17th century pistols, I did a little google searching and it pulled up a website of people who were pirate aficionados. They wore the outfits, collected the guns (either replicas or sometimes the real article). There were pictures and forums and these wonderful people are usually more than happy to answer questions for someone who is truly interested. Don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet and ASK SOMEONE.
  • Ask an Expert. When researching what kind of flowers would bloom in England in January, I emailed a horticulture society and they sent me several pages of information on all types of British winter flora. I once emailed a website of physicians on whether or not a 100-year-old skeleton would still have hair, and got a very detailed answer from an expert on the subject. It took me five minutes and all my questions were answered. All you have to do is find the right place or person and just ask.

5. Online Encyclopedias and Information Sites.

  • Proceed with Caution. Sites like Wikipedia and Ask.com are handy, and you can get information quickly, but you need to remember that this information is written by whoever wants to answer the question, so be sure to double (if not triple) check your information. I generally use these type of sites for a quick memory refresher…if there is something that I am pretty sure I know, but want to double check, I’ll look it up on Wikipedia.
  • Use as a Starting Point. These sites aren’t bad to use as a starting point. Wikipedia especially often has sources listed at the end of their articles. These sites can be a useful place to get titles of books and articles to further your own research. Beware the articles that do NOT have sources listed. These are the ones that are more likely to contain inaccurate information. And again, I would urge any good researcher to double check the information they find.

There is a wealth of information at your fingertips – you can find most of what you need without ever leaving your home or computer.
Michelle McLean writes YA fiction, children’s picture books, and adult non-fiction, and has been published in three Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She holds a B.S. in History and a M.A. in English. If her nose isn’t stuck in a book somewhere, you might want to check her pulse.


Amanda Bonilla said...

Welcome to the blog! What a great first post!

Your tips are excellent and you are for sure more organized that I am. But I agree that file folders and hard copies are the way to go. I usually designate a file folder, computer file folder and specific notebook for each WIP. I find that Google is indispensable in research as well. I read an article that alluded to the fact that there are so many more writers in the world than ever because research and information is available at the touch of a button.
Looking forward to many helpful posts in the future!

Stina said...

Welcome Michelle.

Love the first post. Research is one of my favorite aspect of writing. Thank goodness for Google and the Internet. Searching for books through my city's extensive library system is so much easier with the internet, and I can put books on hold and transfer them to my local branch without having to run around the city. Saves me big bucks! Though I'm positive one of the librarians thinks I was recently raped after I checked out a book on surviving rape (believe me, the expression on her face said it all). This is where Google is definitely handy. I found great organizations such as rainn.org because of it. Perfect for research.

Looking forward to your future posts.

Crystal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crystal said...

Hi Michelle!

This was an excellent first post! And very timely for me, too, as I continue to do research for my middle grade historical novel. You gave some really good tips on getting organized which I am going to try and heed. The idea of using a binder was very helpful. Right now, most of my research is in several folders (hard copy) and on legal pads.

Thanks for the tips! I am going to link to this article on my blog!

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks Mandy :) And yes, I would be totally lost without Google!

Stina: I think you are the first writer I have met that loves research! Most of my writer friends look at me like I'm insane :D And ROFL over the librarian!! I get some weird looks too...if they look concerned enough, I'll tell them I'm a writer doing research, but sometimes it's just fun to watch their expressions :D

Crystal: I used to be organized to the point my husband wanted to medicate me :D But, I have loosened up since my kids were born, so now I just get the weird looks when he sees me with my notebooks ;-) I'm glad the tips helped and thanks for the linkage!

Stina said...

My writer's group dubbed me the Research for a reason. ;0) And I, too, enjoy the looks on the librarian's faces when they check out my latest finds. I can only imagine what she thought I when I recently checked out a teen book on finding my inner witch. That maybe I'm going to put a spell on my rapist? Hmmm. Now there's an idea for a book.

Michelle McLean said...

LOL see? :D And who says research isn't fun? ;-)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I love this post. :-) Welcome again, Michelle!

Elana Johnson said...

Welcome Michelle. Can I hire you to do my research? :) I hate the stuff. A necessary evil of writing, I think. Great post!

Tess said...

There are a few of us who think research is part of the fun :)

great post!

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

So glad you are part of the team, Michelle. Excellent post.

Danyelle L. said...

Something that helps me in researching is finding pictures or diagrams, especially of scientific data that I need for world building. It's easier and faster to get a feel for things (for me) if I can see it in picture form.

*hearts Internet*

Suzette Saxton said...

Yay for research! Sometimes I get so lost in it, especially if it historical, I forget to write the book.

Michelle, I'm so glad that you have joined us!

Anonymous said...

Michelle...nice post. The research tips are fantastic. (and like some of the others who have weighed in, I actually like research (well - most of the time).

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks for the comments and warm welcome everyone! I am very pleasantly surprised to find so many people that enjoy research! And here I thought I was alone in the world ;-) Glad to see I'm not quite as weird as I thought (well, maybe I shouldn't jump to that conclusion, but you know what I mean) :D