Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome author and teacher, Rebecca Reynolds. She has appeared on this blog before, to talk about how to conduct successful interviews and today she shares her wisdom on conducting research for a fiction or non-fiction project.
You may want to carry out research for your writing – to supply some period colouring, or historical detail, or simply to prevent howlers like having Romans eat tomatoes (in fact they were first cultivated by Aztecs and Incas and came to Europe from the New World).
The research I did for a non-fiction work, Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums, involved finding out all I could about each of the 36 objects in the book, then slimming this down into short introductions to longer contributions from interviewees about each one.
So, now I’m out the other side here are some reflections on the research process:
- Check as often as you have time for. Even very knowledgeable people can be inaccurate, accidentally or on purpose. I found one interviewee’s contribution needed chopping in half and a disclaimer that this was their ‘personal vision’ added. Others omitted central things, or occasionally got facts wrong.
- It’s difficult when you can’t find evidence to support something which is widely accepted. One of the objects in the book is ‘the vegetable lamb,’ a fern that looks like a plant/animal hybrid which appeared in many cabinets of curiosity. After hours in the British Library and elsewhere, I couldn’t actually find any evidence that anyone had ever believed it was a cross between an animal and plant, but plenty of evidence that people believed other people believed it, or wanted to believe it themselves. Likewise, I couldn’t find evidence that Milton had definitely worked on his epic Paradise Lost in his country cottage, now a museum, despite being told this by the curator and by the museum’s publicity. I wimped out both times, saying that Milton ‘probably’ worked on the book there, and that people were ‘said to believe’, the lamb was a cross.
- Research is sooo much easier than it used to be. At times, it’s a click and you’re there. At times, I felt I was doing little more than reconfiguring what was already on the web. Charles Darwin’s letters, with notes summarizing each letter, biographies of the correspondents, links to further letters between them and a keyword search facility? I’ll take that. Online account books for the slave trading voyages of ex-Mayor of Liverpool Thomas Leyland? I’ll take that too (thanks, University of Michigan).
- Research is time-consuming. And the results often don’t pay off in the word count.
- Nitpicking academic articles rock. Particularly if they pin down a fact or find a source which would have taken you forever (or more likely never), such as whether friends of philosopher Jeremy Bentham socialized with his clothed corpse (they almost certainly did).
- Write down more than you think you’ll need. I’ve had to return to a book two or even three times to pin something down exactly, when my notes were too skimpy.
- Wikipedia? Sure, not rigorous, but a very very good starting (and sometimes finishing) point.
- And when in the writing process should you do it? The teacher on the first ever creative writing class I attended asked this question and the answer, to our surprise, was towards the end of the writing process – so that it would not swamp the narrative. Instead, info should be sought out when needed. This is very different from my experience of academic document-based research, where you will probably have to let existing findings call the tune to a much greater extent.
Wherever your work lies between these two extremes, I would recommend having a clear aim in mind when you start – though surprises can, and hopefully will, happen.
Rebecca Reynolds is a teacher and non-fiction writer. Her main places of museums work have been the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading. She blogs here.
How do you conduct research for your writing, and what stage? Are you a reader, a writer, or both? Care to tell us about an interesting bit of research you’ve done for your projects? As a reader or writer, do you have questions for Rebecca?
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