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.
Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums is available from Amazon , Smashwords , and to order from your local bookshop.
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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This is an informative and insightful post with some great tips. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca.
Sound and time tested tips here. Another awesome advice from your blog. Thanks! Coming here is always fruitful.
This post is so informative and clear to the point. I love doing research before starting any job. Especially when it comes to blogging about traditions and cultural heritage. It’s exciting to gather info.
Thanks Suja. Yes, the process of doing it is one of the pleasures of writing.
Very interesting, I am going to come back to this. Thank you!
For Rebecca: I have been doing some research on genetics. How do you find experts willing to answer questions about the plausibility of your story based on science or whatever topic you are writing about? One person offered to give me feedback. Someone else I cold emailed never responded. Interesting part about doing research after the writing. With Sci-Fi I wonder if it would cause a lot of revision.
I’ve put my response in 2 replies since it’s a bit long!
My advice would be:
1. Don’t ask people to read the whole story – they probably won’t have time. If there are crucial bits you need to check just send very short excerpts and say you’d be very grateful if they could let you know if you’ve made any howlers. Try to ask closed questions, e.g. ‘is this accurate…’ Rather than open questions, e.g. ‘how plausible is this?’. Cold requests need to be short and specific so people know how much time you are asking them to spend. Of course write a thank-you email afterwards and mention them in acknowledgements. Also think if you have any contacts you’ve met personally – I did get someone to read my introduction and conclusion but I had worked with her – otherwise, I think she would have turned it down if she didn’t know me.
2. Yes – if your story is based on a premise which needs to be thorough and plausible then do research it first, of course. Do as much as you can since as you say you don’t want to plug in a lot of work which then turns out to stand on shaky foundations. Decide how fact-based it needs to be though – plenty of books play around with premises and the authors aren’t particularly bothered if it’s accurate or not.
That would be my advice, anyway. Good luck with your work – thanks for getting in touch!
Thank you, Rebecca. Appreciate the input. 🙂
Thank you very much, Rebecca. I like the idea of sending a short excerpt so they know I am not asking for too much of their time with closed questions. Yes, I could try to think about possible contacts. 🙂
This was a wonderful read .Thank you so much for sharing these tips on doing a good research.Research is needed for most of my posts too!
I use Wikipedia for general research but if I want to write something professional, I will try to confirm the info elsewhere.
Yes I totally agree with you Run.
I use Wikipedia quite often. It has good general information, plus there the references at the bottom of the page.
A high-flying academic I once heard speak said that everyone uses Wikipedia- including her. It’s a myth that academics don’t use it. Although they might tell other people not to!
I was writing masters-level course materials recently, and was dropped a broad hint to make sure I was putting in stuff that wasn’t already in Wikipedia because there had been complaints about that. Whatever that says about the course materials, it does say something complimentary about Wikipedia.
I find it’s a good starting point whenever I need a start on something new and it’s particularly good for summarising global statistics, which tend to be up to date and often place data from several sources side by side for comparison.
The caveat is to always check the references, and only believe anything that isn’t referenced if you can confirm it from another reliable source. I also find that now it’s been around for more than a decade, not everything is up to date. On some pages, the information was excellent when it was posted but the latest reference is six or seven years old. That matters in areas where research is ongoing.
Great blog, really helpful with tips, I will share this. I’m sure a lot of people will find this useful.
The internet has made fact-checking type research way easier, but if you really need to soak up the atmosphere of a historical time period, or the culture of a specific place, group or organization, it really helps to do some immersive reading (assuming it exists and you can find it). I found that writing detailed notes while doing this reading helped to internalize what I was learning, but strangely I didn’t need to refer to the notes much while actually writing. (This was for a fiction project).
Yes it’s funny that (the way that the process of writing helps you remember something, even if you don’t refer to the notes much afterwards). Kind of makes you think that writing and thinking are linked quite closely, at least for people who use the written word a lot and like doing it.
I also find it interesting to visit the place where things happen to aid my imagination. Historical houses, landscapes…
Actually visiting a place is really useful. Too bad it’s not possible to time travel. ?
I agree that sometimes the resources online aren’t correct so it’s good to look to multiple sources, if you have time. Great post!
Thanks Christy. Though as I said in reply above, I once heard a high-flying academic proudly say in a lecture that she used Wikipedia often, like every other academic she knew.
Ohhhh! I was once told NOT to use Wikipedia as a resource 😉
Hi Damyanti and Rebecca – I have no immediate reason for research, other than to make sure my posts are as accurate as can be. I have no background in authorship … thankfully just a basic knowledge that must have been gleaned through the years and now somewhat more honed by reading posts by Damyanti and looking at and into books such as yours Rebecca – I love it … I don’t go too detailed … but I did know tomatoes only came over here in the late 1500s or early 1600s … common sense prevails … I’d love to read your book sometime – it is noted into the TBB section … cheers Hilary
Thanks Hilary, nice to hear from you.
I read about this book a while back and then forgot to follow through and buy it. I love the idea, so thanks for reminding me to check my “To Buy” list.
Thanks C.Lee – yes, that long ‘to buy/read’ list. I hope you do enjoy the book if you get to it. It’s a kind of celebration of the wonderful and quirky sings To museums, plus a bit of background about how museums started.
Sorry that should read ‘quirky things in museums’!
I enjoyed this guest blog; Rebecca is ‘soooo’ right about research being easier than it used to be. I’m only just old enough to remember having to use paper copies of the MLA Bibliography and the OED (and a card catalogue). I’m thankful these were available by the time I did my postgraduate work and for my writing now.
Yes, I remember card indexes and inter-library loans (before you could get hold of theses online).
I sometimes wonder if we have lost something though, through research being so easy now – research skills, the joy of hunting down a fact, making unexpected discoveries… Still, I think we’ve gained far more than we have lost.
I’ve just re-read Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and would love to read some documents from the period (16th century) and am assuming some will be online.
I still like going to libraries and looking at the books on the shelf–I usually leave with the ones on my list and several others that somehow didn’t show up in my online search.
archive.org is a good place to go for 18th- and 19th-century documents; they sometimes have things I can’t get at the British Library or the Wellcome Library. I don’t know about their 16th-century holdings.
Thanks – I’ve never used archive.org. Must take a look.