Resources For Researching The Unfamiliar

In every writing class and seminar we take and every book on the writing business we buy, they tell us over and over again, the same piece of advice: write what you know. Judging by the content of popular fiction today, either people are very experienced with supernatural creatures, are involved in romances that take on all forms and in all time periods, and have been to dystopias that kill off their own citizens, or authors of all types are disregarding that write-what-you-know rule.

But what if you want to write about something you don’t know very well? What if you’d like to know more about the White House, neuroscience, or the life of Leonardo da Vinci, and incorporate it into the plot of a story? Then as an author, the thing to do is to research the subject in question. It may be one of the least exciting parts of the writing and publishing process, but often it is one of the most important parts and usually highly necessary.

Here I would like to offer some ideas for resources an author may use for their research, as well as some tips on things to watch out for or some smart habits to do when you do your research. First, I would like to point to some resources and ways of going about researching a topic:

If you’re researching something, visit it. If you’re planning on setting a story in Florida, then take a trip to Florida and do a little sightseeing. If you want to do a story involving an anthropologist as your protagonist, then meet with a few anthropologists and interview them on their jobs. If your latest thriller involves a modern art caper, visit a few museums and galleries to learn a little bit about what they display and sell.

Of course, this suggestion isn’t always feasible. Most self-published authors can’t take off on a research trip when they want. Luckily they are alternatives:

•Read about the subject. One of the best things about authors, we are voracious readers, which is an asset when it comes to research. Read as many books as you feel you need in order to familiarize yourself with a subject. When I was researching my science fiction novel Reborn City, I read several books on gang violence and the Islamic religion in order to be as well versed as I could be on the subjects.
And it’s not unusual for writers to read more than just a handful of books. Some authors will read one thousand books, letters, manuscripts, diaries, and other sources in order to find information that both agrees with and disagrees with a point they will make in their story.

This brings me to my next subject:

•The library is your new best friend. Whether it’s a university library with thousands of tomes in its stacks, a city library with branches all over town, or a local library that hasn’t changed much since it first opened, libraries are great places to go and get your research materials. It costs no money to join or be a part of a library, and you can often hold onto the books you need for long periods of time.

And should your local library not have the books you need, many libraries these days have InterLibrary Loan programs, which allows your library to ask other libraries if they wouldn’t mind lending out the book you need. You won’t believe how many books I’ve been able to find just by using InterLibrary Loan.

•Ask the experts. I’ve often consulted with experts on subjects for details both minute and major in my stories, and you can find them just about anywhere. I’ve asked teachers at my university about various subjects from healing loss to psychogenic fugue to Russian transliterations, and they always seem happy to help.

And you don’t have to limit your inquiries to university professors. When I needed help with creating the psychological profiles for my novel Snake and learned that none of the professors at my school dealt with that sort of thing, I contacted a clinical psychologist at a local psychiatric firm and asked if he wouldn’t mind helping me. Sure enough, he gave me excellent psychological profiles which I incorporated into the story and which also saved me from using pop psychology to explain my killer (which apparently would’ve been so off the mark, it’s not even funny).

Other experts you can ask for help in understanding unfamiliar subjects include doctors, lawyers, clergy, and anyone who’s experienced with a field or business to the point they can answer obscure questions about the field. And they’re usually glad to help without any compensation (though it’s considered polite to cite them if they contributed significantly to your research efforts).

•Use the Internet. Yes, I know using the Internet isn’t always the safest way to get information, but if you know the right websites, there is plenty of useful information that you can use, even if it’s just quick facts you’re looking up.

And now for some tips that help with the research process:

Be careful what websites you use. Yes, I know I just said using the Internet isn’t as hazardous as it’s made out to be, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one must be careful with websites, especially with websites like Wikipedia, where anyone can create an account and edit an entry or article on the website. You could read about Elvis Presley on that site and read a passage that says he was investigated for Communist ties in the fifties, never realizing that was added in by a conspiracy theorist in his mother’s basement.

In addition, sites that seem reputable may not be. The website martinlutherking.org claims to be the site for Dr. King, but in actuality the site is run by a white supremacist group. The real site for Dr. King is actually thekingcenter.org, though most people don’t realize. Like I said, be careful what websites you look at and who you listen to on the Internet. Otherwise one risks looking like the girl from the State Farm commercial below.

Check your sources. When I was researching Snake, I read a book about psychopathy and mental illness called The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. I thought it was awesome and I learned a lot from it. I was devastated to learn later on that Ronson, the book’s author, edited or made up several of the interviews he used in the book in order to further his point. So whenever you use any book/person/website/etc., make sure there’s not a scandal behind it or there’s any other reason you shouldn’t use the item in question. You’ll save yourself my embarrassment.

Keep a list of the sources you use. If you do a lot of research on your story, the kind that involves more than ten books, keeping a list to cite your sources so you can add them to the end of your book will not only show how much work went into the research and writing of the book, but it’ll keep the people who go to great lengths to fact-check and disprove your book that you’ve got your bases covered.

Research is an important aspect of writing, and if one goes about it correctly, one can create a wonderful story. And even if it’s a pain to do sometimes, it is well-worth the effort when people say they loved your book and thought the level of detail seemed so real.

Good luck with future research projects, everyone.

* If there are any other resources or tips you think should be included in this list, please let me know. I’ll add it in at a later time and date if I think it could be useful.

17 Comments

  1. Excellent guidance. As a history teacher I used to have little respect for the historical novel. But then I got turned on the Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles, series post Roman Britain. His profound and obvious research is so remarkably apparent right down to things eaten for breakfast, the blisters from sandals and the tribulations of every day life to the greater plot which weaves history with his characters. I feel I am right there in the minds and heart of the people and feel I am learning more history than I could from a factual textbook.

    1. I’ve felt that way as well when I’ve read certain historical novels. It’s a sign the authors did their homework and did it well.

  2. I consulted with experts along the way, including embassy staff for foreign countries, museum staff, and even a seismologist for information on quakes.

    1. Wow, that’s pretty impressive! How’d you get ahold of the embassy folks?

      1. I contacted the embassies first, explained myself, and we set up face to face chats. I got quite a bit of information out of them that way.

        1. Now that’s something I’m going to have to try one of these days.

  3. Well, well, well. Look who’s moving up in the indie world!

    1. Did you find any of the content helpful, Mr. Williams?

      1. Well sure I did, and I can’t say I disagree with you on any salient points. I am curious as to how you got in touch with these people though.

        1. I simply send them a carefully worded, very polite email. It usually does the trick.

          1. I see… let me run this as an opening line to you: “Attention criminal perverts! Why the hell haven’t you featured ME on your site you twisted goons???” How was that? Can I get that read back?

            1. I was thinking more along the lines of, “I’m high and I think the Star Wars prequels are awesome.”

  4. Linda Adams says:

    But for fiction authors, we’re not doing a term paper or a non-fiction book. Sometimes you have to let a fact be wrong because it would change the story in ways that would not help the story, other than being accurate — or even rob the story of its core coolness. I have never liked researching for novels because it’s always framed as if I’m writing a term paper and not doing something fun.

    For places I don’t know, I just hit a bunch of tour books and look for the most common things someone might see – types of plants, names of places. Then memoirs if I can find any set in the place for details. After that, photos and videos online.

    1. Alright, first edition to that list: use other materials than books (or something along those lines). Thanks for your input and for giving me an alternate opinion on one of the items I listed.

  5. Great list. 😀

    I wish I had done this earlier when I started writing historical romances. I checked a few things, but I didn’t do enough to get a good feel for the time period so the early books do read more modern than they should. Since then, I’ve done much more research and even found a critique group with someone familiar with that time period so she can clue me in when I’m wrong about something. And this summer on my way to Rapid City, South Dakota, I stopped by the 1880s Town to take tons of pictures. I tend to hate reading books about the time period so I have cheated a bit and will watch shows or movies based on the time period I’m interested in writing about. LOL But it helps me visualize how things looked. I probably have learned a lot more when I went to places like museums and that 1880s Town though. Somehow, seeing things firsthand makes it stick better (at least with me).

    1. I’m often the same way. If I see something, it can stick better in my head than if I read it. That’s part of the reason I’m trying to get on a certain study-abroad trip. I want to see the important places of WWII, not just read about them. Maybe they’ll stick in my head better that way.

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