Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Research Shortcuts

by Annette Lyon

I've heard it a ton of times regarding my historical novels: How can you do so much research?

Well, I have a little secret: I don't do that much.

Sort of. That's not entirely true. I do do research. But what a lot of people don't understand is that you don't have to bury your head in a dusty library for months on end in order to get enough information to write a novel.

Don't get me wrong; as a writer, you do need to get the facts straight. And the more you've researched, the better feel you'll have for an era, the more accurate you'll be. But if you think you need to be a full-fledged historian, think again.

Here are four tips that can help save time so you can get back to what you love most: telling the story.

1) Find What's Been Done.
Assuming you're researching for a historical novel rather than, say, a biography, there's no need for you to do the primary research. Chances are, someone else has done that, and you can then read their findings.

Find the work of the experts and read it, highlight it, make notes. I've had a lot of success digging up graduate theses on topics I need that were written at a university that is located in the area I write about. Likewise, a state historical society provided with me with a gem of a resource, the author of which was the expert I needed for one book.

Search libraries, especially university libraries, for what you need. Ask a professor in the field for ideas on who you should talk to or read.

2) Find official sites.
Granted, a lot online isn't accurate, and you have to tread lightly there, but that doesn't mean the Internet doesn't have a ton of resources at your fingertips.

One of the best things things you can do is find web sites of official organizations on the topic you're looking for, because there's a good chance they're more accurate than some average Joe's ramblings about it. Plus, you can often find additional links and resources there as well.

If you don't have your questions answered at that site, contact the webmaster and pose your question. Pros in various fields have a treasure trove of information, and if they've made a web site about that passion, they're likely eager to share that information with someone who shows interest in what they love.

3) Ask for help doing the dirty work.
Librarians exist to help patrons find what they're looking for. Take advantage of that. Call (or if possible, e-mail) a library and see if someone can look up what you need. These people are trained like dogs to sniff out information that most of us might have trouble locating. Let them spend time in the shelves and have it ready for you (or even better, e-mail it to you, if they can).

Likewise, if you'll be traveling to an area where you'll be doing research, contact the library there ahead of time and see if they can't look things up for you so your time there is better spent.

Don't be shy here; they're hired to help you. Let them!

4) Note bibliographies.
At the back of any resource you find, be sure to read the bibliography. It'll be like a trail of breadcrumbs that can lead you to other resources you can look up, including many you might not be able to find elsewhere, and definitely ones you hadn't heard of before.

Enjoy the research process and don't be afraid of it. While you won't use everything you find in your book, the journey to discovering the nuggets you will use can be extremely rewarding.


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Candace Salima (LDS Nora Roberts) said...

Great advice, Annette. Working with librarians is one of my favorite resources when doing research.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

The new librarian in me needs to say that they don't have time to do ALL of your research (you'd be amazed at how much stuff there really is to do to run a library!). However, a good librarian already knows his or her collection well enough to go directly to the shelves or computer resources and find you enough to get a good start toward your answer. They will also know the right questions to ask you so that they can find more information as you need it.

Janette Rallison said...

I just make stuff up--who checks that stuff anyway? JUST KIDDING! But sometimes doesn't it feel like other authors do that? (Never us. No, never us!)

Annette Lyon said...

Good point, Lu Ann. I'm mostly referring to larger libraries where they hire people specifically to do research for patrons, but you're right. When that's not the case, a good librarian can at least show you were to look. That alone can save oodles of time.