This is a guest post from Pamela King.
Most people would agree research is essential for non-fiction work. It is obvious you must have your facts straight. How much research is necessary? Is it enough to simply check facts? Is it necessary for fictional work?
Non-fiction stories must also hold the reader’s interest. That means building your background images as much as presenting facts and developing the personalities of the characters.
In the case of fiction, your readers need clear images of time and place. If your story has a place or time, you need research to paint clear and accurate word pictures.
In the biography I am currently writing, the subject of the story grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. I felt it was important, for readers to understand what it was like in Australia and included additional detail of that time. That meant doing my research.
What research should you do?
Here are some points you should consider for your story.
- Facts – getting your facts wrong will destroy your credibility as a writer. Check and double check your facts.
- Images – both graphics and the images you build with your words. This applies to scenery, fashion, transport, architecture etc.
- Destination history and industry – you can’t put a space age industry in a 1925 cotton farming district – unless you are writing science fiction. If your location has an outstanding historical feature or relies on a specific industry you should also be familiar with related facts.
- Writing science fiction? – Having made my previous point, and this is far from my field of expertise, don’t think you can avoid research. It may have come from your imagination, but many sci-fi readers are also science geeks, so you better bone up on current scientific advancements, research, and innovation.
Where to find research resources
Google and Wikipedia are a first stop for research but don’t let them be the last. There is a wealth of information on the internet and it is growing daily.
A word of warning about Wikipedia – Because it can be updated (information added, changed etc) by anyone, its accuracy is not necessarily reliable. I recommend using more than one source to confirm your facts.
When I was writing Angel with Drumsticks about an Italian rock band, Wikipedia, and many other websites stated the band undertook a world tour. This is incorrect and my source for the truth came from band members.
I had to research local Aboriginal history for an article I wrote. I am familiar with the topic and was surprised to read a significant event involving the massacre of hundreds of aborigines was wrongly located.
Travel and tourism websites
If a travel destination, accommodation facility or attraction does not have a website it might as well close its doors.
If you are writing about a destination the best research is a personal visit. If this is not viable, or affordable, travel and tourism websites can be valuable sources to help you develop a ‘feel’ for your setting with information and images.
Photos and images
If you are struggling to describe your characters or need some prompting, Google images can help.
Your leading lady has red hair, but you can’t imagine her other features. A simple search in Google Images for ‘red hair lady’ will return an amazing collection for your consideration.
Word of warning – many photos on Google images are copyrighted. Check if they are labelled for reuse.
The same approach applies if you need a visual image to describe a location, building, architectural style etc.
Specialist organisations including Historical Societies and Government Archives
Historical societies, government archives, libraries, and newspapers are progressively digitising their records. Here, in Australia and most countries, State and Federal Governments also make archival collections available for viewing and, in some cases, copied.
Most historical societies do not put their full collection of photos on the internet (and I don’t blame them) but you may be surprised at what they have in their archives. They usually ask a small research fee or charge for copies of images. Please remember these people are mostly volunteers caring for our heritage. Income sources like this may be their only means to continue their work.
I needed to clarify a local term used for what is now a major arterial road in Sydney. Due to the efforts and assistance of the local historical society, I found out what road the term referred and some interesting history behind its name.
Another historical society was able to provide me with photos important to the biography I am writing.
Another great source of historical information is https://archive.org/. Many records on this site are copyright free.
Libraries – physical and online
I love libraries but, in my little town the local library resources are limited. That doesn’t mean I don’t bother them – and often.
One of my favourite websites is Trove. Trove is a website set up by the National Library of Australia containing comprehensive data on Australian resources held in libraries across Australia including books, images, historic newspapers, maps, archives and more. I am sure other countries have similar data bases.
Once I find something of interest, I print out the information, take it to my local library and they request a copy as an interlibrary loan.
If the publication or document is not available, I can request copies (within the bounds of copyright).
When researching additional information for Angel with Drumsticks, I knew a newspaper in Rome had covered the Messa dei Giovani. I was able to obtain a copy through a major library here in Australia.
Ask an Expert: Writers, even if not well known, can open doors by saying “I’m a writer, and I’m trying to get the facts right.” If you have a question about a police procedure, ask your local police, if you have a medical question, ask a doctor.
I needed to check information about aboriginal history and legends in my local area. I contact a couple who are Elders and Knowledgeholders of the Dharawal people and only too happy to tell me all I needed to know.
Your Friends: Let them know what you are writing about and what you are trying to find out. You may be surprised at their knowledge of the topic and resources you can access.
Problems and Distractions
It can be tempting, in the name of research, to get distracted or spend undue time on specific topics.
I discovered a memorial had been erected to a dingo at an animal reserve in an inland NSW town. The animal park had closed, and I wanted to know what happened to the memorial. I spent many fruitless hours trying to solve the mystery. It would have been a nice inclusion, but it wasn’t essential to my story and my time might have been better spent.
So, advancing the writing of my book had been hindered, or at least distracted, because of my intense interest in the secondary topic of my book; dingoes.
Filling in the Gaps
Regardless of the sources available, there will always be gaps; questions you feel need to be answered. It is hard, but we must pull ourselves back. Ask ourselves ‘how important is this information?’ or ‘can I get around it another way?’. Often there is a solution.
Thank you Pamela for sharing your knowledge of and experiences in this topic. Undoubtedly this will prove a resource all will find useful, especially other authors and writers.
Pamela King is the biographical author of some very interesting books.
For more information about Pamela and her books: