Writing Non Fiction 3-Research and digging up gold

For some authors, research is a necessary chore; for others it is much of the fun. I happen to belong to the latter group. Research is like rummaging around in a well stuffed attic full of books, old steamer trunks, clothes, odds and ends, an amazing discoveries. You never know what you will find. It can even lead to another book!

Today, research is easier than ever thanks to the Internet. So how do you start?

Primary and secondary sources- A primary source is a straight from the horse’s mouth source and a secondary source is one step removed. For instance, if you are doing a story of, say, the letters of J.K. Rowling and you were able to examine the actual letters, that would be a primary source. If you were to interview J. K. Rowling, that would be a primary source as well. If you reviewed the letters from another book about the letters, or a synopsis, or if you used other papers written about the letters or interviewed someone who once knew someone J.K. Rowling corresponded with, they would all be secondary sources. Secondary sources are very useful, especially when dealing with events long past. Reviewing other books on the subject can give a fresh perspective. Reviewing several books can point up inconsistencies in how the topic is perceived by others and that can be valuable as well.

Wikipedia and specialized web sites- Although it is fast and often thorough, Wikipedia has a community editing feature that is both its strength and its weakness. Enabling lots of people to make additions or edits vastly increases the spread of knowledge available to any article, but it can open the door to ax-grinders as well. My own rule is to be very skeptical of Wikipedia when the topic is anything political or controversial, because such topics can attract people who want to insert their opinions and have them accepted as fact. For more mundane topics such as the history of garlic, how a jet engine works, or the Treaty of Ghent, however, Wikipedia is great. The articles are richly detailed, thorough, and annotated with lots of links to other sources. Wikipedia is also a place that cover more obscure topics that are hard to research elsewhere.

Specialized websites fall into the same category, especially sites run by enthusiasts. A J.K. Rowling site might be rich with resources, links and inside information, but don’t expect objectivity.

Libraries- Libraries have lots of resources you won’t find elsewhere and are adding more databases of materials all the time. One great one for historical research is ProQuest, a digitized archive of major newspapers, searchable by topic and date, all the way back to the 1850s! It beats scrolling through microfilm files by a mile! And there are specialized libraries for law, medicine, locations, famous people, etc. Not all libraries have ProQuest, but it is available by subscription.


Government sources- You pay your taxes (I assume.) so why not make use of government resources? The National Archives, Library of Congress, FBI, etc.  have tons of files, documents, photos, and historical documents both in D.C. and on line.

People: Relatives and descendants- If you are writing about someone who is deceased, you can still track down relatives and dependents who may know about the person. When I wrote about the long-gone Ellis Parker, I found grandchildren and cousins of both Parker and others involved in the events. (Including Hope Nelson, the daughter of New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman.) They contributed inside info, clues, and a lot of family photos available no where else. One had a collection of his pipes and another had all of Parker’s old driver’s licenses and membership cards in the Elks!

Field trips- Going to the scene of whatever you write about is invaluable. You can get a feel for the time and place a lot better than at a library. When I went to the Lindbergh house, now a school for boys, and actually experienced the layout of the place, it became obvious that some of the theories of the case were wrong. One author thought the kidnapper did not come back down the cracked ladder, but crept down the stairs and out the front door. Since this would have taken him directly in front of the room where Lindbergh was sitting at the time, I could see this was pretty much impossible.

Museums- Some places have local museums about historic events and some places have specialty museums. There are museums of magic, plumbing, UFOs, trains, aviation, potatoes, and even cockroaches. In addition to the exhibits, specialty museums often have libraries dedicated to the subject and people who are enthusiasts and have been digging for info their entire adult lives.


Artifacts- In museums, antique shops, or even your attic might be objects relating to your topic and the objects can be used to inform both you and the reader. An old spinning wheel or old typewriter can show how mechanical creativity was used before electronics. Even that old souvenir Japanese rifle your great grandfather brought back from the Pacific after World War 2 has an informative tale to tell. On the receiver, the metal part just behind the rear sight and in front of where the bullets go in is the stamped image of a Chrysanthemum, the symbol of the Emperor. On almost every rifle, the symbol has been almost filed or ground off so that the Emperor wouldn’t lose face in defeat. (The picture on the left is the untouched stamp; on the right is one filed down.)


This was done at great effort at the end of the war, even though the country was in ruins, and speaks volumes for the way the Japanese regarded the Emperor.

Two more rules- There are two other rules for non fiction research; use multiple sources to assure completeness and verified accuracy, and know when to stop. You can get wrapped up in research so much you never finish, because there will always be another source to run down and another lead to investigate, and another tidbit to add. When I wrote Master Detective, someone else had been working on a similar book for 20 years, but died before it was ever finished. Don’t be a victim of analysis paralysis!

Next time we’ll cover various ways of organizing your non fiction masterpiece.

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