Research is something many writers dislike and find daunting or even intimidating. Research for your book or short story will take on many forms from subtle to obvious and from non-directed (opportunistic) to directed (e.g., library). Its form and rigorousness will vary according to your purpose and circumstance. And where you go to do your research will vary accordingly.
In truth, as a writer, you are doing research all the time: when you’re riding the bus or train to work, when you’re traveling on vacation, when you’re having a lively discussion—or better yet an argument—with a friend or colleague. Everything you experience and observe is research. This is what’s called non-directed research. Writers, like all artists, are reporters of life, actively participating and observing. A writer is an opportunist, gathering her data through her daily life experiences.
Why is Research Important?
You might be saying: well, that’s all well and good for a historical-mystery set in Budapest or a science fiction thriller set in the Vega system. But you don’t need to do research because you’re writing a fantasy or a memoir. Neither of these, on the face of it, appears to require research: the fantasy is based on a totally made up world, after all, and the memoir is all about you. So, why bother? As a matter of fact, they both need research. Most books do, particularly nowadays for our multiplex, intelligent and discerning readership. Readers of any fiction enjoy learning something when they read, particularly when it’s seamless and made easy through a compelling story. It’s a real bonus.
To return to the fantasy, you will find very quickly that in order to build a consistent world (even if it’s mostly from your own imagination), you will need to draw upon something real to anchor your imaginary world upon. Whether this reflects a powerful myth or forms an alternative version of a real society, you will still need to apply some “rules” to follow, so you don’t lose your reader.
With respect to the memoir, the need for research lies in placing your story in context with either some event, idea, theme or place of interest to attract readership. Unless you’re a world unto yourself (e.g., you’re a celebrity of some kind with an established following), your story will require this larger element within which to place your personal story. That’s where research comes in.
Internet as Resource and Risk
The Internet provides an excellent database that is rich with information, if you know how to get it and qualify it.
Chances are that your favorite newspaper or magazine has a strong online presence. The Internet provides an excellent platform for finding resources in a myriad of subjects. It is the largest single place where you can find current information relevant to almost anything.
With information so readily accessible and easy to find through Google and other search engines as well as giant amoeba-like encyclopedia wiki sites like Wikipedia, you needn’t suffer the frustrations of library and book searches. However, there is risk.
The risk is related ironically to the very accessibility of online information. You need to be even more vigilant of the veracity and reliability of your sources when conducting online research.
Optimizing Your World Wide Web Search
The Teaching Library Internet Workshop at Berkley University provides excellent tutorials on how to search the internet for topics. They recommend a search strategy that analyzes your topic and searches with “peripheral vision”. For instance, they suggest that you:
- define for your topic any distinctive words or phrases, an overview of the broader topic to which your topic belongs, any synonyms equivalent terms or variants of spelling to include
- not assume you know what you want to find. Look at search results and see what you might use in addition to what you’ve thought of
- switch between search engines and directories and back
Verifying Your Research
When doing research, particularly on the Internet (but anywhere), you should do several things:
- Use more than one source, particularly for important things; this will give you a wider range of material from which to discern accuracy and reliability
- Verify your sources and preferably cross-reference to measure out objective “truth” vs bias
- Try to use primary sources (original) vs. secondary or tertiary sources (original cited and open to interpretation); the closer you are to the original source, the closer you are to getting the original “story”
- When going to more than one source, try to get a range of different source-types (e.g., conservative newspaper vs. blog vs. special interest site, etc.) to gain a full range of insight into the issue you’re researching
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.