Guest Blogger Michael Hiebert: Researching Your Novel: When Wikipedia No Longer Cuts It
I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing Michael Hiebert since the early years of my writing career. He’s a consummate author and a great friend. So when he offered to be a guest blogger, leaped at the opportunity to have him grace my blog. I know you’ll find his insights as intriguing and beneficial as I do.
Researching Your Novel: When Wikipedia No Longer Cuts It
by Micheal Hiebert
There are normally two pastures full of people with a fence cutting a swath down the center, and people are either on one side of the fence or the other. I don’t know of anyone actually sitting on the fence when it comes to researching their books. You either love researching, or you loathe it.
People who love researching run the risk of getting so enamored with their research project that they never actually start writing their novel. They just keep researching as more and more new avenues to go down present themselves.
People who hate researching run the risk of not doing enough of it and, especially when it comes to scientific, or historical fantasy, run the risk of writing a trite, clichéd novel that takes place in a version of the environment that Hollywood has shoved down our throats and shows no actual resemblance to reality at all.
Both are equally bad, so try to avoid them.
Learn to “like” the research process, but don’t fall in love with it. In fact, if you can, set a time limit for yourself when you first set out to start researching your novel, say, six months (or more, or less, depending on factors like how complex your book is and how much knowledge you already have about the subject you’re writing about). And, at the end of that time limit, make a very strong judgment about whether or not you should stop researching and start writing. Remember, just because you’ve started writing, doesn’t mean your research has to end. You can do both at once.
Yet another Caveat
The more fascinated you are by the time period you’ve chosen to write your novel in, the more careful you need to be. Always remember, you’re writing a novel. Your reader expects a novel. She doesn’t expect a history book. Story has to come first. Avoid the urge to lay out a lengthy treatise about the Crusades, or jousting, or anything else that takes away from the story and is only there because you enjoy writing about it.
Consider the research as a frame for your story that enhances it. The characters and their plights within that frame are what is important. That’s where most of your time should be spent while writing. Focus your energy on your story. Don’t make the frame so elaborate that it detracts from what’s important.
Different Methods of Researching
The traditional method of researching is still one of the best: read a lot of books. Be careful of the books you read, though. Books take time to get through, and you want to make sure you are reading books written by people considered to be experts on your topic. How do you find these “experts”?
Well, the good news is, you only need to find one. And generally, a night spent flipping through Amazon pages and reading reviews and book descriptions will unearth the one book that everyone else compares themselves too. This is the book you want to start with.
As you read, take careful notes, and especially make notes of any sideline topics that are indirectly connected to your subject that you hadn’t been aware of before. You’re going to want to follow these leads, too. But by far, the biggest thing you want to do while reading this “expert” book is write down all the references to other books he or she makes throughout the text. These other books will become your next big source of information to go to, because, if the author of this book really is an “expert” on your subject, he’s only going to be drawing from books that he respects and are probably written by other experts in the field.
So you’re going to come away from this first book with a pile of notes, a longer list of subjects indirectly connected to your main subject, and a list of books to read next. And the feeling that your research workload has just gone up exponentially, because it has.
Let me give you a real life example.
The book I am currently writing is about the Cathars and the Inquisition in fourteenth century southern France. When I began, things didn’t seem that complex. I thought I had four major subjects to study and really, the top two overlapped:
• Cathar Beliefs
• Medieval Europe
I knew very little about any of them, but, luckily, I found the book on Catharism that everyone on Amazon compared their books to. It was In its tenth printing. It was obviously a very popular and respected book, so I purchased it.
And I read it.
Next thing I know, I was being led places I never expected to be going. The more I read, the more I realized this book I was writing couldn’t be constrained to knowledge encompassing just my four subjects. This Cathar/Inquisition matter touched upon a lot more than just those few things.
So, as I finished reading that first book, my list of subjects had exploded from four to sixteen. It now looks like this:
• Ark of the Covenant
• Assassins’ Creed
• Cathar Beliefs
• Heretical Scriptures
• Holy Grail
• Knights Templar
• Medieval Clothing
• Medieval Europe
• Medieval Vernacular
If it grows much more, it will become truly unwieldy. But to truly understand my subject and write the book I want to write, I need to have more than just a lay understanding of all these points. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Vocabulary is a heading for words I encounter as I go that were in use in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, which is very much like the topic Medieval Vernacular, where I am listing any specific dialogue I come across that points toward how they spoke in Medieval Europe. I know very little about the time period this book is being set in, so that is another area I have to concentrate my research.
Other Ways to Research
Traditional books aren’t the only avenues of research available to you, of course. And you certainly don’t have to purchase all your books on Amazon. I just like owning the books I use for research so I can refer back to them. It also comes in handy when my editor asks for another book in that same universe. So I buy my books, but not always brand new. I also look for them at second hand shops, flea markets, and places like that.
Digital References versus Paper References
At any university or college or university library, you will find both digital databases full of articles and papers along with paper sources. There will be a great temptation to use only the digital material in the library because it’s more easily accessible and to work with; however, the truth is that much of the information you will need will still be in paper format. The universe of knowledge is exponentially larger than the subset of knowledge that is currently digital. For most research projects, the best sources will only be available on paper.
Catalogs and Newspapers
Most college and university libraries have old catalogs and newspapers (depending on how far back your story is set). These can contain a wealth of information, especially if you’re looking for photos of people and the clothing they wore. Eaton’s Magazine is a good one. So is National Geographic.
What is a “scholarly source”? In general, materials written by experts and published in respected journals and other publications are considered scholarly. Scholarly sources add wisdom and weight to your arguments. A good researcher will spend the first part of his or her research time discovering who these experts are and what publications their articles have appeared in.
One of the simplest ways to insure you are using a scholarly source is to look for journals that are “peer-reviewed” or “refereed.” These terms refer to a journal’s policy of having experts or a review board critique the article before publishing it. Peer-review insures that journal articles are considered valid by scholars in specific fields.
I’ve already talked about my bias toward owning my research books. I still use the Internet and visit libraries, but by far most of my research goes on in my bedroom where I just cram book after book into my skull while highlighting lines of interest. Most of what I said about scholarly sources applies to mainstream non-fiction books on any subjects. I’m always careful to get books that cite their sources and I’m really happy when they contain a bibliography.
You can usually tell within the first fifty pages whether or not the author knows what he’s talking about and if he’s done his homework.
Amazon is a great place to find books you may not find anywhere else. Once you’ve started down the road of research and realize your original handful of subjects have suddenly blossomed by a multiple of four, you can start to get creative with your book searches. For instance, I found a great book on late middle ages costume design. It even devotes a third of the book to Ecclesiastical costumes, which is really going to come in handy while writing my Cathar novel.
Websites provide an almost infinite catalog of information right at your fingertips. The only problem is that anybody can throw a page up on the Internet and call it an “official” page and even make it look that way. Alas, many times, these “official” pages aren’t official at all and are filled with errors or propaganda or any other myriad undesirable things.
But don’t make that stop you from using the web. It’s too powerful of a tool to not use it. Just make sure you use it appropriately.
The web is often the best place for finding primary source material. Primary source material is source material written at the time the event occurred. For example, newspaper articles, sermons, diaries, news bites, official announcements, or tragic events all qualify as primary documents. Be sure to verify that the content of the page hasn’t since been modified.
Documents taken from the “official website” of a respectable and responsible organization can be relied upon to be factual. Websites concerning government agencies, corporations, and organizations for the public (e.g., the American Cancer Society) are considered to be official websites. All of these organizations have reputations to uphold and usually evaluate all material posted on their sites. However, always remember it’s their site, so any information you acquire is going to give you one side of an issue: their side.
“Official” websites for certain people or authorities are useful for understanding particular topics and are analogous to encyclopedia articles. However, use the information you find here with caution, because the accuracy of the data they contain is frequently unverified. But overview sources can lead to additional clues about people, places, and things associated with your topic. These sites should not be considered scholarly or essential to the development of your novel until you manage to support what they say in a more respectable source (quite often, sources like Wikipedia will list Bibliography and source material).
For statistical and factual information, the Internet is great. But make sure the page cites the source of the information. If it does, and you can manage to obtain the source, use the source material instead of the website. If the website is an exact copy of the source material (a scanned .pdf document, for example) then verifying the information isn’t necessary.
Here are some good websites dedicated for research purposes:
• Google Scholar
o www.questia.com (Questia requires a fee)
• Digital Public Library
- Travelling to a Location
If you can afford it, nothing beats travelling to a location you plan to write about and seeing it firsthand. Make sure you bring some good photography equipment with you and plan to stay for at least a couple weeks. If you can stay longer and actually write while you’re there, that’s even better.
What you don’t want to do is go where all the tourists go. You want to get out to where the “real” people live. Generally the tourist areas are nothing like the rest of the location.
This is an expensive way to research, but it’s fun and it is a tax write-off. And you will end up with some beautiful pictures to use as reference, not to mention a wealth of stories if you talk to the locals. Especially once you tell them you’re a writer.
- Establishing and Interviewing Contacts
Something you should always be doing is establishing contacts with people, especially people who are experts in their field and may be able to help you some day. Most people are intrigued by authors and get awfully excited about the possibility of appearing in your acknowledgments page if you call on them. Unfortunately for some of us introverts, establishing contacts can be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s something you have to overcome, because they can be a great resource. Most people are open to being interviewed about what they know, so try to get the email or phone numbers of people like police officers, doctors, lawyers, members of the military, priests: basically anyone who sounds like they might have an interesting story to tell. And get over your fear of contacting them.
I have a theory that all writers are actually introverts. Some just hide it better than others.
When you do have the advantage of being able to call up an expert, keep a list of running questions while you put together your outline. Then, when your research is nearly complete and your outline nearly finished, arrange an interview with your expert. Use some sort of recording device (even an iPhone will work) during the interview, and then later transcribe the interview on paper. This makes things a lot less awkward.
Do as much preliminary research you can about the subjects you intend to bring up during the interview. Ask your subject to fill in the few holes you have left after all your research is complete. Make sure to mention putting him or her into your acknowledgments page and that you intend to give them a free signed copy of the book. Then, when your copies come, make sure you actually do make sure they get one, preferably with a thank you card.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask to see places similar to settings in your books. Places like lawyer’s offices, or parts of hospitals. And the police actually don’t mind ride-alongs. Either do medics, providing you don’t get in the way.
- Pick up the Phone
It’s amazing how much information you can get from just making a phone call. Did you know that in the United States and Canada, the police are required to answer your questions about their operations if you call and ask? While I was writing Dream with Little Angels, I called the sheriff’s department down in Birmingham, Alabama, explained I was writing a mystery/crime book that was set in Alabama, and asked him what weapons his police officers used.
“My regular guys carry a .40 caliber Smith and Wesson,” he said with a slow southern drawl. “And they got a twelve gauge in the trunk of their cruiser and a semi-automatic under the dash.”
“What about your detectives?” I asked, rapidly scribbling his answers down.
“I let them carry whatever they want to,” he said. “Most of them opt for .50 caliber Rugers.” That’s a darn big gun.
While I was in New York a month later, I related this telephone call to a policeman I met standing on the street (after casually asking him some questions about how police matters are handled in that state, just in case I ever need to know). I found out the cops in Manhattan only carry nine-millimeters. He laughed and said, “If I can’t bring someone down my Glock, having a .50 caliber isn’t gonna make much difference. I’d have to be sent back to Police School.”
You can also call the Chamber of Commerce or the Chamber of Tourism in most cities and they’ll be happy to assist you and answer any questions they can. Sometimes you can get them to send you out brochures and maps and other touristy items with nice glossy photos of the area you’re story takes place in.
I also like to call major bookstores in the city I’m writing about and ask them what books they have about their city that might be of value to me and whether or not they have any applicable wall maps. I love to hang wall maps of the places my stories are set in above my computer, but it’s very hard to find maps outside of the area the map actually depicts.
- City Archives
City archives are open to anybody who wants to view them. You can learn about the streets, view old maps, see how the gas mains are set up and when they were put in place, see how the tax laws were implemented, view old census data, there’s genealogical resources, and a whole lot more.
- Reference Books
Sometimes reference books like Webster’s Third Edition New World Dictionary (1963) can be handy. I own many. One, the Chamber’s Slang Dictionary has about two thousand pages and lists every slang word you can think of along with when it was first used and where it was first used.
- Visit Museums and Art Galleries
Sometimes you get lucky and a museum or art gallery nearby will be hosting a display that pertains to your subject. Don’t miss the chance to go. Develop an eye for detail. Even if you don’t think that art plays a major part in your story, just being around sculptures and paintings from the time period you’re writing about helps put your mind in that place and time. And you never know when some dazzling tidbit of information might fall into your lap.
Many of these places have guided tours that are generally full of little facts, quirky and fun details you may not have uncovered anywhere else in your research. Consider this just another opportunity to extend your knowledge base a little further.
- Buy the “A Writer’s Guide to . . . ” Books
These are books on specific subjects that are written specifically for authors. I have a bunch of them. The ones in my collection are all crime related (because that’s usually what I write, mysteries): A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder & Forensic Medicine, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom, A Writer’s Guide to Crime-Scene Investigations, etc. I probably own ten or so. I can’t say for certain that they exist for subjects other than crime, but they’re wonderful little books that cut straight to the facts and tell you exactly what you need to know in order to write without sounding like you have no idea how cops really do their thing. They are quick reads and really easy to traverse and look up whatever you need when you need it.
- Childrens’ Books
Childrens’ books are a great way to get facts on a certain subject. They generally have nothing but facts in them, they are consise without any extra stuff to weed through and they are full of pictures. I got this advice from Diana Gabaldon who said that children’s books are a fantastic source of reference. They are usually of the Learn About Ancient Greece type, hardcover and oversized. I buy any I come across that happen to be on sale because I never know when I might write a novel where that subject comes into play.
- Looking for Names
If you want names for characters from certain time periods, cemeteries are a good place to go. Look at the names inscribed on the tombstones. There’s also www.findagrave.com that lets you peruse graves of people who died in the last two hundred years from the comfort of your own home.
- Remember to Say Thank You
Keep track of everyone who helps you with your book and make sure you put them in your acknowledgments. When your book is published, don’t forget to send them a copy along with a thank you card. This guarantees they’ll be more than happy to help you next time.
I use a program called EverNote (www.evernote.com) to keep track of my research. It’s a free piece of software that is absolutely brilliant. You can save your notes, bits of the web, even movies, images, and sound files and keep them completely organized. It will even sync the data it contains across all the different systems and devices you own, including your cell phone (if it’s compatible). Best of all, did I mention it’s free? It’s available at http://www.evernote.com. It’s well worth taking the time to go through the tutorials and learning how to properly use the program once you’ve installed it on your system.
One of the concepts behind EverNote is the ability to set up different notebooks full of notes for different topics of interest. For my project, I’ve set up different notebooks for every major subject I’m researching.
I think I’m going to close this post here. I could probably write another ten pages about researching, but I think Josh would probably nix it before it ever made it to his site. As it is, I think I’ve been bogarting enough space for four post entries.
Let me just say what an honor it’s been to guest post on such a great writer’s site. Now make sure you hustle over to my blog and check out his post.
If you have any questions about anything I’ve written here, or any questions about research in general, or any questions at all that maybe don’t even have anything to do with me feel free to fire away.
Michael Hiebert lives in British Columbia, Canada, up in the mountains where it’s cold and wet half the year and slightly hotter but still wet the rest of the year. He has three children and one of the fattest dogs anyone’s ever seen. Currently, he’s trying to cure his book addiction problem because his girlfriend has threatened to leave if he doesn’t. For Michael, it’s a tough call. Let’s just say it’s a work in progress.
Michael is well published under his own imprint, DangerBoy Books, and his first professionally published novel Dream with Little Angels will be released June 25 by Kensington Publishers in New York. It just received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Check it out on Amazon!
Joshua Graham is a USA Today bestselling author, Winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.