Have you ever thought about writing non-fiction but been put off by amount of research involved? Writing about what you know helps, as you’re likely to have information you need at your fingertips, or at least know where to find it, but if you’re anything like me, you will still need to check up on a detail every so often.
The truth is, research is hard to avoid. Even as a fiction writer, you will still need to check facts once in a while. It might be a historical detail (would your hero have been wearing a top hat or bowler?), a fact about a place or person, or even lyrics of your heroine’s favourite song.
Sometimes you can avoid problem by being vague. Instead of naming song, say, ‘He was humming that annoying tune again.’ If you don’t know exactly how big boat was, say, ‘It was about length of a swimming pool’. However, do this too often, and you lose sense of reality, of a scene coming alive, that comes from a precisely imagined and described story world.
So how do you go about finding information you need to fill gaps in your story or article? As a researcher, there are five main sources of information I turn to, roughly in this order:
1 – Home reference books. Looking things up at home is quick and convenient, and a good encyclopaedia can fill in background information on a huge range of topics. However, it may not contain specific information you’re looking for, and sometimes even if it contains answer, it may be hard to find. For example, if you know want to find out more about Ellen MacArthur, it’s great, but it’s not much help if you can’t remember surname of ‘that woman who sailed around world – Ellen someone.’
2 – The Internet The Internet is a great starting point if you can’t remember exact details of what you’re looking for. Type ‘Ellen’ and ‘around world sailing’ into Google and odds are that sooner or later name ‘MacArthur’ will crop up. It can be useful for tracking down poetry and song lyrics too, because it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember title or first line – if it’s on Internet, then typing any line into a search engine will help you track it down.
3 - Libraries If you can’t find what you need at home, in most cases next stop will be your local library. They will have a wider range of reference books, as well as other subject-related books. For example, if you need to add colour to your novel about a woman sailor, you could look out for interesting details in a biography of Ellen MacArthur. If you’re really new to a subject, start from scratch with a child’s reference book. They’re often surprisingly informative as well as having lots of helpful illustrations. If your local library fails, you may have to resort to a larger library further afield – main copyright libraries have every book you could wish for, although it’s worth calling in advance to check that book you’re looking for is immediately available.