When you hear the word, research, do you imagine someone sitting alone in a back office surrounded by stacks of manila folders, metal shelves, hefty books, piles of printed papers, and a giant monitor—working long hours without phone calls or water cooler chats?
Notice how specific I made the description? (There is a reason for that!) It reflects the image I used to have. I understand that for some, this might be the ideal work environment. Many thrive on working by themselves in a silent space. However, it is not my mode. Honestly, doing research always sounded less than…fun?! Engaging in conversation, delving deep into discussions with others with experience in things I know little about, and allowing bursts of unexpected whimsy sparks my creative thinking. How could researching in silence trigger new ideas or ignite my imagination.?
But it turns out, I was wrong!
I have spent the past few years researching stories, following leads, and spelunking in archival materials—learning that even an ounce of creativity can make the process of finding information incredibly exciting. Yes, I said exciting! It turns out, not only do I enjoy research, but I look forward to it. I now think of myself as an Historic Detective! (I know you love this, but 'historic' is an adjective that in this case would mean that you yourself are historic, as opposed to the events you are detecting.)
After years of incredible “finds,” I have a few suggestions for anyone leery of research.
But wait! Isn’t research a process limited to non-fiction?
Settings, props, and details can add a level of credibility to your story, especially when painted with a touch of real-life. For instance, the kind of dino you choose might impact the shoes you put on them. The way our sun eclipses certain moons could change how you situate your new fictious planet. The type of habitat you use might help decide what animals belong in it.
Conversely (oh, the lawyer in me!), knowing who/what doesn’t fit could be just what you need to heighten the tension or engage the reader’s funny bone.
Bonus element: Research can allow for potential backmatter and/or story-based activities to engage kids and their adult readers.
See, research is a launchpad—where it leads is up to you!
But let’s be honest, you came here for something slightly more tangible. So, here are my top five toolbox tips (Caution: they might ignite your research intrigue):
1. GO HOME: Learn more about where your protagonist or antagonist lived, or where the event in question happened. Gain a sense of the local zeitgeist or surroundings.
2. GET ORGANIZED: The Internet is filled millions of websites for organizations large and small. Pick any topic and Google the key words. See what I mean?! Now do it for your topic. Keep a list of obvious and not-so-obvious groups. Larger organizations usually have interesting fact sheets or briefs that may help build your bridge to success.
3. EAVESDROP ON YOURSELF: It may seem like one more hurdle when being asked this query submission question, “Why are you are the right person to tell this story?” I’ll never admit this, but it is a great question. If you know the answer, it means something in your background is compelling you to dedicate years (yes, years) to pursuing this story (besides the fact that you like the idea).
Explore how your background factors into this tale. Ask yourself what inspires you—and determine the experiences in your life that are guiding you. Where did they originate? How do they relate to your protagonist, antagonist, setting, time-period, or the like?
4. SHOW IT OFF: Museums preserve history. Offering a learning experience that educates the public and inspires deeper learning is their purpose. Contact ones that feature content, exhibits, or display artifacts relating to your story. Seeing relics, even virtually, powerfully connects you to the past and/or to the topic.
One benefit of our virtual life has been the ability to “visit” exhibits/view research materials located almost anywhere in the world. Ask questions. Tour online. Take pdf snapshots. Some may charge a nominal photocopying fee but accessing their online records should be free.
5. READ BEHIND THE LINES: Historical societies are excellent places to submit questions. Most are online and offer an array of articles, pictures, drawings, and the like that will allow you to delve into the topic. They also have staff that will respond to your inquiries usually within a week. Again, there may be nominal photo-copying charges, but doing research online should be free.
Ultimately, the journey research takes you on depends on your enthusiasm, creativity, and openness to obstacles because there will be many. (Don’t even get me started on the Census of 1890! Spoiler alert: it does not exist.)
It may sound like a cliché, but information challenges often lead you take chances, problem-solve, and reach beyond pre-conceived limitations.
Still wondering what part is "exciting?"
Spoiler alert: You’ll know when your WIP reveals historic, hidden, or completely unknown secrets to you.