Friday, September 3, 2010


By Ruby Johnson

No author writes a novel or an article without some research, unless the topic is one-dimensional and/ or they already know it very well.

One thing I learned early in my life as a lecturer was I had better know all the facts. If there was information I was the least bit unsure of, someone in the audience always asked a question about it. When you’re in front of 300+ people you do not want to be like the White House Press Secretary and say, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you.” You don’t have that option once a book or article is in print. You can almost do more damage to your reputation with a major error in research than any other.

Over the years, I've developed a system that helps me when I research a topic. I started doing this years ago by trying to show professional students what they needed to know about a town if they planned to accept positions in a particular area. The following are a few tips that might help you in research for your next book or article.

Record The Sources Of Information.
This can be in a paper notebook, file CD, flash drive, or special novel computer notebook. This notebook can contain people and addresses of those who have agreed to be resources, book titles, websites, article titles, excerpts, but must be arranged so that the information is easy to find.

Choose A Locale For Your Story.
If you’ve chosen a real town or city, try to visit the city to get a real feel for the area. If you’ve walked the streets, and know the businesses on the streets, it gives your story more authenticity. If your city is located in the mountains of Montana, the people and the city are going to be really different from those living on the beaches of Florida.

Ask Questions About The City

What is the size of the city. A small town is very different from a large city in the degree of privacy. A friend told me she moved, to work in a small town, and stopped by a liquor store to pick up wine and before nightfall she was a confirmed alcoholic.

Who Runs The City?
Who is most important? Learn the names of the mayor, city manager if there is one, members of city council, city workers in charge of streets and maintenance, Officers and employees of the police department, sheriff’s department, number of schools and name of superintendents, principals, and libraries.

What churches,(names of ministers), lawyers, doctors, dentists, hospitals. and types of businesses make up the city?

Is there a city transportation system--bus, trolley, cabs, streetcar, trains, horses or does your character have to fight rush hour traffic every day?

Are there hotels, motels, apartments, boarding houses, bed and breakfasts, residential homes, other types of shelter?

What kinds of eating establishments are in this city or town—fast food , fine dining, or both.What is the income level of the occupants-- high, moderate, low?

What is your character’s social standing? Do they hang out at the country club, local dives or church functions?

What is the weather at different times of the year--scorching hot in the summer, frigid in the winter, humid, full of flies and mosquitoes, foggy, smog?

Choose The Historical Period For Your Story

The local history of your town if it is a real place.
Events that happened during this period of history. Were there wars, depression, civil rights marches, rebellion of young people, political upheavel, major changes in moral and social values?

The styles of clothing men, women, and children wore.Look at women for instance. They wore long dresses in the 1800’s, shortened the hems in the late 1920’s, lowered them to mid-calf in the 1940’s, just below the knee in the 1950’s, and wore mini skirts in the late 1960’s.

What food they ate, i.e. there were not hamburgers in the 1700’s.

Speech of the day. Current day slang has no place in a historical novel. No one in the 1800’s would talk dirty to a refined woman or say “Hey Dude”.

Choose A Profession For Your Character:

Contact people in the field you’re interested in and interview them. Ask if they will be a resource to you while you develop your story. For instance, if you’re interested in crime, contact your city police, state police, local sheriff etc. Learn how the department is set up, education needed to do the job and how they work. Many will let you go on a ride along in a police car.

Use The Internet.
Don’t rely on it for all of your information.

Wikipedia is full of information that people have added, though not necessarily accurate. It pays to double check sources from this site.

Utilize Sites Of the State And  US Government.
Many government agencies have their own websites and also have public information officers. The FBI’s site is chock full of information and they have agents who can help you and even arrange a tour of the FBI in Washington if you’re in the area.

Use The Research Facilities At Your State And Local libraries.
Check the publication date and compare with recent materials on the topic you’re researching. For instance, as new evidence emerges, many discoveries in medicine change in a ten year period. If you’re going to use a source, make sure there are other sources verifying your information.

Much of the information you find, you won’t use, but it can give you a greater feel for your subject, town, character, book or whatever you are looking for. You’ll soon find yourself purchasing books and developing a library of information of your own that you can use for years to come.

How do you research for your book or articles?


rach said...

I'm beginning to think you're psychic, because it seems whenever I have a specific question you somehow have the specific answer posted soon after....Yes, the sign is right, not everything can be answered by google, thank goodness for Ruby! Very informative!

Ruby said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad the article helped.

Anonymous said...

I write historical novels and I use a simple work sheet on which I write the following: date and place of story,names,surnames,fashion,food, popular religious beliefs, architecture, and building types, literature/plays/poets of the day, differences between the social classes,politicians,leaders,dialogue,popular phrases,currency,money, roles of the sexes, and a timeline. A good historical novel weaves the fictional story into the history within and around events. The events have a direct influence on the story. Thanks for posting a good article.

Link Within

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...