Despite the fact that one of the most commonly given pieces of advice in writing is to “write what you know,” the majority of novel writing requires at least some research. Depending on your genre, it might even require a lot of research. I have the benefit of having been born in that transitional generation in the early 1980’s, when research didn’t mean just hopping onto your computer and typing a question into Google. (Those of you who are of my generation or one of the previous ones know what I mean by this.)
Because of this, when I started researching for my manuscripts years ago, some of the sources I used for information were second-nature to me. But as time has passed, I’ve found I’ve become more dependent on Google when I want to find an answer to one of my questions. The thing is—gasp—Google doesn’t actually have all the answers. In the times when I encounter the need to go beyond the internet, it’s good to be able to remember the many places I can do research. Here’s a quick break down of some of my top places:
Anyone remember the card catalog? Even though most of that has moved onto databases within libraries these days, most libraries are still filled with a backlist of books on topics that go well-beyond the scope of what you can find in bookstores. Because there are also out-of-print books and the benefit of knowledgeable librarians who can help you in your research, the library is one of the absolute best places to turn to when you need to find the answer to a burning question for your book. After all, most topics have been written about and subject books are going to likely answer those questions.
Especially when it comes to historical research (but also in other genres) one of the best places to gather information about a subject is from the people who lived it. This means letters, diaries, personal memoirs, interviews with witnesses/survivors/soldiers/etc. What better way to understand the actual experience of what people went through than by reading about it in their own words?
Have you ever had someone approach you to ask about a topic you’re really knowledgeable about? Chances are, if you enjoy that topic, you’re more than happy to talk about it. The same goes for experts in any field. While they may not always have a ton of time to discuss a subject, you may be surprised by how willing experts are to share their knowledge with writers. What’s more, contacting them has never been easier, due to email.
Location scouting can be a treasure trove when researching for a novel. Not only can it give you invaluable information about the setting, but you can also place yourself in your protagonist’s shoes and live in their environment. While traveling to locations may not always be possible, there are many other ways to travel “virtually” these days. You can watch videos on locations, use travel guides, or find detailed maps and architectural plans online.
Don’t forget about other media sources that can provide you with a wealth of knowledge. Old microfilm or digitized newspapers and magazines can help you find a lot of answers. Videos, interviews (radio or written), movies, and newsreels can also help. For every different form of media that has been used in the last century, there’s likely to be a source to help you when researching. And don’t forget about museums! They can be wonderful resources, especially when visiting locations about the topic you’re researching.
At the end of the day, getting your hands dirty and stepping outside of the confines of Google will make you a better researcher. While you may not be able to use every single piece of information you come across, living and breathing the information you need for your novel is likely to transform it in a way that you can use to the benefit of your characters. So practice some non-Google researching. It might just make you a better writer.