I was about a year into the research for Sports and Games of Medieval Cultures when my husband commented, “that’s worse than writing a research paper in college.” My response? “Or better, if you enjoy research!”
One of the most important things we do as non-fiction writers is research. Several of us have written about research on this blog over the years, you can check out a couple of those essays here, here and here. (By the way, did you know you can search our old entries by putting a term, such as "research," into the box on the right, just below the QR code?) But I thought a general overview might be useful for anyone starting out in the non-fiction world.
When I begin to research a new topic, either because I’ve been given an assignment or because it has struck me as having potential for a book or article, I follow a broad-to-focused pattern. If I start with information that is very specialized, I may misunderstand or misinterpret what I find. So I generally start with two kinds of sources which will not wind up in my bibliography: children’s books and encyclopedias.
Both of these will give me broad overviews of my topic, in relatively straightforward, layperson’s language. They will help me get my bearings in a sea of unfamiliar terms and concepts. In the case of an idea I’m researching on spec, they’ll help me decide if I actually want to pursue the topic. I would not cite either in my research bibliography because they are what I would call “tertiary” sources – they’re based on someone else’s research. Most publishers explicitly say “don’t use encyclopedias” – but they don’t mean “don’t read them,” they mean, “don’t base your writing on them.” (see also Wikipedia, below).
Because I write primarily for children and young people, reading children’s books about my topic doubles as market research, helping me establish what is already out there in my field, and what gaps or needs for updates exist. In the American’s Notable Women series we include age-appropriate “for further reading” lists, so I will also note any of the books I read that I think will be suitable for that.
Having gotten some background on my subject from these very wide-angle lenses, I now move on to more focused material. Beginning with any references in the encyclopedia entries and children’s books, I assemble a spreadsheet of any resource I can find. Now I am looking for more in-depth information, so I will hunt down adult books on my subject, articles in both general and trade publications, websites and journals. I include on this list people who I might try to interview – other authors, university professors, and in the case of biographical subjects, people who have spoken about them or who knew them. I’ll be checking Google Books and Google Scholar, the online catalogs of universities (try Harvard's), World Cat and Jstor. I’m also keeping an eye out for primary source material – the golden chalice of biography, words written and spoken by the subject themselves. In the case of a person still working, their own website or columns may be readily accessible, but oftentimes I’m watching for references to letters or diaries in the secondary sources, and drilling down in their bibliographies for the places where those precious documents may be stored. Newspaper archive.com, Highbeam research and Questia are excellent resources (each of those require subscriptions), as are the online archives of major newspapers (The New York Timesarchives are free for material prior to 1923 and since 1986, $3.95/article for things in the 1923-1986 date range: but you can search their index and then take your list of hits to a library with the NYT microfilm, read and print out what is pertinent.)
A word of caution here – as you are browsing, make some record of EVERYTHING you read, even if it’s just a print-out of your browser history at the end of the day. You never know when you’re going to want to use a tidbit that you ran across early in your research and didn’t copy because you didn’t think it was important. And I can guarantee you that when you do, it will be almost impossible to find it again! You should also capture webpages when you read them, as their content may change before you finish the book – save them on your hard drive as html or pdf so you can access them again. There are lots of different ways to keep track of all your information: I generally try to keep most things in file folders on my computer, with matching folders for anything I have only in hard copy. Notes in the spreadsheet can tell me where I’ve stashed things (and what library I borrowed any books from, in case I need to access them again!)
Of course the more in-person research you can do, the better it is for your writing. Whether you’re standing in a lab watching the process you’re going to describe or sitting in the rare books room holding a manuscript by the author you’re profiling, the chance to be there is worth a great deal of effort. There’s no substitute for having visited a person’s home when you’re trying to describe it later. But the reality of our work is that this is not always possible. I could not have afforded to go to Texas to visit the homes of the women I profiled in Women of the Lone Star State, nor to have visited the museums in Europe, Asia and Australia that preserve so much of the material I wrote about in Sport and Games. The internet has made research possible today that would have been impossible a few decades ago. We can read newspaper articles from the past three centuries, see photographs of medieval and ancient artifacts, and read the diaries of people who lived through the actual events we are researching, all without leaving our desks.
With that wealth of access has come a new crop of potential pitfalls. The ease of putting up websites and producing e-books has made it all too easy for people to present as facts their own opinions or the misguided results of other people’s research. It’s not just Wikipedia, which you should use just the way you would a printed encyclopedia – as a place to get a quick overview and to mine for references. You’ll find factoids and spin in all kinds of places.
Even a renowned expert on a subject brings to it his or her own preconceived notions and treasured conclusions. Bias is inescapable. Your challenge, as a researcher, is to vet and double-check, to bring in as many and as diverse a collection of sources as you can find; to judiciously examine and consider the credentials of the person making the statement. Just because someone has a PhD in economics doesn’t mean their opinion on climate change has any more weight than your mother’s, for example (much less weight if your mother happens to have her degree in climatology).
One way to vet information is simply to see if you can find it again in other, unrelated sources (but drill down to be sure that they are not all citing the same, possibly erroneous reference). Check and consider the dates of contradictory information: later scholarship frequently corrects earlier errors, but contemporaneous sources may be more reliable than later recollections and retellings. Another important step is to ask someone – a researcher or professor in the subject area – what the current scholastic opinion is about the purported fact. (Interviews should generally be conducted after you’ve done all the broad research and a good deal of the secondary level work, so that you have a good grasp of the subject, will understand what your expert is telling you, and will know what questions you would like to ask.)
Keep careful notes, check your sources, and organize what you find, and your research process will be both enjoyable and productive!