Research! You Can Do It!

Students, writers, scientists, journalists, phd candidates, and shoppers all have something in common: RESEARCH.  Whether you are going to get fully into the trenches as you prepare a historical fiction novel or make your contemporary fiction glimmer with realism, research must be done.

There are two arguments I have heard.  The first says write what you know (which for some of us is seemingly limited) and the other says write what you want to know more about.  Yes, that’s the one for me.  As a Chicago native, I was always interested in the mystery of Chicago’s greatest disaster.  That led me to buy my first book on the Great Chicago Fire.  I thought it would be a fascinating setting for a children’s historical novel and that someone should write one.  But as a very busy teacher I certainly didn’t have the time or the know-how to do it.  Time rolled on by about a decade and I became a SAHM (stay at home mom) and my brain felt like was becoming mush.  I picked up another book on the Chicago Fire and wondered if I might be able to write something.  I read and read and read and the truth of the event could not be imagined.  The stories, the oddities, the humanity and lack of it, all stunning.  It’s a story that must somehow be told.  The research was molding the story.

SOURCES

Internet: Who doesn’t start here?  It’s a bit of a black hole and an enormous amount of time can be swallowed by looking for the information you seek.  But it will lead to many other great resources and pearls can be found.  It must all be measured, however, by other sources.  Anybody (ahem) can get online these days and write something!

  • One of my favorite web pages (more can be found on the Chicago Fire page of this website) comes from the Chicago History Museum.

Books: Put that library card to work for you!  There are books written on just about any topic you are interested in learning about.  If your library doesn’t have it, often you can get a hold of it with an interlibrary  loan.   (Just make sure you pick it up in a timely fashion or they will send it right back!)  And there’s always amazon and bookstores if you think it’s a book worth owning, or if you are an active reader that needs to highlight, underline, and write in the margins.  But don’t forget about cookbooks, almanacs, high school yearbooks, and titles that are popular to the locale of your story.

  • One on my bookcase: The Great Chicago Fire in Eye Witness Accounts

Newspapers: Holy Toledo how newspapers have changed over time!  In my review of articles from the Chicago Tribune in 1871 I was taken aback by how full the pages were and the great variety of stories I would happen upon.  Of course there was plenty of news, but there were also vignettes, etiquette lessons, humor.  News then was like news today, have to take it all with a grain of salt, but it definitely allowed me to tune into language and culture.

Interviews: incredibly intimidating for some, but one of the best sources for personal perspectives.  Thanks to Skype and the like, interviewing someone across country is easy.  I certainly had no survivors of the fire I could interview, but I sat down with a fireman, a horse aficionado, and historians for two prominent buildings in my story: The Palmer House and Old St. Pat’s Church.  It’s important to do as much research ahead of the interview as possible so that you can find out what you don’t know and ask educated questions.  Don’t make the person you are interviewing do all the work.  Bring something to the table, they are giving you their time as it is.

Travel: It makes all the difference in the world to go to the location your story will take place.  (If it is an invented setting – of this world – try to go somewhere that has similarities, it will give you a new perspective.)  I have spent many hours at the Chicago History Museum, but also writing on a bench outside of Union Station along the river – the locale of the first 10,000 or so words of my story.  I walked my MC’s neighborhood and got a sense of distance and noise.  I had to transport myself back in time, take away the concrete and highrises.  I’m still thinking about challenging myself to walk the path my MC takes.  I’ll need to do some training first.  I joke that my story is Pursuit of Happiness meets Backdraft.  My poor MC travels (mostly by running) somewhere between 15 and 20 miles over a three day period.  Should I walk in his shoes (minus the fire of course)?

TOOLS: apps that help

This is the first 4 rows of notebooks I have in the stack on research on the Chicago Fire.

This is the first 4 rows of notebooks I have in the stack on research on the Chicago Fire.  From Noteshelf

Noteshelf – by far my favorite app for recording research.  What I like about it: I literally use it like a collection of notebooks.  I can use a stylus or type.    As I researched, it’s hard to know what information I would find out and where it would lead me.  This made it incredibly difficult to organize my notes.  Reorganizing a notebook or stack of notebooks is a cinch.

Nine of the nineteen pages from my notebook on the Lull and Holmes fire.

Nine of the nineteen pages from my notebook on the Lull and Holmes fire.

There are a lot of pen colors, highlighters, and symbols.  There is also a nice variety of notebook covers and types of paper to use.  Every page of a notebook could have different paper if you wanted it to.  Make a stack of a series of notebooks to save space on the shelf.

On one page I can use a variety of colors, writing tools, graphics.  From Noteshelf

On one page I can use a variety of colors, writing tools, graphics. From Noteshelf

The only thing that either I haven’t figured out

or isn’t possible is how to copy text or pictures outside of noteshelf into the app.  But that’s why I also list the next two apps.

Evernote – I have used very little, but it does allow me to paste pictures and text from the internet.  For information on how to get organized using Evernote check out this blog by Michael Hyatt.

Trello – I just discovered this one.  It seems like it will be really great once I get the hang of it.  Positives: You can add other members to a board and they can add things to the research.  Great for projects that are collaborative (ie – co-author, or if you have an assistant – it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?).  You can have checklists, hyperlinks, upload video, moving cards between boards is super simple, the sidebar lets you see what others have done without going hunting.  And it’s free.  The negatives: I haven’t used it enough yet to know.

That’s it for now.  I would love to know other tips for research.  What works for you? Click on the comment link on the META side bar!

Next time, I’m going to take a break from writing about writing and share some interesting goodies from my research bag.

Til then,

Enjoy Playing with Words!

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