Four Basic Steps for Research
Blogger: Michelle Ule, writing for Janet who is at the International Christian Retailers Show this week.
I have a novel sitting on the sidelines, about a third done, while I work on other projects. The novel takes place eighteen months after the end of the First Gulf War and is about a navy widow who moves back to the greater Los Angeles area with her children—“executing the plan,” in military wife parlance. She takes a part-time job as a researcher for a college newspaper pal/would-be lover, and the story proceeds from there.
The writing was going very well until my heroine’s first day of work when I had to ask myself, “How did you do research in 1993?”In the years prior to the Internet, just how would she have done her job?
Fortunately for me, I wrote a book for my maternal grandfather’s 100th birthday in 1990 that required extensive research. I wrote another book about my paternal grandmother in 1995 that also sent me to the research libraries, so I remembered what I did back in that filmy darkness of time.
One thing hasn’t changed since then: the four basic steps of research.
1. Interview people
Trained as a journalist, I’m used to calling people and asking questions. This should be, however, a basic component of all research. Talk to people who either lived through the experience (particularly for a contemporary story) or who are experts on the subject. Do your basic research beforehand so you don’t waste their time. Ask people what they think or what they know about whatever you’re writing about. I always review the Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why, as well as How?
In the case of my novel, I know a newspaper reporter who has worked for more than 25 years in Los Angeles. I asked her how she did her job back then—remembering we used to have something called “the morgue,” where the newspaper librarian meticulously “scrapbooked” all the issues of the newspaper.
She confirmed that’s exactly where my heroine would have started.
2. Read books on your subject
How do you find those books and magazine articles? Since we have the Internet, I’d start there with a basic google search, but the library is often where I do a lot of my research. Card catalogues, which in most libraries I’ve visited in the last 20 years are all digitalized, can point you to specific titles and subjects. Amazon.com is an excellent resource—I usually examine the list of books in reverse order of publication—newest first. Google books also can turn up extraordinary resources, and because their books are digitized, you can search the data bank to find references to your subject matter.
3. Read articles on your subject
Historians will tell you primary resources are always the best ones for historical accuracy. All sorts of magazines are available online or through searchable databases. Some databases only can be accessed through university libraries such as JSTOR or Proquest. Some public library systems have the necessary subscriptions, and you can access information through them. Our local Sonoma State University Library (The Charles M. and Jean Schultz library, with a book requesting system called Snoopy) has an entire notebook full of accessible databases, including master’s theses and PhD dissertations. Not to mention all the microfilm and microfiche.
Magazines are important not only for their articles, but also for their ads. Walkmans were a big item in 1993, for example. That helped put me in the proper technology frame to write my story.
4. Ask a librarian
The two most frequent questions asked of librarians are “Where is the restroom?” and “Where is the copy machine?” These educated people are extraordinary resources who seldom are given a really meaty project to tackle. Make use of them—they can be your best friend.
I’ve had librarians pull up material I never would have dreamed of, much less known where to look. They can point you in specific directions, access Inter-Library-Loan on your behalf, and save materials for you. They also know how to work the microfilm machine and may have seen information about your subject somewhere else. Invaluable.
My novel is still not done, but I’ve been looking through my own personal albums, tripping down memory lane with some of my (older) friends, and reviewing movies and documentaries from that time period. Memoirs are helpful, as are old newspapers. It’s all valuable when you’re doing basic research.
What tools have you used in your research? What unexpected resource has been helpful? Where would you look for information about 1993 Los Angeles?