Creative Researching

Remember when you were in school, and you had to write a research paper? The boring, labor-intensive , and (now I’m showing my age) endless searching through the card catalog for resources for a non-fiction article, usually the day or two before the term paper was due? Yeah, me too.File:Copyright Card Catalog Files.jpg

What was it about those assignments that we hated? The stress? The solitude of researching, when all we wanted was to hang out with our friends? The fact that we had no interest in the subject matter, that it was a necessary evil, that someone was “making” us do it?

As writers, whether fiction or non-fiction, we all have to do research. Some authors abhor doing research, wanting only to get their brilliant fictional worlds on paper. Others, like me, become so immersed in research that sometimes it is hard to stop and simply get to work. I often think I should hire myself out to the writers who hate to research, because I truly do love it.

I can understand, though, how research can weigh you down emotionally. You spend hours and hours poring through (sometimes boring) scholarly documents to find that one tidbit you need to flesh out your story. If you are writing a historical, there is that niggling worry that you’ll get something wrong, and an expert on the topic will tear your book to shreds because your story is inauthentic.

Setting a story in a foreign country, or even a distant locale, can be difficult, too. Most of us would love to be able to get on a plane and visit the place we are writing about, but we are restricted by finances/family obligations/fear of flying, or some other deterrent.

As a writer of non-fiction dog articles, the best part of the process for me is research. The articles I enjoy writing the most are the ones where I’ve gone on-site to interview, observe, and take photos. One of my first articles was about jobs for German shepherds, and I got to spend a day at The Seeing Eye, following a trainer around as she worked a future guide dog. I then visited a facility where they trained police dogs, and their police handlers, to sniff out bombs and narcotics and take down criminals. Fascinating stuff! That article is still my favorite, of all the articles I’ve written in the past ten years.

Active research, as opposed to sitting down and reading materials someone else has written, is tons more fun. Last weekend, my daughter and I spent a day with friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Met is way too big to cover in one day, but we went specifically to see the exhibition titled “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” (http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions). In this exhibit, the works of famous Impressionist artists such as Renoir, Manet, and Monet are paired with actual clothing of the period that is similar to what these artists depicted in their paintings. There are even a few of the exact articles the models wore for the artist.

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity

 

Now, I have a book that I love for researching period clothing, Racinet’s The Complete Costume History. However, seeing the actual clothing of the time, up close and personal, you can actually feel the weight of the fabrics, see how the satin or velvet gleamed as opposed to the dullness of linen, note the intricacies of the lace or the brocade or the piping. You can also note how tiny women’s waists were, how full the skirt, how big the bustle, how narrow the slippers. (Mid 19th-century women had tiny, extremely narrow feet, it would seem!)

Any time you can see, smell, touch, taste or hear anything firsthand when doing your research, you should jump at the opportunity. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Visit museums. There are museums for just about every subject out there. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian Museum, The Crime Museum, and The Chicago History Museum are just a few. Don’t forget, many larger universities have their own museums, too.
  2. Speaking of universities, don’t forget to stay abreast of their lecture offerings. You never know when someone will pass through who is an expert on what it is you are writing.
  3. Of course, attend conferences and special events. Several of my romantic suspense-writer friends are attending the Writers Police Academy. They are sure to come away with some really authentic information for inclusion in their novels.
  4. Even better, get out and “do”. Writing a cop or a military hero? Visit a firing range and actually find out what it feels, smells, and looks like to shoot one of those guns.
  5. Don’t be shy. Participate. At the NJRW Conference last year, Kim Killion did a workshop on period clothing. She passed around two corsets, so you could feel the fabric, boning, and the weight of the clothing. Then she had two willing participants (the Femmes’ own Joanna Shupe and friend Tracey Devlyn) actually try the corset on…one wearing the corset, the other pulling the laces tight and tying them. Think Scarlett from Gone With the Wind.

 

In short, get creative with your research. It doesn’t have to take over your life, and it can be really fun!

 

What unusual or fun things have you done in the name of research? Or, if you haven’t done them, what would you like to do?

 

Hugs,

Jaye

 

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6 Comments

  1. Jaye, you’re hired! I don’t looooveee research (at least the online kind), but that doesn’t keep me from wasting hours and hours doing it. Still, there’s always a gem to be found. The trick, I think, is knowing when to say enough. As for the real life experiences, oh, how I wish I had less contraints in order to travel and experience it all! For now though, I splurged on the Writer’s Police Academy and hope it will sustain/enhance an upcoming manuscript or two!
    xo,
    Jenna

    Reply
    • I hear you about the constraints, Jenna! If only I had unlimited resources of time and money so I could do all the fun things I want to do. If you can do a couple a year, though, it’s a start, and you’re doing that with the WPA.

      Reply
  2. You’ve touched on an interesting topic, the dreaded research. I’m currently taking a class on cops in preparation for my fourth story, where the hero is a police detective. It’s interesting, although I haven’t plotted enough out to know what I need, or even what questions I have. I would love to go to a firing range and learn to shoot a gun. My settings are mostly local, although not always in areas I’m familiar with. I’ve taken a road trip to LBI and snapped pictures at the lighthouse. This was to help me with a scene I had written and ended up deleting. I’m still going to write that lighthouse scene, though. I just have to find the right book to do it in. Most of my research is via the internet. I’ve searched real estate sites in order to find the type of house my hero’s family owns in Berkshire, England or in the Chelsea section of New York. Recently, I searched women’s self defense moves for a fight scene at the end of my latest story and was watching YouTube videos. The days of the card catalog are long gone, but thanks to our regular change in technology will make research for writers easier. I’m waiting for virtual reality where I can actually experience being in Berkshire, England from my very own home. Or strolling the beach in Hawaii. Wouldn’t that be nice!

    Reply
    • The internet has certainly made it so much easier to do research, Maria! My last ms. was set in Burlington, VT, and it had been a couple of years since I had been there. There were scenes set on the University of Vermont campus, and I was able to get the layout of the campus online. I then contacted their security office and introduced myself, and told them why I had some questions for them. Once they learned I was setting a romance novel on their campus, they were enthusiastic sources. My heroine was an aerial dancer, so I contacted an aerial dance company, also, who then sent me a promotional video so I could get ideas. Fun stuff!

      What it taught me was not to be afraid to reach out to people when I have questions, even if they are clear across the country. They are so willing to help!

      Reply
  3. Hey, I know that photo! Seriously, that was invaluable. I hadn’t worn a corset like that before, and it helps to know how limited one would be in such a garment.

    I really, really want to go to that costume exhibit. There’s a museum near here that has an exhibit along the lines of “Downton Abbey.” Hope to make it to that one, too.

    Great post!

    Reply
  4. hieubietusa

     /  July 27, 2013

    Article is “right on the money.” I think going to the range would be a big help for the mystery or romance writer that may deal with some kind of revenge action or such. Someone that has never fired or handled a firearm can really prove…the devil is the detail. They will feel the weight, strain on your wrist and shoulders and the incredible sense of power, and responsibility that will flow through your body. Fear heightens senses and your nose and ears will pick up scents and sounds unimaginable.
    About creative research…on vacation i decided (not intentionally) to get lost in a jungle. First you have to look down or focus on one thing in the distance…the many dimensions of the fauna and flora can drive you batty. That’s good material to use. I will leave out that I was found by three children who brought me to the main road…the oldest being 7 years…

    Reply

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