Field Research for Your Novel
Because sometimes you just have to step away from the computer.
By Brad R. Cook
My first post, Researching Your Novel: Always Start With Google, gave you a few pointers about online resources. Here is the second post in that series and it’s about resources to help you that aren’t online. Yes, sometimes hard copies can provide more than electronic files. I know that’s digital blasphemy.
- Newspapers & Journals
- Historical Societies
- Renaissance Fairs / Pirate Festivals / Re-enactors
- Gun Range
Libraries have more resources available to them than you could ever hope to have. They pay yearly fees for access to certain databases and many of these resources are free to use. Not to mention the thousands of books on every topic imaginable.
Newspapers & Journals capture the times they write about like no other resource. Today they may seem like a dying art form, but remember it was the internet of its day. If you need to research a time period you’ll find slang, pictures of people, of places, and events written by eyewitnesses, not some historian looking back and trying to imagine what life was like.
Historical Societies can provide invaluable information about a city, building, or people. You may not even need to dig through their records if you talk to the historians.
Bookstores, hurry before they disappear, but there is a book on almost every subject you could ever need. If you find a subject that doesn’t have a book – then you know what your next book should be. But seriously, if you are writing about a place, check out the travel books, if you are writing about a person, find another biography.
Museums, I love museums, for those writing about the past seeing the artifacts will instantly connect you to your characters and time period. Not to mention, you may even want to include the museum itself in your novel.
Movies, have been made about almost every subject you may want to write about, a small town person looking for love, the glimmer of hope in the chaotic urban jungle, and almost every time period of history. Usually Hollywood is really good about capturing the clothing, the slang and phrases, or the look and feel of a place. Just be wary, they often use illusion so make certain its really New York and not Sydney when describing your landmarks.
Renaissance Fairs / Pirate Festivals / Re-enactors, allow you to immerse yourself in the past. You don’t have to participate, but experience is what it’s all about. You can ask about the clothing, the items they used, see a small glimpse of what life was like for those without our modern conveniences. Plus you can dig into a giant turkey leg and eat like a caveman.
Ride-a-longs, if you are writing a police procedural it could be invaluable, they allow you to immerse yourself in their world, pick their brains, and experience a world that the cop drama tv shows can only hope to capture. But it doesn’t just have to be the police, when NY Times Bestselling author Angie Fox was writing the Accidental Demon Slayer Series she went on a ride-a-long with a group of bikers.
Gun Ranges. Have you ever shot a gun? You may want to consider firing a few rounds from your character’s gun. That’s where the range comes in; it will allow you to get a feel for the weapon. Find the answers to questions like, how do you load the ammunition, what kind of kick does it have, and what does it sound like? The same thing goes for swords, or almost any weapon you may write about.
What I’m really saying is that as a writer you need to get away from your computer and experience the world you are writing about. It’s like the old saying – write what you know.
A quick note about Libraries,
Not all Libraries are the same. There are differences between University, County, and City Libraries. They have access to different resources and will have a variety of different books in their collections. University Libraries will have the most but you will find more local records at the City and County Libraries. There is one other distinction to be aware of – Libraries vs. Archives. Libraries are filled with second hand sources (books written about subjects) Archives are filled with firsthand accounts about events (letters, journals, records, all direct from that time period.) So know what you need and find the right library. Just remember that Librarians and Historians are your friends. They are invaluable resources who I guarantee know more about their records than you could ever hope to – so talk to them.
If this sounds too daunting, remember that research can become a distraction from actual writing. Don’t spend forever researching, but it can be fun, and will provide the details for your story that will bring it to life.
Your computer will be waiting when you get done.