Monthly Archives: June 2016

Toolbox – Research tips and Techniques

I don’t know about you but, for me, research (particularly that of the internet variety) can be like falling down a rabbit hole. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes the fall is exhilarating. Sometimes it is just another form of procrastination.

Have you ever spent two hours searching for era-appropriate phrasing or whether a shirt sleeve had a button or cuff link as a closure? My Google-fu fails me regularly. (by the way, it was a button.)

This month, my writing group’s toolbox topic was research tips and techniques.

Something unexpected was unearthed by our discussion. It seems even the meaning of the term research can differ. The online Oxford dictionary defines research as ‘the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions‘.

To some in our group, ‘reaserch’ meant finding specific proof to back up facts in a pre-written story outline, with research done in response to specific requirements based on the plot points of their story.

To others it was a multi-phase method, sometimes initiated by an idea, a mood, a title or a picture. Most (possibly up to 80%?) research was done before writing – a form of background immersion in a world or timeline (like the writing iceberg.) Once drenched in the ambiance of the chosen topic, we write, letting the story evolve – sometimes plotting, sometimes pantsing – and making notes for further research along the way. Maybe that’s another difference between plotters and pantsers?

I’m a mostly pantser myself. Most stories start with a spark – a photo, a word, an idea. This is usually followed by weeks of research. A first draft follows. I then concentrated on the picky, specific research (see button vs cufflink comment above) as part of my first rewrite (usually when transcribing my handwritten draft to the computer).

Here are some tips for writing research:

  1. What is your writing style/ How much time do you have?
    Are you a pantser – letting your story evolve? Do more pre-research so you know your story’s background well – even if the reader only gets to see the tip of the iceberg. This can work for plotters too but can take more time. If you are more comfortable plotting a story, or have less time to finish your story, then researching specific facts as you go, or after your first draft, may work for you.
  2. Write a list of topics or questions you need answered.
    And stick to these. Don’t go chasing a titbit just because it sounds interesting.
  3. Use ‘TK’ notations in your draft or manuscript.
    As I write, questions arise or facts needed checking. I note them using ‘TK’. This was a method I gleaned from other writers. The letters TK are rarely found together in the English language. A TK computer word-search of the manuscript will pull up all the items needing further research.
  4. Google search: be specific with your questions. 
    eg. ‘Who made jammy dodgers’? / ‘What is the smell produced by the New Model No. 3 Smith and Wesson revolver, using ‘black-powder, centre-fire, metallic revolver cartridge (1882)?’ (is that specific enough?) – this was an actual question I googled for a short story. Maybe it was too specific? It led me to a YouTube video (useful to describe the sound) and book, Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue by James Smythe Wallis.
  5. Read and Use Wikipedia footnotes and bibliography
    The problem with Wikipedia is anyone can add to the pages. This means you can’t always believe what you read. Read the footnotes, check out the references. Check facts for yourself.
  6. Don’t forget books!
    Your library is your friend. I can order inter-library loans for research books, if my local doesn’t have it. If I use the book alot, I search online second hand book stores. (I bought a copy of Chemical Anaysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue and have used it many times.)
  7. Keep folders (paper or computer) of your research
    I have both. I have boxes for specific story ideas, and computer folders and notebooks on specific research topics.

Some useful websites we use:

  1. Boothe’s Poverty Maps – This is a colour-coded map of 1889 London, showing socio-economic categories of each street.
  2. British History Online –
  3. Centre for History of Medicine (Harvard) – online ‘Curated content from the Center for the History of Medicine’s extraordinary collections’
  4. Google Maps – I often use this in conjunction with Boothe’s Poverty maps.
  5. Gutenberg Project – digitised online books, from many countries, with searchable catalogue.
  6. Trove – historical newspaper clippings held by the National Library of Australia.
  7. UK Census (1881) – others also available online.
  8. Victorian Literary Studies Archive – list of various ‘Victorian era’ webpages

-Karen J Carlisle


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