Hello, Readers. When Daniel Campbell, our new blog coordinator, suggested the theme of “getting started,” I decided to write about one of my passions – research. Every writer gets a gift - something that comes naturally. Mine is research.
Let’s pause for a moment. What is your natural gift? Dialog? Plot? Humor?
Back to mine – research. This love for uncovering new information started back when I was a history major in college. You may not like to do research. But for many of us it is much easier to learn new things than to put this knowledge into writing. According to plot guru Martha Alderson the order of difficulty in communication skills are: listening, speaking, researching, and finally writing, the most complex. I agree.
Research is not just for nonfiction writers. You do research every day in your personal life – what car to buy, where to move, how to meditate. And in your writing – fiction, nonfiction or for your critical essays. Fantasy writers might study up on Greek myths or astronomy. For realistic fiction, you may need to learn specific details about a type of dog, how to cut hair, what the character’s body feels like when running a 10 K race. Yes, in nonfiction the bar is higher. Everything you write needs to be true and verified.
But for all of us, here are ten research tips for writers of all genres. Thanks to the wonderful Hamline writers, past and present, who have shared their process with me and contributed to my tips below.
1. Start with general learning and reading on the subject – online articles, books, articles, interviews, videos. Enjoy yourself.
2. Figure out a method for keeping track of your research notes - from old-fashioned notecards, to a notebook like a scientist in the field, or new computer programs like One Note, Scrivener, or Ever Note. Faculty writer Emily Jenkins uses Scrivener for novel writing, too, and many Hamline writers have followed suit. New grad Judi Marcin used Scrivener when working on her third semester critical project. Your method doesn’t
need to be fancy, it just needs to be one that you will actually use and suits your style.
3. Look for surprises in your research. When alum Judy Dodge Cummings researched the Revolutionary War for her book The American Revolution: Experience the Battle for Independence, she was “amazed and impressed by the endurance of the soldiers fighting. We would never survive this today.” See her publication interview here.
4. Take a break from your own work, and read about how other writers do research. Last winter I suggested for one of our common books Curiosity’s Cats – Writers on Research. These are wonderful essays on how writers of how genres uncovered the information they needed. The Hamline University bought several copies for our use.
5. Speaking of the Hamline University Library, contact librarian Kate Borowski when you come up with a problem or question. She is an amazing resource and dedicated to our program, as many of the third semester critical writers have discovered. Check out the other resources offered online at the Bush Library.
6. When doing online research, if you want your Google search to bypass Wikipedia and go straight to a more elevated (!) source -- for example the New York Times or the Smithsonian Institution -- type in your keywords with followed by "site:nytimes.com" (no quotation marks) or "site:smithsonian.org" and you'll get a much more refined result.
7. Those of you at the July residency heard graduate Donna Koppelman read from her delightful Elvis story, with the amazing O.J. as Elvis. Here’s one of Donna’s research tips: “I have learned the value of immersing myself in a time period when writing about a certain thing. Working on the Elvis book, I have been listening to Elvis Radio on XM (yes, there is such a thing) for months. Every day someone close to Elvis calls in and tells stories about his life.”
8. Donna’s suggestion for interviews: “It’s hard to cold call all these people, explain who you are, what you want, and then get them comfortable enough to open up to you. But the more I do it, the better I get. AND the more I do it, the more I learn the right people to talk to usually aren’t the biggest names. The governor’s receptionist gave me way more information than the governor ever would have.”
9. Current student Hayley Lerner is researching a nonfiction project on the Radium Girls. One step she took to find about more about this important, but little known story from decades ago was to locate their relatives. After many weeks, she heard back from one descendant that had a diary of one of the girls. A thrilling day for Hayley that renewed her enthusiasm and dedication to the project.
10. I will wrap up with advice from alum Tracy Mauer, the author of many nonfiction books. After Tracy has some basic knowledge of her subject, she puts it into one long document with footnotes and thinks about what she has learned. Then she tells it to another person, her husband, the dog, a stuffed animal. “If you can’t explain how an external combustion works to another person, you won’t be able to explain it to a kid.”
So dear writers, there are many ways to learn about a subject. Just jump in. And don’t forget to tell your friends. They often have leads. Requests for information on the Renegades site has helped many of us over the years.
Thanks for a fantastic article Claire. This will certainly give us all a wonderful place to start when we begin researching information for our next book.
*Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of over a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction and a professor in Hamline University's Master in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. To learn more about Claire and her writing, please visit her website or faculty page.