Last week we talked about researching to find facts to use in your queries and in your writing. Research plays another important role for the nonfiction writer: finding out what has been published before. If the market you want to pitch has already covered the subject, there’s no point in asking the editors to do it again. And if lots of publications have been hitting the same subject, you might as well put away your notes and do something else. But if only a few—and not your target market—have written about it, you can use the information in those previous articles to help you write your own and to make sure you take a different slant.
In my Freelancing for Newspapers book, I talk about going to the library and digging into the “morgues” at your local newspaper. You could still do that, but these days, you can do most of your research, including your library research, on the Internet. We talked about some of the sites last week. Google is always good. Do you know about Google Alerts? If you go to google.com/alerts and set it up, Google will send you notices of everything that gets published about your subject.
Some other sites to consider in your research:
YouTube–You might think this is just music videos, but it’s not. You can find all kinds of information there. When I wrote about salt-water taffy, I watched demos on YouTube of how it’s made. The site is loaded with interviews, how-tos, training videos, and all sorts of audio-visual information sources. Plug in your subject and try it. You’ll be amazed.
Magportal.com–This site will lead you to magazine articles that have been published on our subject.
Newslibrary.com offers extensive listings of articles published in newspapers. if you want to read the whole article, they will ask you to pay a nominal fee, but you might find enough info in the summary.
New York Times archives—You do not have to pay to read articles from the New York Times going back to 1851.
Blogsearchengine.org—We can’t ignore the wide world of blogs. This site will lead you to blogs on just about any subject.
Journalists Toolbox—I saved the best for last. This fabulous site offered by the Society of Professional Journalists provides an extensive list of places to do research and advice on how to research effectively.
One caution: These sites (and many others) offer so many fascinating things to see and read that you could spend all day clicking from one listing to another instead of writing. Save them for your reward after you get your day’s writing done.
Now go write.
You get an idea, whether for an article, story, poem or play and think, wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever thought of. I can’t wait to start writing. You grab your paper, your laptop or iPad and start spewing out words. Oh yeah, this is good. Your dinner gets cold, your dog is whining at the door, and your phone is ringing, but none of it matters because you are inspired. Isn’t this one of the greatest parts of being a writer?
My house is loaded with pieces of paper on which I wrote these brainstorms. But most of them haven’t gone anywhere because once the heat of inspiration cooled, I lost interest, or more likely, I realized I’d have to do a lot of research to make them fly.
Those of you who do only “creative” writing might be tempted to tune out here, but don’t. You need information, too. I’m still troubled by the poem which required me to search hard to find out whether that earth-moving tree-smashing thing I wrote about was a bulldozer, backhoe, tractor or what. In my not-yet-published novel, I did extensive research on earthquakes and tsunamis so I could make my fictional disaster as realistic as possible. I couldn’t just make it up.
When you’re pitching a nonfiction book or article, you need information for your query. That’s something I didn’t used to do. I would propose to find out all kinds of things if I got the assignment, but I didn’t realize no editor would go for the story unless I already had some information to share. For example, if I wanted to write a travel article about things to do in Newport, Oregon, I needed to know what they were and name them in my query. Because I live here, I already know, but what if I was writing about how to buy a timeshare in Newport. I don’t know anything about that except that lots of people do it? I cannot offer the editor a bunch of guesses and questions. I need facts.
Back in the olden days, I’d start with the phone book and make a list of people to interview. Now I’d probably do a Google search. When I search for “Timeshares Newport, OR,” most of what comes up is companies trying to sell timeshares. You can read what they have to offer, but know that they’re biased. They are not going to talk about problems, scams or hidden costs. Where do you get an unbiased view? Time to brainstorm again.
You can talk to somebody who owns one. Search for organizations or associations that focus on your topic. There are a lot of them for both users and sellers of timeshares. “Articles about timeshares” will bring you a list of articles that have already been written on the subject. Also look for books about timeshares. Amazon offers Timeshare Vacations For Dummies, among others. Don’t overlook the library, where they have actual books you can read for free. Many libraries even rent e-books now.
There’s more to the Internet than Google, of course. Click here for a list of search engines you might want to try. You’ll notice the list does not include Wikipedia, which can be a great source or a terrible one. The information is provided by readers who may or may not know what they’re talking about. Whatever you read, make sure it’s not just advertising or content spewed out by writers who haven’t done much research themselves.
I could write about research all day, but this post is getting too long. The important thing is to get your facts from a source that is as close to the beginning of the information chain as you can get. You can toss out a question on Facebook–I have–and read everything you can find online, but the best source is still a live human being. Your online search may give you enough information to take your original burst of inspiration to the next step, getting an assignment. Even if your research leads you to decide you don’t want to write this piece, look at the bright side. Now you know a lot about timeshares. Maybe someday, you’ll write a novel that takes place in one.
Happy hunting. Now go write.
In the novel I’m writing, my character lived in Missoula, Montana before and now she’s going back to take care of some things. I personally had never been to Missoula, hadn’t been to Montana at all since 1974. I did what I could on the Internet. I studied all the photos and information I could Google. I downloaded maps and picked out streets where she might live and work. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what it was like, but I was wrong. When the Fishtrap writing workshop I attended in early July took me close to Oregon’s eastern border, just a jump over Idaho to Montana, I decided to go see Missoula for myself. I’m so glad I did.
Instead of getting a vague picture from what I could find on the Internet, I actually went to the place where she worked, saw the house where she lived, and knelt in the church where she worshipped. I stayed in a motel where she might have stayed, ate at a restaurant where she probably ate. I shopped at the Book Exchange, where she might have bought books. I took pictures and lots of notes, not only in Missoula but on the way there and back.
I could have gotten by with just my online research. I had the general idea. I had the names of things. But I didn’t have the feeling of being there first thing in the morning and the middle of the night or of walking downtown at lunchtime, and there were things I didn’t know. For example, as I entered Missoula, the road was lined with gambling casinos. I didn’t expect that. The hills surrounding Missoula looked huge in the pictures, but they are not the Rocky Mountains; they’re rolling hills like those in my hometown of San Jose. And the drive is so much different from what I thought it would be. In fact I took one way there and a different way back, realizing the first route would be impassible in winter–and she’s going there in December. It would have been more realistic if I went to Missoula in winter, but I had the opportunity now. Besides, my character might be used to driving in snow, but I’m not.
Sometimes I think you just have to go there. The Internet is good, imagination is great, but if you’re using a real place in your fiction, you need to walk the streets and feel what it’s like. I would not have realized Montanans have a little drawl, wear their hair differently, have no sales tax, really get into cowboy art, dress in bright colors instead of Oregon’s grays and blacks, and that the men get confused when a woman opens her own door. To see the cubicle my character might have worked in and the people she might have worked with will make my book so much more real.
My previously published novel, Azorean Dreams, took place mostly in San Jose, California, where I lived and worked for most of my life. I made up the place where my hero lived but planted it in a setting that was so real my readers often go looking for Simao’s house and office, and even I have a hard time believing they’re not really there. After all, you can visit the cemetery, the church, the bakery, the Portuguese community center, and the bridge where Chelsea met the homeless people. Our settings need to be that real and that detailed.
And here’s a 21st century bonus: When my new novel is published, I can post stories in my blog or on Facebook about my character’s journey, using the pictures and experiences I gathered during my research.
So go there. It’s fun! It’s deductible, too.
>Suddenly my phone rings every half hour. When I logged in yesterday, 38 new e-mails had arrived since the night before. Is my business suddenly booming? No such luck. I made a stupid mistake I’d like to help my readers avoid.
I was researching a story on grants for writers the other night. Right at the top of the Google list were two websites that appeared to be associated with the U.S. government. Hm, sounds good, I thought. What I missed were the faintly printed words noting that this was a “sponsored listing.” Like an idiot, I clicked on the site, filled in the blanks asking for my name, addresses and phone number and told them I was looking for information on money for writers.
Snap. I was on the list. Oh, and more than one list, too. Lots of lists. I got e-mails about grants, loans, prizes,and even discount diapers and information on filing for bankruptcy. Most of the e-mails had some kind of opt-out verbiage at the bottom, but there were so many I could waste the whole day following the instructions with no confidence that it wouldn’t just bring more e-mails and phone calls.
A caller named Eva would not take no for an answer. When I told her I had to click off to another call (and I really did), she said she’d wait as long as it took. Well, she didn’t, but she called back. She insisted on sending me a free CD full of information about free money from Uncle Sam. I just had to pay for postage and handling. Would I like to use VISA or Mastercard? Uh…
Another salesperson called later in the day, insisting I call the East Coast ASAP (I didn’t), and somone else woke us up this morning. When I checked caller ID, saw the 800 number and decided not to answer, they called again a half hour later. I have little doubt the phone will keep ringing. I suggested to my husband that he tell everyone he doesn’t allow his wife to talk to strangers on the phone. Not good for business, but maybe we could get rid of these people. Frankly, I haven’t even checked my e-mail yet. I’m afraid.
So here’s the moral of the story. Be careful, be very careful when you’re clicking around the Internet for sources. The first few listings are often sponsored listings, and the ones along the side are almost always advertising. Even if they don’t start stalking you, you won’t be able to trust the information they provide. Make sure the sites from which you gather your information are reputable sites written by people who know what they’re talking about. Be aware that some sites, such as Wikipedia, are written by anyone who wants to submit something. And don’t even think about trusting comments you read on somebody’s blog. How do you know what they’re saying is accurate?
Do your own research, double-check your sources to make sure they know their stuff, and don’t give out your e-mail and phone number unless you’re sure it’s worth it. Don’t fall for scams like I did just because you’re tired and in a hurry to gather information. Set your BS detector on high and use it every time.