Well, the heroine of my first published novel, The Orchid Hunter, cared because she was tramping around the Amazon without easy access to a pharmacy in the event of a yeast infection. That little tidbit — that Jessie knew about garlic, carried garlic with her, and was candid about how she planned to use it, if necessary — was a piece of research that helped bring her to life. It was, in fact, what got an editor’s attention when I was pitching this novel to Silhouette.
When we writers think about research, we tend to fall into one of two broad groups: we love research to the point of it consuming all our writing time (a.k.a. procrastination), or we would rather try to pull a deer out of our ear than crack a book or dig through umpteen websites for a crucial detail.
Everybody knows research can make a story better. But the problem is that the easiest resource — the internet — might be filled with great info, but it has plenty of bogus info, too. Or it has the wrong info because it focuses on one aspect of our topic, but not the aspect we’re interested in. So how to get what you need?
It helps to consider the difference between primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources were actually there while secondary sources weren’t there and therefore are more interpretative.
Some examples of primary source materials:
- first-person accounts (letters, diaries, etc.)
- original photographs
These are quite valuable because they can give us actual language, sensory perceptions, and attitudes.
Secondary source materials can include:
With secondary sources, we often get the benefit of hindsight, interpretation of events, and insight into the broader context.
When I was writing The Orchid Hunter, I had a special challenge because the story was first person, and therefore by default would be in deep POV. This character had to know about — or experience during the course of the story — orchids, surviving in the Amazon, meeting and dealing with the Yanomamo, shamanism, illegal gold mining, pharmaceutical processes, and CITES regulations (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). What did living in the jungle look like, feel like, smell like, sound like, taste like?
I didn’t hold out much hope of finding good primary source materials on these topics, but eventually discovered a handful of wonderful nonfiction books, including an ethnobotanist’s account of his jaunt into the Amazon looking for promising pharmaceutical botanicals (primary), a book by an anthropologist about his years living among the Yanomamo (primary), and an investigative series of essays about obsessive orchid collectors and the CITES laws they frequently ran afoul of (secondary).
You can see right away that with only three nonfiction books, I had plenty of material from credentialed sources to work with.
Now that I’m writing novellas set in the 1950’s, research is equally important. Here’s the kind of research I’m working with:
- autobiography or nonfiction books (Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffith and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou)
- movies (Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause)
- scholarly articles about the experience of women in the 1950’s (numerous, as many universities post their materials online)
- tidbits I’ve picked up from my family and friends
And let’s not discount the research from our own direct experience. We can pull insights from our day jobs, our hobbies, that crazy thing we did once, and whatever else our memories are holding for us.
But a final caution about research: It can be easy to gather all this great info together and then get so tangled up in the details that we paralyze ourselves. So remember that research is intended to help, not to harm; it should open up our stories and characters rather than shut them down.
Go forth, my writing friends, and track down that obscure factoid you’ve been hankering for. But hurry on back! There’s a story to write.
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.