Helen Ginger from Straight From Hel.
An editor, a writer, and expert in all things book related!
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Research for Fiction and Nonfiction
Most dictionaries define “research” as the “methodical investigation into a subject.” That pretty much describes what I do. I research then write nonfiction books. So far, I’ve written three for TSTC Publishing in their TechCareers series. I’m now under contract to write a standalone. The kind of research required for nonfiction is different from research for a fiction book, although both require investigation and organization.
For each nonfiction I’ve written, I did not only a ton of online research, but also one-on-one interviewing with subjects. For each book, I start with a 3” notebook to keep things organized. By the time I finish, the notebook will be filled with research, transcribed interviews, and probably a hundred sticky tabs. Some interviews I do in person, some via email. Email is the easiest. I come up with questions; the subject sends me his/her answers. In-person means for every hour’s worth of interviewing, I’ve got probably five or seven hours of transcribing to do, but it also means I come away with more information since we can expand and delve into areas that come up during the meeting. Each book requires around 16 to 20 interviews and each one is transcribed then used to create a profile for that person.
I tend to wait until I’ve got most of the research done before I start writing. The exception is the back of the book resources, which I gather as I research. The book I’m writing now, though, will be done differently. I’m still doing upfront research and will start interviewing soon, but this book focuses not on a technical career, but on one person and how he is changing the way teachers teach. I will have to start writing before I’ve finished researching the full book.
To write these kinds of books, an author has to be organized. Each of the TechCareers books had a three-month turnaround, from assignment to due date. The one I’m working on now has a longer time period - about eight months. That’s still tight.
With nonfiction, everything has to be researched. If you’re writing fiction, don’t fall into the pit of thinking it’s all made up. If it’s not anchored in fact, it won’t be believable. If your book is set in the 1600s, you can be sure there’s no one alive from that era to contradict what you’ve written. You can also be sure there is someone alive who is an expert in that time period and will slam your book. You can still write about that time period -- find that expert or the book he wrote and get the correct information. Just like a woman can write a male protagonist and vice versa, you can write about things you’ve not experienced firsthand. You have to do your research, though.
If you set your book in a town you’re not familiar with, you’ll have to find out about that region, from weather to slang to the look of the towns to seasons to streets to music. Even if you make up a town, it still has to be believable. You can’t take your wonderful hometown in Virginia and plop it down in west Texas. It won’t ring true.
One wonderful aspect of the Internet is that you can ask for help. If you belong to online groups and you get stuck in your research, you can throw a question out to the group. I did that when I needed to know if a tour bus could go into Central Park to load. I’d exhausted my research places and turned to the Sisters in Crime listserv. I got my answer.
I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in a woman’s prison. I had no plans to write a scene in woman’s prison, but I still jumped on the chance to go (and was glad to be able to leave). I’ve toured a morgue (very interesting) and a detention center (depressing). I’ve picnicked underwater (many times) and swam with several pigs, been inside an EMS ambulance, and watched the sun rise over a volcano. Take advantage of all opportunities.
I can’t imagine any book, fiction or nonfiction, that doesn’t require some kind of research.
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