Monday, December 14, 2009

Research for Fiction and Nonfiction - Guest Helen Ginger!

Today I welcome the incredible Helen Ginger from Straight From Hel.

An editor, a writer, and expert in all things book related!

After reading her guest post today, please pop over to her awesome blog.

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.

Visit Helen at her website Helen Ginger and blog Straight From Hel
Sign up for her newsletter
And visit TSTC Publishing


  1. Enlightening, Helen. Thanks, Diane, for hosting her. I love her anywhere, here, there, or on her blog.

  2. Great article, Helen. I remember when you were blogging about the interviews you were doing as part of your research for your book. And I agree, even fiction requires some, and sometimes a lot, of research to come off as legit and "real". In my novel, Owne Fiddler, Owen's wife had Lupus. I had to research that disease to know what the symptoms would be, the meds, treatments, etc. Another book I'm writing has a female main character who is a mountain climbing fanatic. I've never climed more than a set of staris to I'm researching that sport. It's fun, actually, and enlightening to do.

    Marvin D Wilson

  3. Some people love doing research. Others do not. Love it or hate it, though, it's a must for a writer.

  4. Thanks for guesting here today, Helen!

  5. Oh oh oh. I love research. My editors claim I send in the most researched assignments! My cardinal rule is, if I find it on the Web, I pdf it and note the url. Sometimes web sites are dropped or information changes. I scan all book ref's, too, that way all research is electronic and easily stored. I send everything along to client. As for interviews, well I'm always amazed at the time individuals will take to explain their research to a complete stranger. Oh, and if it's an organization with locations in NY, DC, and in the South, I always call the southern office—in general they tend to be more helpful and outgoing.{!}

  6. I probably go overboard, Bonita. I keep printed copies and the digital files with the urls. And I'm sure we both gather way more information than we end up needing!

  7. Thanks for the information, Helen. I've always thought I'd enjoy writing nonfiction...may have to wait when I have a little more time, though.

    The only part that's icky to me is the transcribing. Bleh. I do that sometimes at home after I write longhand and it bores me to tears.

    Good points about the research that's necessary for fiction.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  8. I think opportunities like touring a morgue and swimming with pigs would be the most exciting kind of research.

    This is a great site, Diane.

  9. I do a lot of research, too, for both fiction and non=fiction. I love doing it. Like you, I keep a list of URLs, but I print only the most important ones for my project. On the web, some sites can be a little iffy. Sometimes I need to only check a fact I'm pretty sure of, but if I'm researching something totally new to me, the old journalism rule comes into play. I verify. For me, if I can't find the same info on three sites, with one of them being at least quasi-reputable, I won't use it. The most interesting thing that has happened to me during research was having the phone slammed down in my ear during an interview with a South Texas sheriff who was known for living on the edge.

  10. Carol, might be good that you weren't interviewing that sheriff in person!


  11. Thanks for sharing your research techniques. I did most of my nonfiction books before the Internet and e-mail, and have to agree that now both make it much easier to research. Now when I am writing an article, I don't have to stop and call a reference librarian. I love reference librarians -- they were my best friends when doing the old fashioned research -- but Google is my best friend now. Sorry ladies.

  12. Thanks Diane for featuring such a great guest. Helen I need to know more about the swimming with pigs, curious minds and all that...

  13. I really enjoy research. Always have. People thought I was a bit of a nut in university, but it sure comes in handy :)

  14. Elizabeth, folks say pigs don't swim, but they do, especially if they're taught to from the time they're piglets.

  15. Well, certainly, Helen, research is more fun if you're doing it in person that in the library or with a computer. I find travel an important part of inspiration, too. I just returned from a trip to Eucador, Peru and Chile. Fantastic!
    Tweeting writers resources @frugalbookpromo

  16. Carolyn, you have hit upon the most interesting research of all! I like it.

  17. I think I understand why I write fiction now - I can handle a little research but not the degree that it has to be done for non-fiction.

  18. Thanks for the insights on research, Helen - looks like everyone enjoyed it!

  19. Great information! I love researching. Thanks for sharing your methods.