“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
Whether we’re writing nonfiction or fiction, there’s no shortage of intriguing and colorful information we may choose to use to spark up our stories and build the worlds we want our readers to inhabit: We have a bewildering, virtually limitless array of resources at our fingertips. Little wonder then, that many of us find doing research in today’s information -overloaded world more than a little daunting. Finding out what we need to know via relevant, reliable sources can be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Relax! Help is at hand: According to research pro Chelsea Dodd, careful planning and skilled information vetting are the keys to a fruitful, focused search. In “Research Strategies for Realistic Fiction,”* she offered some valuable practical tips:
Have a plan: Create a manageable, realistic list of topics you want to explore. Make a schedule for your initial research phase and attach a deadline to it. Track your steps, so you can revisit and verify the sources you use.
Keep moving: Research is a limitless well and you can easily fall into it. See it as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Don’t get so entranced by it that you distract yourself from your real job, which is writing.
Beware of “spot” research: Don’t let spot-research questions turn into speed bumps: This will slow down your writing momentum. Ferreting out juicy tidbits of information (Who coined the term “artificial intelligence?” or “When did Formica tables first appear?”) can be lots of fun and can add a realistic flavor to your story. But stop-and-start digging leads to stop-and-start writing. So instead of stopping and filling in gaps, simply note them in your text and keep moving through your draft. When it’s done, you can go back and fill any holes that need filling.
Vet your data: Most information you’ll need falls into two categories — hard data (facts, figures, and statistics); and soft data (subjective and cultural findings that are open to interpretation). But whether the data you’re including is hard or soft, it’s important that you gather it from credible sources. Any Google search is like to turn up dozens or scores of citations, some more accurate and trustworthy than others. How do you know the difference? This can be tricky. Checking the date that information has been refreshed is critical for scientific data, for example, because it’s so dynamic. And an article with numerous footnotes and attributions is more likely to be the product of rigorous research than one with few annotations. Another tip: A source that is picked up and referred to by other credible sources via links is likely to be reliable.
Tap the experts: Libraries offer not only a wealth of sources, but the skills and expertise of librarians who can help you focus your search strategy and enrich your results. Write on!
* A NaNoWriMo event sponsored by the Montclair Public Library