Friday, 16 September 2011

Don't Know? Look it Up

Today my guest post is from my very good friend and research guru, Maureen Vincent-Northam. Her advice is invaluable for all writers, whether researching for an article, non-fiction book or even fiction.

Don't Know? Look it Up

Some words have a certain writery ring about them: muse, reflection, creativity, contemplation. Others are less inspiring: tedium, frustration, research.

Okay, let’s leave tedium and frustration at the bottom of the pile – like frilly shirts and fitted sheets when we do the ironing – and take a closer look at research. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I grant you, but stay with me here.

When Lorraine and I wrote The Writer’s ABC Checklist, we carried out a whole heap of the stuff. As authors of a guide to professional presentation, it was vital that we got our facts right; there were many things we had to check (and we checked out many sources and took advice from publishing professionals) before we were satisfied we’d got the correct information.

But research isn’t confined to reference books. Even in works of fiction, a reader will expect your facts to be spot on – there’s always some clever dick ready to point out that, actually, your hero couldn’t have used Morse Code in 1786 and your heroine may have been pioneering and avant-garde but she wasn’t flogging teabags in her corner shop in 1902.

When writing stories, where an overview of a particular period is all you need, the children’s section of your local library is a hard act to follow. Books covering the Romans, Tudors, Victorians and just about any other era, will tell you how they lived, what they wore, and whether or not they sold teabags.

Tracking down info for any work, be it a novel or a non-fiction book, an article or a short story, can be time consuming. The secret is to prioritise and break down your search into practical and workable chunks.

  • When using the Internet, look for websites run by associations, societies and official fan clubs of the people or subjects you’re covering, as these will have the most reliable data.
  • Use primary sources rather than secondary ones. A primary source is the original – the secondary has been written using the original source in some way. And a transcript of an original document may contain errors.
  • Gather info from more than one book if you are researching this way and check the bibliographies to ensure the writers haven’t taken their information from the same source, thus perpetuating inaccuracies.
  • Gather the views of more than one expert to lessen the risk of biased data and personal opinion over facts.
  • Be very careful that you are not citing old facts and figures, as newer research may mean this material has become obsolete.
A final, and pretty darned clever, tip. When even reputable sources differ on dates or measurements, you don’t need to risk getting it wrong; it’s still possible to be correct without being specific. For example: The church was built in the latter half of the 13th century or the limo was twice the length of two average family saloons.

MaureenVincent-Northam has been published in newspapers, international magazines and on the Web, contributing regularly to markets aimed at writers. She is the author of Trace your Roots and co-authored The Writer’s ABC Checklist. She won The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books 2008 competition and her short stories and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies. Maureen is also a freelance editor, has judged online writing contests, and tutored writing workshops.

The Writer’s ABC Checklist


DW96 said...

That limo would be 48 feet long. I've driven smaller lorries! ;-)

Sound advice from both of you, as usual.

And for any writers who don't have the ABC Checklist on their bookshelves, why don't you?

Rebecca Emin said...

Helpful advice, and very important too. Great blog post.