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Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book


Researching for a book

One could probably write a book about researching for a book. It's a big topic and it covers a lot of different subjects and approaches. However, whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, there are some general principles that are worth paying attention to. In this article, I'll explore some basic ground rules for research.

I tend to assume - and my experience as both a reader and an editor bears this out - that writers of non-fiction usually already have some expertise in the subject they are writing about; the desire to share that knowledge is often the motivation for writing in the first place. So much of what I say here will be aimed primarily at fiction writers; however, the principles we will consider apply to all kinds of writing.

The first question we might ask is: why research a book? Isn't writing an act of the imagination? Well, yes, but imagination will only get you so far. If you are writing a police procedural thriller, and you know nothing about police procedure, you are unlikely to convince the reader. So the answer to our question might be: you research a book so that you know enough to make your book credible to the reader. That's pretty important, I'm sure you'll agree.

The initial stage of research for a book involves two tasks. The first is establishing the big picture; a conceptual framework, in broad strokes, encapsulating the aim or spirit of the book. At this stage you are often relying on what you already know, but as you sketch the outline you will begin to understand the limitations of your knowledge. And that leads inexorably to the second stage: identifying the gaps in your knowledge and working out how to fill them.

At this point, you have all the information you need to begin your research; ideally you have made a list of the topics you want to know more about, and you have started to think about how to find that information. I'd suggest there are three main ways to do this: books and expert sources; online searches; and hands on, personal experience. Let's look at each in turn.

I love my local library, and I have made friends with some of the librarians. When I need to research something, I often begin by asking them for advice; they may not be experts on the native flora of the Hebrides, but they usually have a pretty good idea of where to find the relevant information. If the object of your research is specialised or obscure, you may need to contact a bigger library; but the same principle applies - ask advice from the experts.

If you can establish direct contact with an expert in the field, you should jump at the chance. A conversation with a person who knows their subject is often a shortcut to the specific information you need. A retired police officer, for instance, would be a pretty useful source of knowledge about police procedure.

However, be prepared to check all the information you pick up from experts. That retired police officer may know everything about procedure when they were working; but it's possible that things have changed, and new protocols have come into play.

The internet is a vast repository of knowledge and, happily, there are often multiple sources to choose from. As a general rule, though, if you can find a specialist website, use it. And then check the information with another specialist site if you can. Also check when the information was uploaded; it may have been superseded by more recent work.

You should exercise a degree of caution if you are using online information as your primary source. Anyone can upload just about anything (and they frequently do), so the credibility of your specific source is important. One of the downsides of the internet is that it tends to bolster conventional wisdom; and conventional wisdom is often a game of cultural Chinese whispers, rather than a logical flow of knowledge.

Hands-on research is invaluable, and you should engage in it wherever and whenever possible. If you have chosen a particular setting, a landscape or a city, visit that environment. Immerse yourself in it, walk around it, take photos of it; talk to local people and find out what they know and feel about the place. Frequently you will learn bits of local legend that you will not find anywhere else. And if local people are characters in your story, you may pick up on local habits of speech that will lend authenticity to the narrative.

All three of these approaches can be as broad or as detailed as you need or want. If you do need to go deeper, you will find plenty of advice on how to carry out research, in books or online. Again, I'd suggest you shop around; look for advice that resonates with your project and your desired approach.

A couple of words of caution: first, you will not discover all the gaps in your knowledge until you start writing. Be prepared to go back if you need something specific. I suggest you make a note, as you write, of things you need to look up, and then you can continue writing your draft or chapter and return to the specifics later.

Second, and very importantly, remember that you are not obliged to put everything you have learned into your book. To put it another way: you need to know more than the reader, but you don't need to tell the reader everything you know. The point of your research is to support and verify your writing, not vice versa; only use the material that is necessary for the story, and beware what is known in the trade as ‘info-dumping'. A reader faced with a dense thicket of potentially interesting but irrelevant information may turn into an ex-reader rather quickly.

So: work out what you need to know, choose a source that suits your material and your approach, cross check and verify wherever possible and, most importantly, don't overdo it!


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When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.


Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

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