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Writers' research

WritersServices Factsheet 4 by Michael Legat

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Research is an indispensable part of writing for most authors, and for many it is so enjoyable as to be a danger – don’t get so absorbed in research that you forget to write your story, or feature or book.

If the setting of what you write is not familiar to you, go to wherever it may be, you can, to experience it for yourself. If you cannot visit the place concerned (because of distance or cost, perhaps), an alternative, which a number of successful authors have used, is to capture the spirit and details of the background by researching deeply in books and other sources of information which are available in this country.

Without doubt the best source of research material will be your local public library. Any librarian will willingly help you in the retrieval of the knowledge that you want.

Other good sources for research can be found in specialist libraries, museums, county archives, church registers, official census figures, etc. Your public library will be able to suggest other sources.

If researching a period in the past five hundred years or so, read books written at the time. They will not only give you general background material, but any dialogue will show you how people talked in those days.

Most people are happy to talk at length and in detail about anything in which they are expert, including their daily work, to an interested enquirer, especially if you tell them that you intend to use the information in a book.  A personal interview is best, but if you are forced to use a written approach give yourself a better chance of a reply by always enclosing a stamped addressed envelope.

Research can be done during or after writing a draft of your material, but it is usually better to undertake as much research as possible before starting to write. While you are gathering your thoughts about the work, make a list of all the information you need.

One of the justifications for careful research is that you may well learn things which will affect your view of the matters concerned and will have a major effect on what you write.

Once you have acquired the information which you need, be careful not to insert it into your work in large, indigestible lumps.

Build your own reference library if you can, so that you can do much of your research at home. You should have a good dictionary and an encyclopedia (comparatively inexpensive in disc form), plus an atlas, and perhaps a book on costumes through the ages, or dictionaries of music or literature, and other similar publications which will fit your own specific needs.

For more details see Research

© Michael Legat 2001