Today’s Writers’ Tip: Research for Nonfiction
(SURPRISE! Yes, this post is three days early. But I’m going to a writers’ conference next week and won’t be back until Friday. I’m so busy from now until then that I needed to post this blog today. Enjoy!)
Research for Nonfiction
“Well, that’s a no-brainer,” you say. “Even if you’re writing your life history, you’d probably need an ancient facts book to see what REALLY BIG happened the year you were born. Duh. Nonfiction means ‘no fakey talkey.’”
Right. We all assume, and correctly, that nonfiction requires research, except maybe if you’re writing poetry, although you need to keep your facts straight there, too, if you’re writing practically anything but mushy love notes.
What I’d like to discuss is the importance of keeping good notes and doing the necessary research to make your manuscript a reliable and trustworthy document.
Yes, Google has brought to all of us a library on our desks in our homes. But, please forget Wikipedia for all your research. It’s all right to use it as a reference, but sometimes online sources are not 100% accurate. You need to spend some time at the library. And not just hanging around the encyclopedia shelves either.
Let’s say you plan to write a coffee table book that would attract sports car racing fans. You want to find facts and photos about “The First Car Races in the United States.”
Online searches and encyclopedias are a good place to start, but only a good place to start. Where else can you find information about early car races? Let’s list a few:
- Libraries (more than one, including public libraries and college libraries), which should have a wealth of all kinds of books about the topic
- Racing magazine archives
- Biographies and autobiographies of famous “car people” like Henry Ford
- Race tracks, contemporary race car drivers, local auto racing clubs
- Race car museums
- Manufacturing plants of race cars
There are just a few ideas of where you could get your facts for your project.
So after you start collecting the facts, what’s the best way to save them?
Of course, an accurate bibliography is essential. I recommend keeping all your notes not only on paper in a file but feeding them into a computer file and on back-up flash drives or CDs for safe keeping, as well. You never know what might happen to just one file, either in the computer or outside of it. I’ve lost items much bigger than a file of papers in my feeble-brained moments.
I can’t express more clearly at this time the importance of keeping that bibliography as detailed as you can. If at all possible, record publishing dates and companies of all facts gathered. Record phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses of all folks interviewed, or the sources of all information (if available), and don’t skimp on the details. You just might need to “prove” to your editor that your facts are correct.
Case in Point: when I wrote my ladies’ Bible study guide, DRAW ME CLOSER, LORD, A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO A MEANINGFUL PRAYER LIFE, several years back, I took a full year to write it because of the research involved. I used not only the Bible extensively, but I also used 19 other resources, all of them books, many written by famous pastors or missionaries on the topic of prayer, to substantiate my statements. I also had to do research for every song lyric or poem I quoted at the end of each of the ten lessons. I needed to know if the words I wished to copy were in the public domain, (older than 70 years for the hymns I wanted to use), or did I have to acquire permission to use the words or even purchase the rights such as in the case of a Helen Steiner Rice poem, which I wanted to quote two or three lines. (That purchase price was extremely high, so I used another poem with no reprint fee—one of my own!)
I vividly remember talking to the editor at the publishing company who had contracted with me for the Bible study guide. She made it quite clear to me that it was MY responsibility to send her all the “permission slips” to use any other author’s poems or any composer’s lyrics. I also remember that she told me I had to have documentation from said authors or composers to send to her before the company would publish the book.
Well, now, if I hadn’t written down where I had found some of the poems I wanted to use or some of the hymns’ lyrics, I would have been in a big research waning mess. But, fortunately, I had documented all of the above.
I remember one incident when I found the phone number (I don’t remember how) of one of the poets whose poem I wished to use. I called the number, and the poet’s husband answered, telling me that his wife had passed away several years past. After I offered him my condolences, I explained that I wanted to use one of her poems in my book, and he graciously consented to send me a written statement, which I then forwarded to my editor.
Now, can you see what it took me a full year to write the Bible study guide? Accuracy takes time!
So, my strongest note of encouragement to you is to keep accurate and detailed notes of every little tidbit of information you use. You have no idea what your editor will ask for. And if you decide to self publish, you need all the more to be accurate and to have permission when permission to copy is due. One thing you don’t need accompanying the joy of seeing your name in print is a lawsuit in tomorrow’s mailbox.
Next time, I’ll discuss “Developing a Plot for your Fiction that’s Outside the Box!”