So I took some time this evening to catch up with a little blog reading, including an email newsletter I get monthly from K.M. Weiland (2014) of Helping Writers Become Authors. There were a few lines in an article titled “Research is Great! Now Keep It to Yourself” that leapt off the page at me tonight, including this first gem:
Fortunately for us, research is usually fun, especially since we’re often going to be reading about subjects that already interest us personally.
Wow, did that strike a chord with me! I’ve been researching for my next book, a story that takes place along the same historical arc as the sinking of the ship S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in Michigan. I’ve become an Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck fact junkie! For those of you who aren’t from Michigan or who didn’t grow up in the folk music scene of the 70s, the sinking of the Fitz may be an unknown event. However, the disappearance of this giant ore carrier in the frigid waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, and its immortalization in Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad have made this tragedy stick in the hearts and minds of many.
That being said, such a tragedy has been discussed, researched, argued over, and written about countless times. While my book has little to do with the story of the Fitz (my story sort of happens in the shadow of the historical event), I wanted to be sure I knew the story well and did my research accordingly—a LOT of research! I can’t help but worry, though, that there will be those who know a great deal more than I do who will find fault with my efforts. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this worry, as Weiland (2014) notes:
No matter what subject we’re writing about, we have to assume we’ll find some pretty smart readers out there who will know more about it than we do.
This is a fact of reality: There will always be someone out there who knows more about the topic than I do. Although I can’t solve that problem, I can make some effort to ensure that I’ve done my due diligence on the research and writing end. To that end, here are goals for researching and integrating that work into my own WIP:
- Read a LOT: To research a topic effectively, a writer should read whatever is available on the topic. And I’m not talking about sitting down and typing the topic into Wikipedia, although that could be a good first step. The bibliographic materials on Wikipedia articles can often be very useful “next steps.” The point, though, is to read widely on the topic, to be sure to see it from as many angles as possible—otherwise readers will gladly point out missed perspectives.
- Seek out Experts: While I realize that few of us have the budgets to allow for research trips, I’ve found that email is a great way to connect to the experts who have already spent countless hours researching the same topic. The best part is that many of them are happy to answer a few questions on their favorite subject—as long as their time is valued and respected. There’s no substitute for going to the source when it comes to authenticating research.
- Take notes: This sounds a bit obvious, but most of us aren’t very good at remembering things. How many times have you had that moment when you know you heard something somewhere—but just can’t remember where or when? While it may not be necessary to write down each detail from many sources—especially where the ideas from those sources overlap—it can be incredibly helpful to note where the sources differ. What are the causes for those differences?
- Give credit ethically: Okay, so I should out myself here and admit that I teach English, so I’m constantly lecturing my students about citing their sources. To not do that myself would just be hypocritical—and maybe downright criminal since I know better. However, it’s hard to give credit in the usual sense in fiction. There are opportunities in an acknowledgments section and in a works consulted section to give credit to the original researchers whose work has informed my way of thinking about the topic. That can also give the writer a bit of protection if a fact is challenged. Readers have some idea where the idea originated—if it wasn’t something that came from the author’s imagination. (By the way, since I’m talking about citation in this post, I felt it absolutely necessary to roll out the formal APA citation for this blog entry—don’t be alarmed!)
- Contribute to the Ongoing Conversation: Imagine walking into an ongoing conversation and just repeating what everyone else is saying. How well would that go over? The participants in the conversation would likely just ignore what we say entirely. Likewise, when writing about a topic that is already being discussed, we need to take in what’s being discussed, synthesize it with what we know, and add something valuable to the conversation—some new knowledge or insight. Fiction allows writers the opportunity to “see” a topic in an entirely new light. It’s important not to simply regurgitate the facts from our research; instead, we should aim to build on those ideas to create a fresh take on the topic.
I know I will never know everything there is to know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald no matter how much research I do. But that isn’t my goal. My goal is to use the research as a scaffold on which to build my own story. What research tips have you found most helpful in building your own story scaffold?
Weiland, K.M. (2014, February 1). Research is great! Now keep it to yourself. Helping Writers Become Authors. Retrieved from http://penforasword.createsend1.com/t/ViewEmail/j/FCA55A97ECE39E8C/A4C28CA257A89AFBC9C291422E3DE149
(In case you’re interested, the books in the photo are Frederick Stonehouse’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Michael Schumacher’s Mighty Fitz.)