10 Apr

Research is fun and will add texture and depth to your books. It can also one of the most frustrating aspects of writing. With the advent of the Internet the amount of information is overwhelming. No matter what topic you put in, jillions of websites pop up all eager to give you information. The problem is which ones are reliable and which ones are just someone’s ramblings? And are the best sites on the top? Or are they just the ones someone’s brother clicks on every half hour so they look as if they get a lot of traffic? It’s so hard to tell.

Here are some alternatives to the WWW.

People—get your information locally. There’re tons of local organizations and experts who know about everything from agriculture to zoologists. Remember someone you know probably knows someone who has the information you need.


I’ve found that if you tell people you’re a writer and are trying to get the right information for your WIP, they’re eager to help.

Forge friendships with people in different walks of life. Since I’ve been writing, I’ve made friends with private detectives, gardeners, interior designers, police, lawyers, doctors, and on goes the list. They’re all helpful, fun, and have a unique outlook on topics.

Here are a few things to take into account when you meet with or contact someone.

Be courteous. Their time is valuable.

Be prepared. Have your questions ready and written down. The more prepared you are, the more professional you’ll look and the more information you’ll get.

Ask open-ended questions. People love to tell stories.

When your book gets published (always be optimistic), acknowledge your sources. Even go so far as to mail your source a book with a thank-you note. The next time you need information, they’ll be eager to help.

Printed material—Magazines are great. No matter what you write, someone probably has come up with a magazine for it.

I’m a book junkie. In my office, I have one whole wall—minus the window—in bookshelves. If you’re writing about a different time period try going to a used book store or an antique shop. The antique shop may not have a lot, but they may know someone who does. Which could lead you to a source. See people above.

Pamphlets are another great resource. Even if you aren’t going to travel, brochures to different places are great for descriptions. Don’t limit yourself to travel flyers. Collect all kinds because you never know when the subject matter will spur an idea or fill in a gap in your story and lead you to a source. And if you’re in need of a flyer for yourself you’ve got a wealth of ideas to draw from.

Classes—Yes go back to school. Try some Community Education classes. They’re inexpensive and you can make contacts for future reference. It’s a great way to get a taste of a subject.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a college or university, they sometimes have mini-courses that aren’t expensive. Our local university’s culinary school used to have cooking classes. I loved them. I found out all kinds of things from the five great sauces to how to care for knives. They weren’t well attended and are no longer around. So get out and support your local resources. Who knows? You may find a new passion.

The Internet—If you must. The problem with websites is they can be very helpful or completely inaccurate. Be aware when you surf the information out there.

How do you approach research?


Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Idaho, research, writing


15 responses to “Research

  1. marsharwest

    April 10, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    Great post, Peggy. I have a former critique partner who spends huge amounts of time on research. For her current WIP, she’d gathered 46 pages of content about drugs and Columbia. I researched the government of Vermont for my 4th book. My Texan fled there. I knew Texas goverment and politics, but not Vermont. (I didn’t come up with 46 pages either, but a lot and yes some from the itnernet–state government websites are loaded with goodies.) It helped that I’d visited the area a couple of times.
    I need to remember what you said about people being eager to help when they learn we’re writers. I hate the idea of bothering someone with questions. (Not my cop cousin, but pretty much anyone else.) Very useful list of places to find info. Thanks.

    • Peggy Staggs

      April 10, 2012 at 10:03 AM

      Wow, 46 pages. I have boxes of pamphlets, booklets, and scraps of paper that look interesting. When I go to pare them down I always end up keeping them because, I may want to use them someday. I’ve always found research interesting. I love learning new things. That always presents the problem of me wandering off into another area that isn’t where I intended to go. Thanks for dropping by.

  2. Meredith Allen Conner

    April 10, 2012 at 7:35 AM

    I have to admit I rely a lot on the internet. I live in a small town and our library is small as well and ordering in books takes time. If I go to the BIG CIty (80 miles away) I like to stop in at Barnes and Noble and peruse their sales table for reference books. But my usual go to is the internet. I make sure that I find at least two – hopefully 3 sites – with the exact same info. Then it all goes into the binder for my current WIP.

    • Peggy Staggs

      April 10, 2012 at 10:08 AM

      I don’t know what we did without the internet…no wait, I do. I remember looking through book after book in hopes that morsel of information would be in that volume, and that it would be timely. Yeah! Internet.

      • ramblingsfromtheleft

        April 10, 2012 at 10:45 AM

        Sorry, Pegg. WP is being bad again and I can’t get to comments. I love your ideas, but you can also verify lots of information with on line magazine and newspaper web sites, or subscribe to an encyclopedia.(Britanica is now only on line.) Your suggestions are fun. I also use street maps, Google live to find the real location on satellite and tons of books 🙂

  3. Peggy Staggs

    April 10, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    Those are great resources, but talking to someone face to face gives you the enthusiasm and passion they bring to a topic. Not to mention their stories. It all adds flavor and depth.

  4. Liz Fredericks

    April 10, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Hey Peggy – This is good material. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to do this kind of research without the internet or maybe I’m just stuck in an information/instant/gratification cycle. It seems I can’t continue writing until I answer some picky little question. In terms of something I’ve found useful, I collect calendars with various scenes (e.g., landscapes, icons, etc) and I use those pictures in descriptions.

  5. Peggy Staggs

    April 10, 2012 at 4:16 PM

    Great idea (calendars.) When you have a scene right in front of you it’s so much easier to describe and if you have to go back to that place you have a picture.

  6. Mary Vine

    April 10, 2012 at 7:26 PM

    I like your idea about getting brochures if I can’t go there. When I was in college I found that I could get free articles from the LA Times. A lot of good information here, Peggy. Good job. Thanks!

    • Peggy Staggs

      April 11, 2012 at 8:18 AM

      Newspapers are a great resource for local flavor. It’s the next best thing to being there. From the editorial page to the real estate section.

  7. Patsy

    April 11, 2012 at 6:56 AM

    I love the research – all kinds. I do the brochure thing as well.

  8. Janis McCurry

    April 11, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    I use clothing catalogues and magazine ads to pick physical descriptions of characters. I don’t even have to have a story in mind to find an interesting face or outfit to tear out and put in my folder.

  9. Peggy Staggs

    April 11, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    Great idea. It always helps to have a picture of your characters.

  10. Clarissa Southwick

    April 16, 2012 at 10:29 AM

    What a great list of sources, Peggy. I love my local library. When writing historicals, I tend to look at art books or photos from the period. I often start with children’s books because they’re heavy on pictures. After I get the big ideas, I move to the adult section for the nitty gritty details.

    • Peggy Staggs

      April 16, 2012 at 10:34 AM

      Great idea. I never thought of looking at kid’s books, but that would be a great way to get a flavor of the time. Can you get older ones at the library or on line?


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