Research for the Working Writer

“Help, I need sources!” Ah, the plea of the desperate student/grad-student/fiction writer in search of material or confirmation of some nugget, or a replacement for something that suddenly won’t work any more.

Every so often the question arises about how to do research. Fair warning, I do/did this for a living for a while, and I am assuming that the person asking has access to a public library that does inter-library loan, and/or access to a college/university library that tolerates outside researchers (not to check out books, perhaps, but to look at the catalogue and even read and take notes in the facility). I’m also assuming that the searching individual has a decent internet connection and good search engine.

The general rule of thumb is to use the funnel approach. Start wide, looking at summaries and overviews. Then start to narrow down what you are interested in, and use the bibliographies and links in the big-picture sources to tighten up your search. So, let’s say you decide that you want to write a historical fantasy about the settling of Alabama and the “Old Southwest” as it used to be called. A Duck Duck search for Settling of Old Southwest leads to some encyclopedia articles (OK), a Goodreads link to a book entitled “Settling the Old Southwest,” several short articles with links but no sources (naughty, naughty), a G-books listing for “The Conquest of the Old Southwest” from 1920 [dated but if you want quotations from primary sources, not a bad resource], a link to Project Gutenberg’s listing for the same book, and several hits on J-Store*. Now, take “Old Southwest” and to to Amazon. You are not going to buy anything at this point, but it will give you a decent sense of what’s out there, other search-terms you can use, and so on.

After some reading around, you decide that either the Natchez Trace, or Alabama are things you could use. So, repeat for Natchez Trace, and find out that the trade route developed a bit of a dark reputation in the 1800s. Hmmm. Back to Amazon, and the book “The Devil’s Backbone” appears, about the trail. This is an older, well-written book that includes local lore and stories. With something like that, you can begin digging even more on local folklore sites and so on. This might be what you need, especially when you combine it with maps you can find on-line. I’d recommend requesting the books by Inter-Library Loan at first, to sample, then buying only if you think you can use them again. If the book is on something like Gutenberg, all the better.

Now, what if what you need is available in a local academic library, or you just want to check and see? First, go to the university website and find the on-line catalogue. This also works if you are going to a dedicated research library, such as the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech, or the similar facility at the University of New Mexico. Then you can make a list of what looks possibly interesting, AND sort out how the catalogue works. Not all on-line library catalogues work the same way. Some are more friendly than others.** You should also be able to find a contact name and e-mail address to use if 1) you are not sure that you would be allowed to come in person to dig and/or 2) to fine-tune what you are interested in so you don’t waste time on wild goose chases.*** It might be that you can’t use the book at that particular place, but you now have the information needed to request it by Inter-Library Loan (ILL) from a public library.

Back on the Natchez Trace and general searches, you might also do well to sniff around and see if there are any regional horror/fantasy stories and books you could read, to get a sense of what’s been said and how, and if there are other details you might find useful for your work.

*J-Store is one of the top-of-the line academic article databases. Subscribing costs an arm, a leg, and your first child or three. You can buy access to individual articles, but brace yourself for the cost, especially if the journal is published by [redacted] or [redacted].

**My least favorite, aside from one that still required pure Boolean terminology rather than plain-language, was the one that when I searched for “Roma” and “Romania” gave me ten thousand romance novels.

***If you are in a place where they have to bring things to you, and have an item limit, you don’t want this happening to you. It frustrates the archivists as much as it irritates you.

Image by Chen from Pixabay

14 thoughts on “Research for the Working Writer

  1. Back in the early 90s, when I worked for the Army, we were trying to research programs to create electronic tech manuals. A colleague, the spiritual cousin of Felix Unger, heard of a system called, “Gyniss,” and ran a search on it. He found himself in a sea of lesbian porn sites. Luckily he had the good sense to back out and report it to our bosses at once, which kept him from getting a visit from CID. (The rule of thumb was, “If you stumble on a porn site, get out and report it. If someone scans your records and sees you spent 2 minutes on “Whitehouse.com,” and never went back, they’ll assume it was an accident. If they check and discover you’re spending an hour a day, five days a week, you’re in deep kimchi.”).

  2. Back in college (mumble decades ago) I had a job as a workstudy in one of the campus libraries. They still had the old paper card catalog up on 2nd floor of the main library, but they had just rolled out, about a year or two before, a brand new on-line card catalog. It was faster than the paper on, but it was strictly Boolean. It was also the system that we used to check books out/in. By the end of my two years there I was pretty handy with it. Of course, now that I’m back working at the University they’ve completely changed the system and I’m lost just looking at it. What I need to do is spend a couple of hours one of these nights when I’m working over the holiday break and play around with it.

    FYI, if anyone is looking at using the Germans From Russia (AKA: German/Russian) as a point in your story, or are just curious, NDSU has a large collection. They used to offer a night class on it as well, but that professor retired a couple of decades ago and I’m not sure if anyone has taken up the mantel. https://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/

  3. Don’t forget your alma mater. Your educational institution (collegiate, graduate, whatever) very likely participates in reference library/journal database inter-institution privileges. You may be able to use that for free or minor-cost payments. Ask your institution(s) — you paid enough for tuition.

    For example, via mine I can get online up-to-date access to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary — the best etymological source) that way. Also JSTOR (up to a point) and other journals, depending. If you come across an academic article referenced by a professional (e.g., someone reporting on the latest genetics on Substack) and you don’t know how to access that publication, drop them a line and ask how the writer does it — maybe they will have a good suggestion.

    The same is true for many public library systems — find the most prominent ones in your area and start asking. IIRC, the New York Public Library may now accept similar requests for non-NYC residents. If you don’t get the right answers now, try again in a few months — this sort of thing does keep changing and expanding.

    Some universities are specialists — it pays to get them involved. I went looking for an obscure Shaped Note hymnal of which the only copy was on microfilm, and the specialist Appalachian educational institution transferred it to PDF for me for a modest fee.

    1. Incidentally, your educational institution may also participate in reciprocal privileges in so-called University Clubs. This was a much-used feature a generation or two ago (usually overlooked today), and versions of it still exist. When I was doing a lot of business travel, I would maintain a modest annual club membership at my base institution and see if it had reciprocity in my destination city. If so, I could get very cheap rates at the destination club, which might be related to a university or a business or a military branch.

      In addition to the cost benefits, and the locations (these are typically in the heart of the cities), you often had a college-style dining room/bar where you could socialize with interesting people, if you felt so inclined. Altogether it was a superior travel experience to the chain hotel/motel horror.

    2. As of the last time I checked, my first and second alma maters did not offer database access to off-campus alumnae/alumni, even for a fee or donation. That was about five years ago, and I’ve found work-arounds since then. Certain university presses (Cambridge for one) offer subscription services that let you into every journal published by them, for themselves or for other universities or organizations. I wish [redacted #2] did as well, but I shudder to imagine how much they’d charge.

  4. I’m pretty sure the digital catalog for the Indiana public library consortium (or the Illuminati) actively tries to steer you away from certain topics, for no apparent reason.
    But if there’s a pattern, I don’t have the perspective to see it.

    I’ve encountered it in various small ways, but it really got my attention when I searched “King John Plantagenet England”, and got nothing related in the search results. I had to look up the dates of the dude’s life before the bloody thing stopped feeding me “American jazz musician”, “wildflower guide”, and the like.
    Then the bloody system kept crashing every time I tried to request a copy.

    You’d think the Secret Masters would be too busy trying to control a chaotic system to amuse themselves by messing with a nobody like me. But it’s really the personal touch which makes the manipulation of societies rewarding.

    (Tongue planted at least partially in cheek.)

    1. Have we checked how the dates of King John’s reign match up with the giant snail invasion documented in illuminated manuscripts? Maybe that’s the reason; maybe if you could get reliable information on John Plantegenet’s England, you’d find out the truth about the mollusk conspiracy.

  5. Very useful. I’m having to go back and nail down the moral argument right now, but once I’m done with that I definitely need to do a deep dive in child soldiers and espionage to fill out the details.

    My search history is such fun…

    1. There’s a reason for the jokes about “I’m an author, relax!” when referring to discussion topics and search histories.

      1. Oh, yes. Looking up such things as thermobaric weapons, nerve gas, etc. probably increased exponentially the number of lists that I’m on. 🤪

        As for research, I’m one of those heretics who start with Wikipedia, then dig for real sources from there.

        1. As long as you understand the pitfalls and problems with Wiki, it can be a useful starting place. For some topics, it actually is decently reliable. For others . . .

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