It’s great that we live in an age where information is just a couple of mouse clicks away. Gone are the days when we had to slog through the stacks at the library for even the simplest research. Unfortunately, too many of us have become excessively reliant on the Internet for our research needs. It’s so convenient that we are often reluctant to take the time leave our comfy chairs and go out into the world to do our research. There are some things, however, that the Internet cannot give us and to exclude them from our work for the sake of convenience is to produce a weaker work, one that is devoid of sensory details and the personal touch.
If you want to produce a rich, true account of your character’s experiences or fill your non-fiction work with the details and facts that will set it apart from competing work, you’re going to have to go offline for at least some of your research. Here are some offline places and methods that will bring that spark of life into your work.
Even though all kinds of books and references are online, there is still no substitute for an old-fashioned library. Not only do they have resources that you may not be able to get online (microfiches of old local newspapers, locally published books/histories, and out of print books that are no longer available, for a few examples), they are filled with people who can help you. Employees may be well versed in local history, for example, or have already helped someone else track down that obscure fact that you’re looking for.
Museums/national parks/preservation efforts
If your work requires a trip into the past, there are no better places to see actual battlefields, historic homes, artifacts, clothing, and artwork than at museums and parks dedicated to preservation. Sure, you can see that clothing, artwork, or artifact in an online catalog, but getting up close to it will reveal the tiny details you can’t see in a picture. And there’s nothing like being in a historic place to give you a sense of what the people who lived there experienced as far as weather and scents. They are also great places to get writing ideas.
Never underestimate the power of actually talking to someone who knows what you want to know. Whether you’re interviewing a CEO for an article about life behind the desk, or a zookeeper about his work (since your novel’s main character is also a zookeeper), there is no substitute for the experience of actual human beings. You’ll not only hear about what their life is like, you may also get to watch them in action.
There are archives at almost every level of government. Some schools, churches, and businesses also keep archives. You may be able to find old yearbooks, original editions of books and manuscripts, letters, photographs, and many other documents of historical importance. Many of these things are not made available online due to their size or the fact that they can’t be put into a scanner due to their age.
Colleges and universities are a treasure trove of information. Their libraries often subscribe to journals and newspapers that municipal libraries don’t carry and which may not have an online presence (or, if they do, you as an individual will have to pay to subscribe). You can talk to professors that teach and research the topic you’re working with. If your work is fiction and set at a college, you can spend a few days observing the students and their activities. Some larger universities also have collections of artifacts or documents related to local history, art, and culture.
Sure, you can Google the location for your next novel and see pictures and maps, but there’s nothing like being there. When you actually visit a place, you can experience the people, traffic patterns, weather, and architecture in a way that pictures and maps can’t convey. You can hear the sounds and smell the smells, as well. All those details will lend an authenticity to your work that you can’t get from the Internet. If your desired location is too far away, try setting your book closer to home or at least let a native of the area read your work to see if it feels authentic to them.
If your character is an addict, an abused spouse, going through a divorce or dealing with grief, it can be hard to put yourself in those types of situations. If you’re writing non-fiction about these tough topics, you’ll need more of a personal experience than books can give you. Support groups, though, are full of people dealing with those types of situations. You may be able to sit in on some group meetings if you ask in advance and mention that you are doing research for a book. You’ll likely be asked to keep in the background and to keep anything you learn confidential, but hearing the stories and seeing the emotions can give you what you need to make your work authentic.
Reenactments aren’t limited to just the battlefields, although those are invaluable if your work covers historic battles. Places like Williamsburg, Virginia and other “living history” museums reenact everything from the nightly lamp lighting in a village to butter churning. Seeing how a process actually worked is better than reading about it and then trying to recreate it on the page.
This is simple. Get out and watch what people do. If your character is a teenager, spend some time watching what they do and how they act with each other. If your character is a teacher, ask if you can shadow a class for a day. Is your character a farmer? Tag along with a farmer for a day. Find ways to observe the people you want to write about. It’ll make for a more authentic work and it may take your character beyond the stereotype that you would have otherwise created.
Businesses, organizations, and associations
There are all kinds of organizations that might have the information you need. Whether you’re looking for information on how a product is made or how a rescue organization does its work, for example, you can find it by visiting various organizations and asking for information or observing how things work. Unless the information is proprietary or confidential, many organizations are wiling to share.
If you need to know what it’s like to be someone who flies model airplanes, scuba dives, restores old cars, or plays Dungeons and Dragons every weekend, you might want to visit some local hobby groups. Many don’t require membership and are happy to show off their hobbies to others. You don’t have to learn how to do the activity yourself, but watching other people do it and asking questions can yield a deeper understanding than simply reading about the hobby online.
Want to know what a certain battle was like, or what the uniforms of the time felt like? There are no better people to talk to than those who were there. While you can only speak directly to veterans of more recent wars, you can find groups dedicated to preserving the memories and information gleaned from those who served in older wars. There are also groups dedicated to the experiences of women on the home front.
Courthouses have records of births, deaths, real estate transactions, and business filings. Not to mention all of the criminal files. Much of this information is public record. They also house some historic documents and records that are open to the public. If your character is a lawyer (or criminal) you can even spend some time in the courtroom watching actual cases unfold as many trials are open to the public.
The Internet can be a good place to begin your research or gather general facts, but when it comes to the small details and personal experiences that make a work authentic, there’s no substitute for getting out into the world and observing how actual people live their lives. And who knows? Maybe in the process of researching one work you meet someone or hear a story that is just so fascinating that it becomes the idea for your next work.
(Photo courtesy of Ellen Forsyth)