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Research Helpers
by Matthew Rhys Sypniewski, B.A., M.A.

Research can be one of the most valuable tools you can use in your writing. No matter what you are writing about, there will always be a character or a setting that you need to tell more about to give your story authenticity. This is where good research can "make or break" your writing. Remember that your reading audience will run the full gamut of experiences and job descriptions. If you don't do your research, it will be clear to your reader that your information is bogus.

For example, if your main character is a detective in Santa Fe, New Mexico; you will have to describe the look of the town, th type of people who live there, the food they serve in the restaurants, the language of the people (some would speak Spanish, and others might be Native American). You must know what kind of weather they have in Santa Fe, etc. Obviously, if you have it raining in Santa Fe, you would have to know this area is generally very dry, and that too much rain could cause many problems there. Such as: Adobe house there could not withstand too much rain, since they are made of materials that could quite literally wash away.

Historical Novels

If you are to do a historical novel, you must research the sights, sounds, smells, morals, dress, dress, mode of travel, housing, food and much more. Only an expert in medieval history could write a novel about medieval times without looking up background authenticity.

You might also wish to have a timeline of events, at the time your character is alive, a menu of foods people ate, a costume book that shows mode of fashion, for various classes (from king to peasant), etc. Architectural books might describe the masonry work used and the architecture of castles and homes of that time (medieval).

You may want your "King" and "Queen" living in the correct type of castle (with or without a moat), dressed in the finery "fit for a King." While your peasants might live in rough and filthy gaments, your peerage would have many similarities to the king, but you would have to know how they received their positions as king's favorities. Some knights received land for fighting for the king. Some received prestige by marrying the king's daughter.

You must make your reader feel the sights, sounds, feel, and aroma of the place you are writing about. This can not be stressed too many times. Morals are important to know, since depending on the times, these might be very much different from today's attitudes towards marriage, the roles women played in the society, and sexual habits. For example, it was taboo to have sex with your wife, when she was pregnant. Thus many an eye might wander during this time. Women could not "talk back" to their Lord and master, it might result in punishment, death, and a respite in a nunnery.

Hometown, U.S.A.

Now you might be think that you want to write about something a little more familiar to you. "I don't have to research." might be running through your mind.

Well, actually, this is not true. If you are writing about more than one person, in your town, you will have to research their occupations. If a policeman appears, as a character, you will need to know something about laws in your town.

Doing a "hometown" piece, you should know the variety of personalities, home styles, values, and psyche of your characters.

For example, if you are writing about a serial killer, you must find information about the "moduoperandi." Even serial killers have patterns they follow. You have to get into the mind of your character. Anyone who has read The Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal knows that Hannibal, the Cannibal has many reasons for doing what he does best. He is a genius, in spite of his crimes. And he is well aware that people note this genius. He uses fear to his advantage, and mind control. Researching a serial killer or any other type of criminal, might entail looking through psychiatric journals, reading crime books, and newspaper clippings of this type of criminal. Truth is often scary than fiction.

If your character is an assembly line factory worker, you must know the job and what it is like. How many hours do they work, what do they do, how many breaks do they take, is there a lot of factory crimes, such as "bringing items home" without permission. You need to "flesh out" these people, if they are to be interesting to your readers. If a factory worker repeats a certain task, hour after hour, day after day, they might get bored rather easily on the job. Such a worker might be motivated to do more active activities after work. Many factory workers seek excitement after a dull, boring day. Remember Saturday Night Fever with John Travolota? He sought an identity as a dancer in a disco. He needed some niche so he could have something to point to as a success in his life.

Remember that research is an important part of any prose. Your character as a champion swimmer, when you yourself can barely do a "dog paddle" most likely will not come off. You have to be the character in some way to write about them. Some writers even take on temporary jobs to get into the mind of their characters, or interview people who do this work.

Your readers will definitely notice any mistakes and so will your critics.

Some writers keep a journal of events, in their lives, to call upon later. Some have excellent and vivid memories and use photographs to remind them of events. And still others seem to have the ability to remember things lividly without the use of either technique! As a writer you need to use whatever works for YOU.

Authenticity and continuity will be two extremely important elements in developing a good novel or short story. Even something as simple as the family dog must be written from a dog owner's point of view.

There are many resources for writers on the internet and in books. I will list a few that I have found here.

Useful Books and Resources

  1. Writer's Digest Books:
    Moulton, Candy. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1999

    Emerson, Kathy Lynn. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England From 1485-1649. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1996

    Kenyon, Sherrilyn. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages: The British Isles from 500 to 1500. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1995.

    There are other titles relating to the Victorian age and on Colonial America.

  2. Cultural Atlases.

    Graham-Campbell, James. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Facts on File, 1984.

    There are numerous titles, all from Facts on File.

  3. Ancient Places
    Harpur, James. The Atlas of Secret Places. New York: A Henry Holt Reference Book, 1994.

    Ingpen, Robert and Phillip Wilkinson. Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places: The life and legends of ancient sites around the world. New York: Viking Studio Books, 1990.

    Nahn, Paul G., editor. Lost Cities. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997.

    Page, Michael and Robert Ingspen. Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1987.

  4. Mythology

    Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on FIle, 1993.

    Cherry, John. Mythical Beasts. San Francisco: Pomegranite Artbooks, 1995.

    Cotterell, Arthur. The Mythology Library: Norse Mythology. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1997.

    Pearsall, Ronald. Myths and Legends of Ireland: Tales of Magical and Mysterious Past. New York: Todtri, 1996.

    Rolleston, T.W. An Illustrated Guide to Celtic Mythology. New York: Crescent Books, 1995.

    Froud, Brian adn Alan Lee. Fairies. New York: Rufus Publications, 1978.

    Morgan Tom. The Devil. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.

    Marshall, Richard. Witchcraft: The History and Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995.

    Cotterrell, Arthur. The Mythology Library: Celtic Mythology: The Myths and Legends of the Celtic World. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1997.

    Katz, Brian P. Myths of the World: Dieties and Demons of the Far East. New York: Metro Books, 1995.

    Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Melton, J. Gordon. The Vampire Book Detroit: Visible Ink, 1994.

  5. Warfare:

    Clements, John. Renaissance Swordsmanship. Boulder, CO.: Paladin Press, 1997.

    Eliot-Wright, Phillip J. C. The English Civil War From Bassey's History of Uniforms. London: Brassy's Ltd., 1997.

    Enbleton, Gerry and John Howe. The Medieval Soldier. London: Windrow & Green, 1994.

    Men-At-Arms Series Books are useful since they cover various wars and time periods.

    Shadrake, Dan & Suzanna. Barbarian Warriors: Saxons, Vikings, Normans. London: Brassy's Ltd., 1997.

    Sumner, Graham. Roman Army Wars of the Empire. London: Nrassey's Ltd., 1997.

  6. General Research and Grammar Helpers:

    Croteau, Maureen and Wayne Worchester. The Essential Researcher: A Complete Up-to-Date, One Volume Sourcebook for Journalists, Writers, Students, and Everyone Who Needs Facts Fast. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

    Rubin Jr., Louis D. A Writer's Companion. Baton Rouge, LA.: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

    Tennant, Emma. The ABC of Writing. London: Faber and Faber, 1992. Definitions used in writing and quotes from famous authors. For example: "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to write one book" - Samuel Johnson

    The Writer's Resource, The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers. Springfield, MA.: Merriam-Webster Inc. Publishers, 1991.

    The Everyman Edition. Dictionary of Quotations and Proverbs. London: Michelin House, 1989. Any quotations might be helpful. These are a few of the books I have in my own library. To prefer to own them, so as to have them handy when a word doesn't appear. Reference books such as The New York Library Desk Reference Book is also useful for quick facts.

Some Quotes:

Advertising: Literature's Big Brother

Apprenticeship: Learn to write well, or not to write at all.


....."Everybody can write one good book" is the most idiotic sayings imaginable. It is not even true that everybody has the material for one good book or even one good article, for "material" is not what has happened to you but the effect upon you of what happened - John Dryden

....."For the novelist they are of all people the most rewarding. Under their indigestible crust are pressed the rich and jellied delicacies of the human comedy." - V. S. Pritchett (excerpts from The ABC of Writing ny Emma Tenant).

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