Research in Writing
by Megan Larson
Write what you know.
That is perhaps the most oft-cited form of advice given to writers. While you can take your own experiences into account when you write, it is seldom that your stories will stay within your realm of knowledge. One option can be to simply make it up, which can result in you looking foolish at the very least. However, the best option is to do research.
ďBut Iím writing a fantasy story! I donít need to do research!Ē Although your story probably takes place in a world of your own creation, with its own history, there are bound to be elements you need to include which you might not know about. A person who has never seen snow but wants to set a story in a wintry climate at the very least needs to ask someone else about snow. Ships are often a part of fantasy stories, but most of us have never been on anything larger than a canoe or speedboat. Swallow your pride, and get ready to do some work.
Your local library
The standard place for looking things up is the library, although it also might be the last place you want to look, especially if it brings up memories of the term paper from hell. Libraries have books, magazines, newspapers, maps, encyclopedias; moviesÖ pretty much anything you could need. However, depending on where you live, the resources there might be limited.
If you want to avoid the formal air of the library but still want to browse books, try a bookstore. Many bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders let you read books and magazines in the store without actually buying them. If you just need a few facts and donít want to purchase an entire book on aircraft design, bring a notebook with you and try this option. Just make sure not to spill your cappuccino on it.
A great resource can be just talking to people you know (or maybe those you donít!) about whatever subject you are stuck on. For example, I have visited New York City, but to be able to write a novel set there I will need to ask a friend about certain aspects of the city. Interviewing people also works well for finding out about professions or hobbies.
No, really! Television can be an excellent source of information, especially if you have themed channels like Discovery, The History Channel, Animal Planet, or The Learning Channel. If you need to figure out human interactions, there are myriad reality shows to choose from. Even the standard soap opera can give you (although slightly melodramatic) tips on social settings.
The Internet has a vast amount of information, but beware: not all of it may be true. When using information found off a website, be sure to check it against a few other sources. Generally, reputable sources include news websites such as www.cnn.com, university websites, or personal sites from established authors or scholars.
Aside from a dictionary and thesaurus, some books are items that no writer should be without.
A style manual. Students use these mostly for the bibliography information, but there are many other tips on writing that all writers should know.
Non-fiction books on your favorite topic. Although you might not realize or admit it, your interests always creep into what you write. Basic books on topics such as mythology or history can help you shape your own worlds.
Travel books. If your story is set in a specific place, you need to know what sort of things your characters will encounter there. Are there museums? Lots of tall buildings? Is there a university that your character can attend? All of this information will be in a standard travel guide. Also, travel guides can help you figure out what you need to have in your own city.
A reliable, organized website list. Many websites you will use again and again, such as name meaning sites, Encyclopedia Mythica, or even Elfwood. Websites with a lot of useful information deserve a place on your favorites list.
Armed with these tools, any writer should be able to conquer whatever topic they need to cover. Remember, you donít have to understand quantum physics to make your characters discuss it, but you can always fool your readers into thinking you do.
Megan Larson is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she lives with her boyfriend and two kittens.
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