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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Research? What's That, Then?

The three biggest web search engines
The three biggest web search engines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many people, research is a task fraught with difficulty. For others, it can become their raison d'ĂȘtre. I'm talking about writers here, of course. Are you someone who enjoys research, do you fear it, is it a mystery, or is it your prime reason for setting yourself a writing project?

The first thing I'd like to point out about research as a writer is that it should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. If you fall into the trap of doing research simply for the love of the knowledge, the fun of the chase, the thrill of discovery, that's fine for a researcher but it's not good for a writer. If this is your experience, that research is more fun than writing, then perhaps you should consider taking up an occupation where research is the aim and end rather than the tool it should be for a writer.

If you're frightened by the very idea of research, or if it's simply a mystery to you, I hope to allay some of those fears and demystify the process for you here. I'm not writing a book about research for writers; there are plenty of those on the market. This is intended as a taster, a short guide, a finger pointing in the right direction, no more.

Fear is generally the result of ignorance, of not knowing what might be involved. So, let's determine what research means for a writer. Do you watch people, listen to them, observe their interactions?  Yes? You're doing research. Watching people and all that entails, is a way of learning how people work, how they appear, how they sound, what they say. And all this is vital information to enable you to draw believable fictional characters. So, you're already doing it.

Do you read fiction? (If you don't, then you're making your job as a writer infinitely more difficult than you need. Reading the work of other novelists, short story writers, et al, is a vital part of the learning process in becoming, and improving as, a writer). As you read, you're picking up pieces of information on how language is used effectively, how plot works, how characters drive story and all those other factors that determine the quality of the fiction you'll eventually write. This is research on the writing process.

Do you visit potential locations to get a feel for place? Failing that, do you use Google maps and Google Earth to discover as much as you can about places you wish to set your story? Of course, this is fairly basic research, but it can lead you to other areas of knowledge gathering. Google the name of your town, country, island or whatever and read up on the place, look at the pictures others have provided, absorb the mood and atmosphere generated by those who have been there and reported on their experience.

I hesitate to mention books in the context of research, since the vast majority of people seem to think that the internet is the place to search. Books are old technology but they're well-tested and can often provide more in-depth information than a search on the web can give you. Your local library is a mine of information and a good librarian will be only too willing to help you with the topic, setting you off in the right direction and even guiding your choice of suitable books for study.

You watch TV and films? It's amazing what you can glean from such sources, even when you're not actually pursuing a specific topic at the time. I have a love of documentaries on many different subjects and, although I haven't written on many of the subjects covered by such films, I've often found bits and pieces of information that have been useful as background material or as nuggets of gold to place in the minds of characters to make them appear clever, informed or intuitive.

You talk to people? I hope you do. It's amazing what you can learn from those with specialist knowledge. I once wrote to a Coroner for information about aspects of law and procedure relating to corpses found in suspicious circumstances. He invited me for an interview and I learned far more than I even knew I needed to know. Useful for that story and for subsequent tales.

So, you see, research doesn't have to be that dry, dusty task you might've thought it. It doesn't have to be intimidating. It doesn't have to be formal. As a writer, most of your non-writing life can be considered as research, especially if you're writing fiction. Every experience, every encounter, every trip is more grist to your mill. Use it, gather it, harvest it, store it; but, most of all, enjoy collecting and using it.

A final point about using the internet, search engines, for research. First, always use more than a single source if you want to be sure of accuracy. The internet is notorious for inaccuracies by people who purport to be experts. Second, find a search engine that you're comfortable with; it'll save you a lot of time. And, third, learn how to use the search tools. Experiment.

You'd be amazed at the difference you will find if you use the advanced features of search engines to narrow your searches. For example, searching for models on Google produces 1,300,000,000 results. That's an impossible number of sites to trawl through. Model of the solar system reduces that number to 23,900,000, still huge. Placing the same words in quotes, "model of the solar system" reduces the results further to 2,280,000. Better, but by no means efficient. Include the word scale and use a minus sign to exclude the words -scales, -weigh, -energy to remove more extraneous information and you reduce the results to 258,000. Now, I'm not suggesting you can trawl through all these, but a search of the first dozen is likely to give you what you need. You'll only learn how to make use of these tools by using them. Try it. Experiment. You're not going to break anything. And you may learn a great deal along the journey.

Good luck with your research and have fun. It's great to learn something new and even better when you can employ that new knowledge in your writing to bring it to life.

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