by Virginia Parker Staat © 2016
“When you write non-fiction, you sit down at your desk with a pile of notebooks, newspaper clippings, and books and you research and put a book together the way you would a jigsaw puzzle.” ~ Janine di Giovanni
A gumshoe in hiking boots… that’s me, and it’s a great life. Story ideas peek from behind almost every corner. Then the fun really begins… being the gumshoe detective and learning all I can to write my story.
As an example, I discovered The Legend of El Patron story while David and I were on a camping trip to Big Bend National Park. I picked up a local paper and read an outlandish article about a bear that had migrated into Brewster County from drought-stricken Mexico. Because he was starving, the poor creature broke into a poorly kept hunting camp. Marked as a nuisance after he wrecked the place, the wildlife researcher sent to put the bear to death ultimately saved his life. She found a home for him at the Living Desert Zoo in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The first night the bear was in his new zoo home, however, he escaped, wandering the streets with law enforcement in pursuit.
The story simply begged to be written. I contacted the zoo and soon was sitting across from the park’s manager. I left Carlsbad armed with newspaper clippings, a notebook full of scribbles, interview tapes, contact information for the wildlife researcher who had captured and saved the bear, and even a few snapshots of the reclusive celebrity. I happily dedicated several months to researching desert bears and wildlife research techniques. After several email interviews with the bear’s rescuer, The Legend of El Patron practically wrote itself.
Research fascinates me. I can immerse myself in research, skimming and scanning for hours. I particularly enjoy following rabbit trails with all their twists and turns, whether it be on the Internet, at libraries, or museums. It feels like finding gold nuggets tucked between pages, buried within abstracts, or hidden deep inside databases. I am on a first-name basis with our local inter-library loan librarian.
Research is critical to writing nonfiction. It comes in many forms, some more exciting than others. Depending on your topic, you may spend months or years of document research finding sufficient facts and qualitative data to begin writing your story. Because of the length of time and enormous amounts of data accumulated, meticulous notes are critical. I keep expandable file folders on each subject. Inside the folder, I include spiral notebooks of handwritten data, printed emails or other documentation, index cards for citations, articles, tape recordings, photographs, and newspaper clippings. I also add any other scrap of paper that might refresh my memory of conversations, disjointed ideas, or extraneous but fascinating facts. I am always surprised that no matter how much data I accumulate, the story itself leads me to include only the pertinent facts that build the story line.
There are a few keys to successful research. Credible sourcing is essential. The Internet has brought the world to our fingertips but not every source is accurate. As an added problem, inaccurate information is often repeated online, making it appear accurate. Always use reliable sources, crosscheck your research, use more than one media source, and carefully record each citation. Professional researchers use a technique called triangulation, siting three credible sources for each stated fact.
Try to include data that will surprise your reader. Think outside the box when researching. If writing about a specific date, you can discover the weather for that particular day using research tools. Archival photographs can help you to more accurately describe a place or even a specific room.
Specialized research is often needed to explain out-of-the-ordinary subject matter. In El Patron’s story the wildlife researcher located the bear using radio telemetry. I needed to learn how radio telemetry worked in order to properly explain it at a fifth-grade reading level. Your research may also include historical information about your subject matter, allowing you to increase your audience base. Writers must use great caution when writing about historical subjects. For example, A Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West can help you learn what inventions were available during a specific time period. Your credibility vanishes if your protagonist flips on a light switch before electricity has been invented.
Field research is most exciting to me. I enjoy researching place by visiting the area. If that is not possible, I read tour guides and/or books set in the exact location (or during the exact time period if writing about past events). Other research tools for place include scouring archival photographs or interviewing local residents by telephone or email.
I prefer recording interviews with people directly involved in my subject matter. As an example, I used a small tape recorder during interviews when writing a contract book for a company in Spain. Those tapes later became invaluable while writing the book at home. The inflection of voice allowed me to recollect and better express the emotion of various people involved in the project. Recording the interviews also allowed me to focus more on the people I was interviewing rather than trying to furiously jot notes.
Another great field research tool is to locate universities, museums, and specialized libraries that focus on collections or archives relevant to your subject. One of my books-in-progress led me to the Western University of New Mexico in Silver City. This small, university museum holds the world’s largest display of Mimbres pottery. After explaining my mission and making an appointment, the curator allowed me special access to the displays when the museum was closed. She also kindly gave me the name of a local archaeologist who later took me on a private tour of a Mimbres archaeological dig in progress.
As outdoor writers, our credibility is on the line with each fact we write. We flesh out our stories with our research and offer readers new information and perspective. My best advice is to strap on your hiking boots and become a gumshoe. Ultimately it will change you, broadening your experiences, enhancing your creative thinking, and improving your writing. The best part is… and you can trust me on this… it’s a great life.