Doing the Right Research
I know this is going to date me, but I might as well be honest: when I started university, back in (gasp!) the late 1980s, I brought an electric typewriter to school with me. We did have a computer at home—a state-of-the-art 386 PC that ran on MS-DOS—but my dad, himself a university professor, thought I could get by with the typewriter for at least my first year. By second year I had one of his cast-offs, a behemoth that gave off heat like a star going supernova, and once I’d got the hang of all that Shift-F7 crap it did come in pretty handy.
When I finished my undergraduate degree and was accepted into graduate school in the U.K., I knew I needed the best computer that my limited funds could buy. So I plunked down nearly every penny I had on one of Apple’s first notebook computers, a two-inch-thick marvel with a 10-inch grayscale screen. I adored it.
After finishing grad school I became an editor, and my Macbook was relegated to my closet. The only research I did, for a number of years, was related to fact-checking queries. By the time I began to think about writing historical romance, like my novel, Improper Relations – more than ten years later, my little laptop had become utterly obsolete.
But it wasn’t only my computer that had fallen behind the times. My entire attitude to research—my entire methodology and approach—was also in dire need of an update.
While I’d been busy with work, marriage and starting a family, entire libraries had been digitized. Most of the newspapers I’d once consulted on microfiche, page after eye-watering page, had been scanned and uploaded to websites. Gigantic swaths of the National Archives were available for online consultation. Even the gloomy and officious Public Record Office, the bane of many a researcher, had slowly begun to digitize its collection.
Along the way, the very nature of research and information gathering had changed. When I was in grad school, my days in the libraries and archives felt like detective hunts. Much of the information I needed was difficult to track down, hard to access, and time-consuming to record and interpret. If I ended the day with even a snippet of relevant facts and figures, I felt I’d triumphed against the odds.
The opposite seems to be true now—some days I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that’s at my fingertips. How to judge the good from the bad? The reliable from the fantastic? The vetted from the mischievous or just plain dishonest?
I wouldn’t dream of saying I have a fail-safe approach, but I can suggest a few tips that will help you make the most of your time when researching.
- Start with reputable sources, such as digitized collections of official archives, museums, university libraries and the like. There you’ll find the sort of primary sources I used to dream about in grad school—and you won’t have to spend weeks on end in a musty reading room to access them.
- Don’t be afraid of Wikipedia, but don’t rely on it as a source in and of itself. Instead, think of it as a portal to other useful sources. If you see a piece of information that is promising, click on its accompanying footnote. Needless to say, if there are no footnotes, or if the sources cited are less than impeccable, you’ll want to take everything you read on that particular page with a generous pinch of salt.
- Google creatively. It’s something we all know by now, but tend to forget when we’re on the trail of an elusive piece of information: if your search comes up dry, try again. Use fewer keywords—or more. Try an image search and see what pops up. (So helpful when looking up details about costume or setting.) Whatever happens, don’t give up because Google tells you there’s nothing out there about 15th-century weaponry or weather patterns in the antebellum South or the method used by early 20th-century field surgeons to insert a chest tube. The latter, incidentally, is a search I performed recently, and it took a few tries before I began to get useful answers.
- Do a keyword search on Google Books. If you’re lucky you might be directed to a book or article that’s been digitized. Even if the book itself isn’t fully searchable, you may be able to look at the bibliography or footnotes in “snippet” format and glean some more information that way. If you don’t happen to live near a large university or reference library this can be a real time-saver.
- Don’t discount one-person-show websites. I’ve come across all kinds of sites set up by family genealogists, amateur historians and enthusiasts for arcane hobbies that look a bit rinky-dink but are actually goldmines of information. On one such site I found detailed railway timetables for the 1850s that someone had meticulously transcribed from some near-illegible pamphlets; on another I discovered scans of original Edwardian-era telephone directories for central London. Priceless!
- If all else fails, do the sniff test. Does what you’re reading seem a bit…off? Are the facts fascinating but lacking in any sort of documentation? Does the website’s author appear to have an ax to grind or an agenda to push? If so, take a step back and look for corroborating sources. It will take up some time, but it’s better than relying on information that’s worth less than the virtual paper it’s written on.
I’d love to hear what tactics you take when researching your works in progress. What is your gold standard for sources? And what makes you run a mile in the opposite direction?
An editor by profession but an historian by inclination, Juliana Ross lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. In her spare time she cooks for family and friends, makes slow inroads into her weed patch of a garden, and reads romance novels (the steamier the better) on her eReader.
You can find Juliana on her website, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook and—her newest obsession—Pinterest. And you can buy Improper Relations at most stores that sell eBooks, including Carina, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and All Romance.