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Vintage WD: When Research Is a Monster

In this article from our June 1974 issue, author James B. Sweeney describes his method for researching a monster of a project—his book on sea animals.

In this article from our June 1974 issue, author James B. Sweeney describes his method for researching a monster of a project—his book on sea animals both real and imaginary. While some of his methods may seem antiquated, giving some of them a try may lead to surprising finds.


If you get a kick out of playing detective, like to probe the unknown, are imaginative and persevering, then your chances of successfully researching offbeat subjects are excellent. And it is the offbeat that sells. For if a subject has been published in depth, and written about at some length, it is hardly likely an editor is going to give the topic more than passing attention. But let an odd theme come along, one that has not been beaten to death, and it is an immediate attention grabber.

However, a great gulf exists between having the insight to select an offbeat subject and possessing the know-how to research it into being. Suggesting an untrammeled topic is merely the formation of a skeleton. Hanging flesh and muscle on the bare bones takes exhaustive research, limitless imagination and patience. To give that skeleton human warmth and personality requires digging, digging and still more digging. To be specific, let us say we are going to do a lengthy magazine piece, a historical book or novel on the life of a GI in Caesar’s Roman Army. Here we have the bare skeleton of what could be an intriguing topic. However, telling in detail how the individual was recruited, paid, given basic training, fed, assigned to a unit and the harassment he suffered at the hands of superiors are things needed to give the story individuality. Unfortunately, such information does not come easy. It would have to be hunted, stalked, trapped, cajoled and deduced into being.

Obviously, a subject of this magnitude projects itself into countless areas of study. In addition to the more conspicuous facets of research, such as Romans and soldiery, there are the studies of ancient money, diets, constitution, senate, laws, courts, private lives, character, religions, calendar, industry, shipping and literature, plus many other aspects. Only by a thorough scrutiny of these angles can we begin to see the greatness and temperament of the Roman soldier.

[Check out another Vintage WD article, this one about writing the first hundred words.]

How then, do you go about tackling such a gigantic research project for this or any topic of your choice? Let us take a look at a practical example. Recently I wrote and sold to Crown Publishers a 10x12-inch book entitles, A Pictorial History Of Sea Monsters and Other Dangerous Marine Life. This was no thing volume, sparcely illustrated and hastily-thrown together. It consisted of 1500,000 words, 350 photographs and required two years of meticulous research. Before the material was ready for writing, the research necessitated a careful study of 82 journals published by learned societies, 243 newsletters printed by various nautical organizations, 74 commercially-published journals released by universities, the government and industrial firms, many hundreds of trade journals, innumerable house organs and thousands of newspapers. Additionally, this research necessitated the screening of many scientific motion pictures, the writing of almost 1,000 letters of inquiry, visits to 12 large aquariums, 54 museums, 76 libraries, 4 zoological parks and trips to 8 foreign countries. Furthermore, over 150 fisherman, sailors, sea captains and yachtsmen were interviewed with a tape recorder and generally at some length. Throughout all of this, a camera was taken along and a sketchpad carried. When it was not feasible to take photographs, hasty black and white sketches were made and developed into completed drawings at a later date.

How was all of this accomplished in a two-year period? Did I simply rush into a library and, helter-skelter, start pulling books off the shelf in order to write letters and run around the world interviewing whomever I found with a fishing pole in his hands? Far from it. The first step was to draw up what has long become known in my lexicon as a “battle plan.” This is simply a very concise, carefully thought-out plan of attack. Let me take you through a formula step by step.

First, I took a large serviceable loose-leaf notebook, labeled it, “Monster Research” and commenced a careful outline of each proposed angle of attack. And here is where a writer’s imagination comes into fruition. It requires a good deal of dreaming to exhaust every possible angle of research.

The second step was to go to a public library and take down a volume of Dewey Decimal Classification published by First Press. In this I looked up every conceivable topic in which any maritime-related subject could be listed. My total listings from all sources came to 217 subjects, each of which was duly listed in my Monster Research book. Some examples of these were: sea monsters, sea serpents, sea witches, sea devils, sirens, sorceresses, enchantresses, devils, Beelzebub, etc., etc.

Another integral step was to research numerous volumes of Reader’s Guide to Periodicals, plus parallel publications such as microfilm catalogues, and carefully write down the name of every magazine, paperback, pamphlet, clipping, filmstrip, motion picture, tape recording, copy of art and scientific drawing that had any relationship to marine life, nautical matters, hydrography and/or undersea life. It was a long and impressive list and as I now count back, I find no less than 622 names.

This was only the beginning. My next step was to compile a list of every known maritime museum, library and public aquarium anywhere in the world. In one respect this was relatively easy, while in another aspect it was almost impossible. For instance, a fine book by Brandt Aymar, entitled Pictorial Treasury of the Marine Museums of the World, was of great help and served as an excellent source of listings. Also, finding the names of libraries was no trouble, for I simply looked in a volume called, American Library Directory, compiled by Helaine MacKeigan. However, when I came to discovering the names and addresses of aquariums, I was surprised to find that no such catalogue had ever been compiled. As a result of this, I was forced to list the capital of each state and write letters asking for the names and addresses of any municipally-operated aquariums in that area. Some of the replies, from such landlocked states as Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas were downright amusing. The implication being that they were so far from the sea no one was sure just what constituted an aquarium. On the other hand, responses from Hawaii, Florida, Connecticut and California were extremely enlightening.

As a result of this painstaking effort I was able to compile the names and addresses of 55 special libraries and aquariums, all of which are now listed in the back of my published book.

At this stage of the research my most wearisome undertaking commenced. A letter was composed explaining my interest in the history of sea monsters, with stress being laid on the fact that this was to be a serious study. As a conclusion to the letter, I asked if pictures were available and, if so, what was their cost. Since I personally loathe receiving mimeographed, or other multi-produced letters of query, each communication was individually typed and signed. In all, there were about 800 letters that had to be sent over the world, including cities within Russia, Hungary, Red China and other communist countries.

Frankly, my expectations were not high. Somehow, I had the feeling that any learned scholar would think the subject of sea monsters a form of senseless trivia. In this I was delightfully mistaken. Curators, librarians, professors and scholars replied from most states and many foreign countries. Ironically, quite a few of the letters were in foreign languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish, German and even one in a Philippino dialect. All were interpreted through friends, or paid professionals at the Library of Congress. Some even contained beautiful pictures, carefully packaged and sent via airmail, an expensive procedure indeed. It was revealing to discover that there is so large a segment of the world’s population which holds an interest in this topic. They do not necessarily believe in the existence of sea monsters, but they do indeed find the topic intriguing.

With the background information arriving in large batches, it was then necessary to categorize all the material at hand. At a local stationary story, I selected several packets of 3x5-inch index file cards that were of different colors. White was to be used for correspondence from around the United States, blue for letters from overseas and green for any photographic source. On each card was marked a writer’s name, address and a brief summation of what had been received. Furthermore, if and when I sent a subsequent reply, this too was carefully noted on the card.

Slowly, ever so slowly, personalities commenced to emerge. Friendships began to form. I found myself in almost constant communication with Dr. Taira Watanabe of Tokyo, Arie L. Ben-Eli of Haifa, Israel, Thijs Mol of Arnheim, the Netherlands and numerous other functionaries from around the world. At this point, a very neat little wrinkle worked itself into being. It occurred to me that I might be of some reciprocal value to those whom I was asking for information about sea monsters. Accordingly, I offered to do corresponding research on a topic of their choice. Immediately, replies came in asking for information on unusual subjects. As an example, Thijs Mol turned out to be hung-up on the subject of whales. Not only were these animals a feature of his museum in the Netherlands, but it also evolved that he was an internationally-known authority on the topic. We provided a mutual service to one another. A professor Suzuki of Meiji University of Japan, had a strong interest in writing about bad men of the American West. I was able to do considerable research for him on Jesse James, Bob Younger, Black Bart and numerous other felons of note. He in turn sent me a good deal of sea monster material pertaining to Asia.

Incidentally, each personal name and address was carefully logged into a separate section within my battle plan. As a consequence, should I ever find myself in need of having to again contact any individual, his/her name and address will be readily available.

As the letter-writing progressed, so did my research in various and sundry libraries. As an example, the Library of Congress offered about as much as could be expected from any single institution. Yet there were many other specialty libraries that had their own distinctive topic. The Naval Oceanographic Library, as an example, has many old books pertaining to animal life in the sea. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Main Navy Library, U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plus many other sea-oriented libraries had to be researched many times. My source for such special libraries was a book, compiled by the National Archives and Records Service of the government called the United States Government Organization Manual. Although not all of my specialty libraries were listed in this publication, there were close to 100 such specialty libraries in the United States. This immediately presented the problem of how to keep track of material located in specific institutions.

The problem was resolved by devoting one page of my battle plan to each library visited. Whenever a book of interest came to light, I took the time to list the following: title of book, author’s name, shelf number on back of book, name of publisher, year of copyright, number of pages and, if any, a description of illustrations. It was this precise information that was used to compile a very comprehensive bibliography. Ultimately, through this operation, there were 84 of these volumes listed for publication in my new book. All had some direct bearing on sea monsters or other dangerous marine life.

This had little or nothing to do with my notes on the content of the book. Copious handwritten annotations were jotted down, Xerox copies made and tape recordings transcribed. Each was marked with a record as to the library, book and date. In this way there were cross-references maintained. If my hurried notes alluded to a book, my one-page reference would be sure to contain further necessary datum.

On the face of things, this should have concluded the necessary research. Actually, it was only the beginning. A vast pile of information commenced to arrive by mail. However, a cursory examination revealed that it was spotty. There was a good deal on early mythology, a gap during Roman civilization, a sufficiency throughout the 1700’s, an overwhelming supply for the 1800’s and practically nothing of modern times. In order to sort out what was at hand and what was needed, I secured a number of cartons from the local grocer. Using a broad, felt-tip marking pencil I inscribed the first box MYTHOLOGY TO AD 1500; the next, 1500 to 1700; then, 1700 to 1800 and so on until there were eight boxes, the last being labeled 1950 to 1971. With a great deal of care the material was reviewed and places in its proper box. Now, at a single glance, I could check on what periods were light on material and needed further attention. It was on these spots that I resolved to lay special emphasis.

And that special emphasis was something else again. It was a complete new ball game. Since my basic modus operandi failed to provide the necessary results for these information gaps, I had to try a different plan of attack.

Taking the yellow pages of the Washington, DC telephone book, I discovered there were 157 countries listed under “Embassies & Legations.” Figuring that each of these nations should possess a counterpart to our Congressional Library, I composed a letter asking for the name and address of any such institution that might exist in their country. Seventy-two replies were received, some from nations the names of which I had never before heard: Chad, Malawi, Gabon, Cameroon, Lesotho, and Kingdoms that weren’t even revealed by an updated world atlas. Nevertheless, with great patience, and a good deal of expense, a letter was prepared and airmailed to each overseas addressee. In some cases, as in England, Spain and Germany, several sources of information were recommended. All were sent a letter; not a one was omitted.

The results, while they came in slowly, were amazing. People were willing, able and delighted to send along information. As a result, my book reflects material sent from all around the world and well inside the Iron Curtain. As an example, one picture was sent to me from a library in Kiskunhalas, Hungary, a city deep within the communist country. The heaviest contributor of any single country was far-off Australia.

Encyclopedias were another overlooked source of offbeat information. Therefore, they deserved close scrutiny. In order to accomplish the task, they were divided into three categories of interest. These were: first, General Encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana and Chambers Encyclopedia; second, Special Encyclopedias, such as International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, New Catholic Encyclopedia, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Cassell’s Encyclopedia of World Literature, etc.; and third, in a class by itself, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, which treats not only Greek and Roman literature, but also of classical art, history, archaeology and mythology. It was a gold mine of information.

Having been a reporter for a number of years, the fact came home to me that some old-fashioned legwork was now required. Obviously, it would be impractical and too costly to plan a trip around the world just to look in on libraries. After carefully weighing the circumstances, I elected to put in two weeks of intensive research in England, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Once this decision had been made, contacts previously established by mail were now informed as to my schedule, my needs and my haste. In all but one instance were appointments fulfilled; the one exception being an Englishman who was in America at the time I had scheduled myself for London.

Unquestionably, there is no substitute for eyeball to eyeball confrontations. The results were astounding. Typical of my reception was in the Netherlands. There, Thijs Mol personally escorted me around to no less than six maritime museums for a prearranged meeting with the curator of each establishment.

On returning to the states, I took my tape recorder and set out to track down and interview every seaman rumored to have caught sight of a sea monster. This was tough, disheartening work. Not many mariners are willing to spill their story to a stranger. It requires a great deal of patience and, at times, as much whiskey as patience. Finally, with the help of local newspaper editors and local police, eyewitness accounts of strange sightings were poured into my little Sony. Ironically, in several instances, the police opened up their files to show me where they had been summoned for help because of attacks by strange animals out of the sea. In two cases, it was my good fortune to be able to interview the investigating officers.

Holding to my belief that legwork was now the final solution to my problem, I concentrated on visiting used bookstores. As my travels took me about the country, I searched out isolated bookshops in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Halifax, Miami and other large metropolitan areas. It was slow going. The results were not overwhelming. Nevertheless, the few books that were forthcoming proved to be just what was needed. Now my eight cartons were packed tight with material. At last, so I felt, the time has come to commence writing.

That is another story.

James B. Sweeney is the author of Pictorial History of Sea and Other Dangerous Marine Life.

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