I recently moved into a new house and office, and was faced with carting along decades of writing research in the process. Books, albums, boxes of photos, cassettes—that was the easy part. Assembling the stacks of files, the collapsed cartons of photocopies, insect-infested pamphlets and newspaper clippings, the 10,000 pages of FBI files on a single life—that was more like stumbling into an ancient wine cellar, corkscrew in hand.
The research process behind every nonfiction project is a great journey, and one I almost love as much as writing. Nonfiction writers certainly straddle the line between being artists and archivists.
Jeff Biggers is the author of The Trials of a Scold: The Incredible True Story of Writer Anne Royall (St. Martin's Press), among other books.
I was trained as an oral historian, not a journalist, but I learned early on that developing a fine-tuned approach to research would be indispensable to whatever project I'd pursue.
I've written all sorts of nonfiction books, articles, radio stories and plays, and monologues. Most of my work falls under the narrative nonfiction category; I've written travel books, memoir, cultural and literary history, and investigative journalism. I've found that the research strategies I employ in one genre typically are the same for others. That includes fiction and poetry—I'm a big believer in all writers going beyond the doorstep of their experience, getting out into the streets and fields, listening to other voices and stories and struggles, learning the names of the street signs and plants and foods, in order to put personal experience into context.
I'm an oral historian at heart; we're trained to sit quietly for hours—days!—to get to the core of someone's story, and capture those rare moments of wonder. That kind of patience and persistence—and a sense of purpose—is useful in all nonfiction writing.
Writing classes re-enforce the notion that we must not write in a vacuum; our experiences in nonfiction, in particular, remind us to not research in a vacuum—that we've got to get out into the field, and beyond the archives.
Here are some tips I've collected over the years.
"To lose a passport was the least of one's worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe," travel writer Bruce Chatwin wrote in his classic, Songlines. Chatwin might have made those little Moleskin notebooks chic, but they are also useful. I never travel without a notebook in my back pocket or bag. Whether you're a travel writer, a memoirist, a journalist or someone writing a biography of an eighteenth century writer, it is essential to have the tools to record your thoughts and discoveries immediately.
I prefer to write by hand. I know others prefer their iPads or laptops, but you can't always brings a laptop into certain situations. Sitting on the dock of the bay, hanging out one evening in an Irish bar with your friends, bumping along a road in Sardinia with a sheep farmer, or even that moment in the stacks of the Library of Congress, when you see a line or title or image that relates to your book. Write it down. Immediately. And have a notebook as part of your daily accessories.
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Reading the World
Whether I'm traveling to a new destination or investigating a story over environmental protection or researching the life of an American Revolution leader, I never assume I'm the first person to cross that border. Before I leave the house, I read everything—or as much as humanly possible—that others have written on the same subject. This has never "ruined" a trip, as some sort of spoiler. Hardly. It simply provides a deeper understanding for an original story.
We all have the capacity to put our own frame on events or stories; but in the world of nonfiction, dealing with real facts and figures, it's important to review the work of writers who have done a lot of the heavy lifting and primary research.
Online research engines like GoogleScholar, and access to primary documents, including old letters and newspapers, have made our research quicker. But never undervalue the slow stroll the stacks and archives in the libraries. I often stumble on to unknown sources and books, as I pursue certain titles in mind.
Extra tip: This pre-game reading also includes a lot of unpublished manuscripts, booklets, websites, local newspapers and correspondence of non-professional writers—not just the major books on the shelves. There is a treasury of stories and material in some of the most unlikely places.
Front Porch Research
There are also a lot of unsung keepers of stories, who have dedicated their lives to understanding the nuances. There is also someone somewhere who is the soothsayer of the town, the crazy cousin into genealogy, the artisan who has done a lifetime of research. Hearing their stories, and the motives behind their stories as it relates to your own project, often serves as a way of brainstorming, and opening new doors of ideas. Interviews are essential, even if you're not a reporter. Languages, voices, accents, descriptions—these are all mainstays of our stories.
Even in my historical writing, I find it is critical to visit the places I am researching—even if it is 200 years after the fact. The sounds, smells, colors—the humidity in the southern Illinois woods in July, ticks and chiggers afoot. You gotta experience this first hand.
Setting the Scene
"All history is biography," Ralph Waldo Emerson said. Nonfiction shares fiction's basic requirements: Great characters, a great plot, a fascinating setting, plenty of conflict, and a compelling voice.
As you haunt the archives, interview informants, it's important to keep these elements of your book in mind. Who is my main character, and then my secondary characters? What does—or did—the setting look like at sunrise?
Organization is key to writing, especially if you plan to meet the deadline of your book. We have plenty of ways of creating and opening folders on our computers. It's important to do the same with our printed research.
Sounds old-fashioned, perhaps, but I go to my local office supply store and buy a few stacks of folders before launching into any book. I make two stacks—one with the themes, ideas, characters, events, etc that I know I will need to research; maintaining these folders also serve to remind me where I might be overlooking certain parts of the story, or saturating my research in another area. If one folder is ten times bigger than another, then it means I might need to re-assess the priorities and focus of my book. The second stack of file? This emerges later, as part of the magic of research and writing—the ideas, themes, people, etc. that I never considered.
You Can Never Research Too Much
About all those boxes in the basement that I had to move recently? In truth, I probably didn't need one-third of that stuff. The six copies of an article that appeared in various newspapers, the five pamphlets on a small archaeological site. But whether or not I quoted from or used these materials is not the point—all of that research is important in granting the big picture, in discovering little stories that have been hidden for years, in finding the voice that will drive your narrative.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness," George Orwell wrote. "One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Writing a nonfiction book, I would add, thanks to the research process, is also a fascinating, fun and often life-changing experience.
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