Yes, I’ve just begun this blog and I’m already writing a sort of guide. However, I like to think my degree in History gives me a sort of edge in the research department. I spent four long years reading books about various subjects ranging from the KKK to Persian carpets (both were 20 page papers). While I’m no expert on either subject, it’s fueled my obsession with everything carpet related.
I remember the day I wrote the whole paper, after a while, I went insane and my break consisted of examining the fake Persian rugs around my house.
Research! Oh, the ever-loved past time (depending on who you ask). Now, there isn’t a shortcut, no magical button that lays all the information in front of you AND it’s easy to sort. If only…
It’s long and tiring, and sometimes you can research for hours without learning something useful. Those are the worst.
So here is my sort of compiled list that makes researching a bit easy according to a history graduate who wrote a book (kinda).
I’m sure you’ve all seen that nice infographic explaining how to optimize your searches. If not, here’s a link.
It fantastic and I also think it’s fantastic how google uploads millions of books. This is the best part of google, you can look up a book (any book) and they offer a small snippet. I’ve worked around that by searching for keywords and they provide a sentence, one or three. Like…
Now, this is great if you’re in a hurry to complete a research project and you need to list pages (fellow history people you know what I mean), but if you’re researching for a book this isn’t helpful at all.
Sometimes you get lucky and the whole book is online, for free! Or you know, always visiting a library is nice, but make sure they have the book you’re looking for or a hefty section on the subject you’re researching. Which leads me to…
Don’t Read the Whole Book
Don’t get me wrong, read the whole book if you want, but sometimes every single chapter the book contains doesn’t pertain to what you’re looking for.
If I’m writing a paper on carpets and I want to focus on female symbolism, I would ignore the parts about male symbolism unless I can tie it in with my thesis. Or, a paper on War World I propaganda art with a focus on posters in the U.S., I wouldn’t read parts about Germany or Britain. Now those are all interesting topics, but if time is limited I would solely focus on the subject I’m writing on.
It’s a whole different story if you want to draw comparisons between war posters in the U.S and Germany.
Hm? How can you apply this to researching your own book?
My book, A Disagreement in Honor, takes place in pre-revolutionary war New York City (1770). Now, it wasn’t a popular city yet, so the information is shockingly barren. So I had to improvise and widened the time period, instead of 1770, I used 1765 to 1775. Or even the late 18th century.
It’s not a subject I’m well versed in, so I had to read a lot. From dresses and shoes to how people ate and how the weather was like in January. For that, I used Ben Franklin’s Almanac. Primary sources are the best.
Anyway, I was curious about how the colonists in New York viewed sex. Not in Maine or New Jersey. They could be similar but a small town would have different views than an emerging port city.
I used Gender and Morality in Anglo-American Culture, 1650–1800 by Ruth Heidi Bloch. I searched for parts pertaining to New York City and Boston since they were both port cities. An index can make the search easier, but if the book was on google, you get results in seconds. More ever, at the time Boston was much more popular. If I couldn’t find New York, I’d defer to Boston.
Obviously I ignored parts that went beyond my time period -unless I found them interesting- but in short, I narrowed my focus to my time period and location.
On everything. Not really, but notes on key parts. There’s a right way and a wrong way. Use any system you prefer, I really like arrows and indentation.
I used lots of abbreviations as well since it’s faster to get the notes down. But this was from lecture. My notes from reading….were a lot…longer and harder to read for some reason. I summarized every paragraph, condensed into one or two bullet points (arrows). Important or interesting information had it’s own bullet point as well. Like:
- Mughal Empire copied Persians
- Almost identical to Safavid carpets
- Not great for weaving
- India too hot and damp for carpets=bad
- Not great for weaving
- Added own spin
- Naturalistic themes
- Almost identical to Safavid carpets
I’d used a photo, but those notes are ineligible. Anyway, no complete sentences, getting straight to the point, and keeping it short.
When you’re looking back to your notes for one fact, who wants to scan through twenty pages of writing comprised of long winding sentences. Another good method is to leave post-it-notes of main themes. Like, tabbing a section that belongs to a specific time, place, or idea. I never used that since all my tabs would get lost, squished, or torn. It could work for you though.
For people writing essays, write the page number of where you found the information next to the bullet point. It’s a lot easier than trying to find a nugget of information within a sea of a hundred pages. Could take hours, as I’ve learned the hard way.
Now Forget Everything
Okay, this sounds stupid and unhelpful but it’s a good way to ward off plagiarism. I don’t mean to make up information, and forget everything you’ve learned. Simply cast away your notes and write. Refer to your notes when you’re unsure of something or even star a section and revisit it later to make sure you got it right.
In creative fiction, especially historical writing, it helps avoid creating a history textbook. Don’t forget to fact check! That is if you’re interested in historical accuracy. There’s a fine line between exciting and dry. Sometimes you have to ignore history to write your story, and that’s okay.
Regardless, if Victorians, Edwardians, Georgians or anyone from any time period read today’s novels, well…let’s say they’d faint from shock or be scandalized. Everything (with exceptions, there’s always exceptions) films, movies, books, stretch the limits. Their versions of courting was subtle and to our standards, boring. So I suppose nothing is historically accurate.
Leave a comment to disagree or agree.
Anyways, these are my four suggestions. It’s not absolute truth; this may work for some people but not for others. They worked for me when I was in college, and for when I was writing the book.
So happy researching to all and good luck!