Research: writers’ devil – or delight? Part 1

© Barbara Hopkins

Research: the very word sends tingles up and down my spine. It’s simply the sheer thrill of facts to be investigated and discoveries to be made, as well as unearthing those tangents and diversions which can be squirreled away for future use. I’m one of those writers who continues to delve, immersing myself ever deeper – and then has to recognise when to stop.

On a superficial level undertaking research for your piece of work sounds like a doddle:  locate facts, sift out irrelevancies, marshal into order, incorporate into your writing and hey presto! Job done. Except that it isn’t.  Pitfalls to trap the unwary include not verifying your information or its source, getting sidetracked, or becoming deluged with information and losing focus.

As a writer, research must be at the heart of everything you write.  Without it your ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ don’t exist – and neither does your story.  Whether you are a fiction or non-fiction author, or like me a writer of features and articles, it’s crucial that your facts are 100% correct. Check, check and check again has to be your mantra because not only will a glaring error make you lose credibility, you must never forget that someone out there will take great delight in telling you that you’ve got it wrong.

It’s important to remember that research takes many forms, apart from those which readily spring to mind such as the internet or printed reference materials. Read newspapers and magazines or watch news items on TV.  Talking to people is a great way to research. Initially it can take a bit of courage to pick up the phone, but in my experience you can be amply rewarded.  You may acquire some fresh knowledge, corroborate your facts, or even find a new angle but I’ve yet to find it anything other than a wholly positive experience.

The best way to approach someone you don’t know is to e-mail them first with a short outline and to ask for their help with a particular element. You’ll gauge by their reply how keen they are and this approach also gives them a chance to prepare, rather than a cold call which may not be convenient for them.  The website is a brilliant – and free — resource with listings of experts on topics from A & E to A-Levels, through to Zen and Zombies. I add those who have shared their expertise to my contacts book for future reference and have had highly positive responses from everyone I have contacted from this source.

Part 2 next week looks at how the accessibility of information has changed over time and the perils and pitfalls of the internet.


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