I would not say I do a ton of research for this story. I do strive for accuracy, but I strive harder for tone and fitting in ideas and creating a good story. But research must be done if only so I don’t make an absolute fool of myself, and with the new addition of the Cryptid Corner which I hope to continue doing, I thought discussing this might be interesting.
I am a librarian. That is my day job. I took classes in reference skills and collection development and practiced finding sources and citations and teaching these skills to other people. I have a background in information gathering that may be more intensive than your average person’s. And since I’m a librarian, if your plan is to research just about any topic, my first suggestion would be your local library.
I know, I know. Books are the way of the past and they’re all so generic anyway and your local library actually isn’t likely to have things like archived newspapers or old documents or firsthand accounts of events. Frankly we don’t have the budget to keep up with those 90% of the time. What local libraries do have are databases. Most libraries pay a subscription fee to a good number of databases filled with academic articles, peer reviewed papers, and even ebooks of textbooks and research journals. Your library is incredibly likely to have access to Ebscohost, which houses multiple databases at once and allows you to search those. This means it’ll give you a list of it’s available databases, a description of each, and you can click the ones you want to search and then pull up multiple articles from multiple places, almost like you’re Googling something. Ebscohost also allows you to make a personal account within it, and you can save articles to those folders for reprisal later. And, if you’re lucky, and you’re writing an old west themed story, they may have other databases such as The American West from the Newberry Library in Chicago, which includes firsthand accounts, contemporary documents, and a popular search function that shows you what others have searched for and their results. Databases hosted by libraries are accessible with your very own library card, which is free to get and usually only requires a photo ID. They can be accessed from home as well, and maybe your library is like mine, where it has a digital card option so you don’t even have to go in and talk to anyone.
I push databases often to patrons who come in requesting information, because they are often requesting very specific information that I’m unlikely to be able to track down in book form. I may be able to find a general topic and see the break down through chapter titles or in the subject headings, but for anything outside of a grade school research paper, I cannot offer much. These databases are designed to be easy to use and easily searched, and the majority will create citations for you in multiple formats if you’re writing a paper. Smaller libraries may afford less, but I also know here in Texas we have a Texshare card, which allows you to share across multiple library systems, and other states or regions may have similar things.
Books are good too, but I’m actually about as critical of books as I am of, say, a Wikipedia article. Just because it has been published doesn’t make it true, and as someone who regularly reads on cryptids, ghosts, and supernatural things, the lack of credibility can be both misleading and incredibly obvious. I love reading folklore, but finding books that source the folklore to specific regions or to other books is nearly impossible. Be critical in your reading. Absorb information as much as possible, but don’t believe it. I push the databases because they are peer reviewed articles already pre-checked for your approval, but just grabbing a physical book off the shelf makes it harder to be sure. As you read, look into the author. What have they published before? Have any criticisms been lodged against them? What are the veracity of these criticisms? How long have they been in this field? Read more than one book. Verifying information can be as easy as reading multiple sources. Are there discrepancies anywhere? Are the words quoted within original or pulled from secondhand sources? What books are cited within this book? I find many people on the Internet railing against the idea that you can’t just trust a news article, but the truth is that’s not how critical reading works. When I read anything, be it a Huffington Post article or Facebook comment, I will almost immediately Google it and look for two other articles with that information.
There are two options for a person if your library or bookstore don’t have the book you need. The first option may be a little controversial, but I use Google Books all the dang time. I have actually recommended this to school age children who come into my library as well, who absolutely need a book for school that is all checked out. The majority books only have “previews”, small segments of an entire book with usually the middle or end missing, but more likely than not all the information you need is in that preview. If it’s a particularly old item you’re looking for, the Gutenberg Project or the Internet Archive are great resources.
The second option is one I speak of offhandedly on my secondary blog, in which because the books I’m reading are often out of print, very old, or just not available in my library system, I do what’s called an Interlibrary Loan. Few libraries will turn down a requested ILL unless the object is extremely rare or extremely valuable. What you do is go to your local library, confirm that they do not have a book you absolutely need, and request an ILL. We then go through a system like WorldCat, which searches libraries across the country to find a copy of that book, and we request it in your name. It may take weeks or months for it to get here, depending on the rarity, distance, and availability, but it will appear on a shelf in your library for you to pick up, and you can have that book you so desperately had to get a hold of. Libraries do this free of charge with the intention of providing you with that must read, from academic books to DVDs to fiction.
We’ll move out of the library portion, but this is a little controversial too. If you are coming into a topic you know very little about, then start with a Wikipedia page. I am writing a story set in 1890s Paris, and unlike a story set in, say, 1890s London, I don’t have the pop culture knowledge to fake aspects of it nor a very good knowledge of Paris itself. But one pop over to the 1890s in Paris page, and I have a number of keywords, ideas, and a direction to go in. What Wikipedia is very good at is condensing down a lot of information into manageable chunks. It is designed to be easily read and understood, so you can go from having zero knowledge to a base knowledge. Once you have that base knowledge, it makes it easier to know what you’re looking for in your research. Wikipedia also asks its contributors to cite their sources, which gives you multiple links to click and follow through on, which may give you a great source and also double checks on the veracity of that information. If it sends you to a defunct blog or an url you aren’t sure is trustworthy, now you at least have something to research further on. I’ve written many, many, many papers on Wikipedia and how the Internet has changed our search habits, and I’ve found in multiple studies Wikipedia often ranks in at least the top five against other databases and sources on veracity of information. It’s not a bad source. It might even be a good one. But, like any encyclopedia, it’s a starting place.
For a lot of people writing historical fiction or doing research like this, they do interviews. They find people involved in incidents, or talk to people with personal knowledge. They track down photos and witnesses and go to places and walk around. This seems an incredible hurdle to jump. I don’t have the time, energy, or resources to travel, interview, and collect sources that way. I doubt the majority of people do. But if you are doing a story set in a time or about an event that people who are still alive may remember it, track down those names. Find newspaper articles. Find other researchers. Do the legwork, if you can.
For people like me, who work a full time job and have things like family, pets, a life, and won’t be paid to go off and talk to folks, I recommend searching firsthand sources. I’ll spend a lot of time looking for maps contemporary to the time and place that I’m using, and there are a large number of sites available, including the Library of Congress website. Look for those databases. If you have a college nearby, you likely have a professor or some expert who will take the time to talk to you. Don’t be afraid to ask. I got lucky when planning this story that I was working in an academic library and had access to our music library, as well as our rare books room, so I could walk across the street and find something I need. There is likely somewhere near you that you can research at, or at least has something of use to your story.
This is sort of a scattershot starting point for any research you plan to do. A lot of it you can do from your computer, especially if your library has access to databases you need. I cannot stress enough that you need to be a critical learner. Absorb, but question. Find multiple sources. This sort of turned into a library commercial, but go to your library, and even if they don’t have it there they can order it for you. We want you to learn. We want you to have the book you’re looking for. Actual academics have a more comprehensive plan for researching a topic, and so I leave you with these:
The National History Day’s Eight Steps to Historical Research
The UW-Madison Libraries’ LibGuide “Introduction to Historical Research”
William Cronon’s Comprehensive Guide