How to Research (Part 1)

I’d thought it would be good to take a break from the adaptations (only 2 left and then 2 bonus reviews!) to talk about research. Research is one of those weird topics that if you try and Google or go to the library and find just basic steps on how to to it, you’ll probably go insane like poor Ophelia and we wouldn’t want that!

John Everet Millias’s interpretation of Ophelia. Don’t feel overwhelmed when it comes to research!

So, not everyone who wants to write is going to have the advantage (or the curse) or having gone to a graduate school where you get taught how to research things like Thesis and Dissertations and Papers for Conferences! It’s OK, I’m not going to bore you will all of that. However, there were quite a few tips that I find from my grad school days that do end up being quite useful. One is get to know your local library and the librarians who work there. Trust me, these people will become your best friends in the world. You may never learn their first names or exchange phone numbers, but going there and being someone they learn to recognize is helpful. Especially when you need help researching something really obscure and cannot find it in the library and are unsure how to proceed. Because they can track that sucker down through Interlibrary Loan.

The research library and archive at Sir John Soane’s Museum. I can smell the books! (soane.org)

Now, where to start? Firstly, if you have a computer at home, start a Pinterest board. I have several actually and I can talk about how to organize and what is a good pin versus a bad pin at a later time (because yes, it should be discussed). Let’s say we’re going to research Dragons because we want to write a YA novel involving Dragons. So, you might start a Board on Pinterest called Dragons and pin things like sculptures, art (anime, medieval manuscripts, etc), links to legends and myths, perhaps even books or films that feature dragons (even TV shows like GOT). Basically, Pinterest is used like a giant corkboard of where you collect ideas, even random ones, to start that complex journey into the realm of research. Good thing is that in that general board, you can then organize those pins into different categories however you see fit.

An image from a PS3/4 game called Dragon’s Crown found on Pinterest and was featured in Forbes Magazine. Pinterest is handy!

 

Secondly, go to the dollar store and buy a few notebooks, pens, post-its flags or paperclips if you don’t have any. Pens in at least 2 different colors is nice, but purchasing some highlighters or even some colored pencils or crayons will work just as well because you will take one of those notebooks with you to the library when you start to do some serious research. For notebooks, I prefer those composition books because they have a hardcover and don’t have that annoying metal spiral to contend with. Some composition books are not hardcover and that’s OK too. If you have an old spiral notebook laying around, use it! Don’t go out and buy a bunch of stuff if you all ready have it laying around. Only go and buy it if you need it (because writing is not a money maker folks).

I try to find college ruled in these, which is not always easy.

Now that you have a notebook and pens, let’s go back to researching Dragons at the library. Now, some of you are thinking that this is going to be a really hard topic to research because Dragons aren’t real and I am more of a historical person. Yes, that is true but I did work in a college library at both the undergraduate and graduate level (the undergraduate college also had a children’s section for teachers, so I was used to finding things like fairy tales, etc for both students and the public). If you know your way around the library, you’d head over to the electronic card catalog and probably type in “dragons”. You’ll come up with a lot of hits featuring children related materials, so don’t stress out! If you need, help, ask a librarian because they can show you how to change the search parameters to only feature adult related books and help narrow that filed of study for you. Though don’t discount the children’s books entirely since you are interested in writing for that YA group, it helps to read books in that field to get a sense of what is expected in terms of writing, but also what agents & publishers are looking for. Plus some of the most enjoyable books are considered YA (like The Hobbit for example, which features a dragon).

The modern card catalog is entirely an electronic database. Some of us still remember the good old fashioned card catalogs & their cabinets!

This is how you used to search!

Sticking to our theme of Dragons, places you may want to start researching would be mythology. Chinese, Japanese, British mythology featuring dragons would be an ideal place to start and take notes as to physical characteristics, habitat, eating habits, range of domain, and any pertinent information such as communication, hoarding behavior, etc. From there, one could branch out into specific areas like Arthurian legends (which are a mixture of Welsh and French), looking at the Greek origins, the Mesopotamian God Dagon, Vietnamese mythology, Norse myths, Hindu Nagas, Roman mythology (which is a rehash of Greek mythos), then modern usage. This could also incorporate a look into Sea creatures of mythology, like the Lock Ness and the Champlain Lake Monster, and could meld into a look at real creatures like Dinosaurs for comparison.

Researching a Ptesosaur could assist in Dragon research when trying to visualize the size because if there was any living creature that could come close to a Dragon, Ptresosaurs came close. (courtesy of dinoaminals.com)

 

Now, back to the library side of things. You are going to have to learn to enjoy the tedious pleasure known as reading and taking notes. Since we are researching Dragons, a good tool would be to watch how they are recreated on film and take notes (yes, I am being serious). The library may have BBC or Discovery Channel DVDs like Walking with Dinosaurs that you can check out and watch. There was this wonderful film in 2004 called Dragons: Fantasy Made Real which really went through the biological process of dragons. So if one was to research dragons, that would be an excellent place to start. So, while in the beginning, it seemed like it would be impossible to really have any real research on Dragons, hopefully I have shown that pretty quickly, one can easily have notebooks filled with bits and pieces of information just from mythology and looking into dinosaurs. We haven’t even discussed looking at scholarly journal articles that existed discussing the topic. And they exist on all sort of subjects ranging from the importance of dragons in literature to the significance of dragons on medieval tapestries. Any of these can broaden your research and led you down paths to creating a world wholly unique yet grounded in some form of reality.

An image from Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real showing skeletal structure.

When it comes to organizing the notes, this is where the highlighters, etc come in handy. Chose a color for a specific things, say physical characteristic, and go through all the notes and highlight the start of each area that pertains to that subject. And just keep doing that. And hopefully, you also kept a log of where you got all your information. Now, this is what I did, which sounds insane, but it’s how I work and if it helps you, great, if not, also great. Target has these composition books called Yoobi which are college ruled and contain much more paper than the average composition notebook. I then took all my notes and on a clean sheet of paper, write down how I wanted them organized, like how you would see it in a book (basically, I have a section called Finances, and underneath are things like pay for servants, coinage of the realm, banks, etc). So I then wrote out everything in these notebooks, sticking to my prearranged format. Each heading is written in one color, each subheading in another and the notes in general are in black ink. Each heading is also flagged with a post it note for easy access. And yes, I have the index for each notebook written inside the front cover. As for the sources, all that information is in it’s own section (a bibliography). Now I made the mistake of not indicating where each note came from (my error and I regret that I made it), but at least I do have a complete list of all the sources I used and looked at, which is where I perhaps differ from others. I write down books and places I looked and read that I didn’t take any notes from. Now, you don’t have to write down all the books you looked at and didn’t use, but it makes it handy when going back to the library and not wanting to keep checking out the same materials over and over again.

These are my preferred notebooks for compiling massive amounts of notes. I only had to buy one package to contain all my notes for 1790-1830 for my 6 novels. And those notes are all generic. I also have a notebook specific to each novel with more specific notes (I use a regular composition notebook for them though).

A hold over from my college days. These come in all sorts of shapes and colors and are useful in flagging pages of interest in books as well. Also you can find versions of these everywhere.

 

Basically, if you’ve never done any kind of research, it’s going to take some time for you to get used to doing it. And while I research actual history, I’ve hope I’ve proven that you can research anything if you have the determination and the perseverance to do this. Even if you just want to research your family tree, the same rules apply. The library is a great place to start and the librarians working there are wonderful people who are there to assist you! It’s their job and they love to do it! I cannot tell you how much attention I got when I went in one day asking for help in finding books to finish my thesis. They fawned over me and were only too happy to assist. This is what they are trained to do folks, Allow them to help you.

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