One of the fiction writer’s greatest tools is imagination. Yet, there are times when research can help create a convincing plot, a believable world, or an authentic character. Sometimes the information can be as easy to find as renting a documentary, checking out a book at the library, or searching the web. For simple inquiries, such as finding a picture of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch or learning the general climate conditions in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest, this might be as far as you need to go.
Some ideas, however, demand a more intensive search. No matter how obscure, there is a source that has the information you need. Skeptical? Mount Horeb, Wisconsin boasts a Mustard Museum that explores everything mustard, including varieties world wide, mustard history, and the evolution of dispensers. Need more? The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, edited by G.M. Story, details this unique Canadian English dialect. (In fact, Annie Proulx used it while writing The Shipping News.) And the New-York Historical Society has a collection of approximately 10,000 menus that Arnold Shircliffe, a charter member of the Chicago Wine and Food Society, collected during his lifetime. The topic you’re researching is bound to have a passionate advocate.
The key, of course, is finding that source. Let’s take dendrochronolgoy, which, for those of you not in the know, is the practice of dating events and climate changes based on the study of a tree’s growth rings. Turning to general sources can dredge up great leads. A quick web search brought up Henri D. Grissino-Mayer’s “The ULTIMATE tree-ring pages!,” including an extensive list of links to dendrochronology-related organizations, as well as an invitation to contact him.
Use these sources to create a list of names of people and associations that focus on your topic. A polite email or phone call, along with genuine enthusiasm and patience, have a good chance of being rewarded. Many people enjoy talking about their experience and this one-on-one exchange can be ideal for the writer, as it allows the opportunity to ask some of those more obscure questions. If those you contact don’t have quite what you’re looking for, they may be able to refer you to sources that do.
While we’re on the topic, don’t forget the highly effective research strategy of doing it yourself. While it might not make sense to become a dendrochronolgist in order to write your novel, a writer looking to capture the cadence of Seattle might find a trip to the city does just the trick. If you have a character who hang glides, an afternoon of your own suspended from hang straps can give you the language, thrill, and physical sensation of the practice.
Of course, doing it yourself isn’t always possible or desirable. Studio 54, the legendary New York City disco, had its heyday in the late seventies and early eighties and that can’t be recaptured, despite the exact replica built in Las Vegas. And you may be too nervous to go deep sea diving. Or too claustrophobic for spelunking. Tracking down people well-versed in these topics, live or in print, can give you just the palpable details you need to blend with your imagination.