Researching for Nonfiction and Fiction Projects
by Marcus A. Nannini
Research can make, break, or cast doubt on the validity of your effort. A recent example is the movie Hidden Figures, a movie based on some excellent real-life characters and events.
I am waiting for it to be available on cable for one simple reason. In the trailer I viewed at a movie theatre, the filmmakers made a really stupid mistake which cued me into the likelihood there might well be more serious factual errors to come. The trailer depicted a scene in the year 1961 during which the female leads were being pulled over by a squad car. The squad car was a 1964 Ford. Sorry, but for me it said a great deal about the research the moviemakers did not perform. I know it is nit-picky, but so are your readers.
Point being, no detail is too small, yet you cannot let your storyline be bogged down by the details. I learned this fact in the eighth grade when I turned in a 10-page book report on the Fall of Constantinople. I was so proud of it, and when Miss Chamberlain deemed it only worthy of a B, I took up my case with her. She explained I had become so bogged down in detail as to take away from the book report. I have not made the same mistake since, and neither should you.
Writing needs to correctly reflect the period of time you are translating into words, no doubt. But how do I organize the stacks of research and scores of web pages I rely upon in writing my story, beyond saving web pages under a special file heading?
Within the outline from which I am working, I insert references that I can rely upon when I put the story together. I also print the most relevant web pages and notate them for quick reference. I clip them to the appropriate outline pages. (Yes, I print the outline.) I need to be able to locate my research quickly. If not, I can become side-tracked, forget to add important facts, lose my train-of-thought or, worse still, lose time.
In some ways it is as if I am writing a term paper with an index or bibliography. I like to keep my research handy and tied into my outline. I save writing time while maintaining accuracy. Some people have asked how I go about deciding which details I need to research for a particular project.
When, for example, I am about to start a new chapter, I envision the surroundings I am going to describe. My scene description most often is a paint brush. After I have the scene painted, I fill in the relevant details. Or I might go the opposite, as in: Cy suddenly stops, his attention captured by a tantalizing bright red coffee cherry clinging to a branch directly in his path. The two men following him also stop, and while Cy plucks the coffee cherry, taking delight in its singularly unique flavor, one of his two companions gazes at the acres of coffee trees layering across the rolling hills lying ahead, as if in waves. The Pacific Ocean is a sparkling blue mass a few miles to his right…
The scene started with a narrow focus and grew from there. Research on the timing of when a coffee cherry turns ripe allows the author to maintain the proper season of the year. I would be wrong to have the scene taking place in April, much as it was wrong to use a 1964 Ford police car in 1961.
The balance of the scene description can be derived from personal experience, research, or both. If you desire to have action taking place on a coffee plantation, you need to know if it was planted in volcanic rock and soil. Is so, you wouldn’t describe the ground as sandy. The ground the characters walk across should play into your description.
You would not likely need to research what the men in the coffee field are wearing, but if the scene were set, say, in the 1930s, you would. Other aspects of the above scene might be the type of birds or wildlife the men might encounter, which means more research. Consider the fact the cherries are coming ripe, which leads to research about harvesting; in this instance, you learn that they are picked by hand. If the men need privacy, then mention needs to be made with respect to the presence, or absence, of coffee-cherry pickers.
In the above scene, the men are going to commit a murder. Mention of the coffee pickers becomes important, and it helps to know they bring their entire families out, including little kids – exactly the kind of information the author can use in the telling of the story.
If the scene were set in a cornfield, similar questions would come into play. Historical settings need to be accurately re-created with enough detail to properly set the stage – but again, too much will ruin the book’s pace.
When the man looks out toward the Pacific Ocean, I could have included details such as a cruise ship, a couple of sailboats, or a fishing boat, but would they have made the description any more vivid? I don’t think so. Too much detail.
In keeping track of my online files, I create a master file in my bookmarks folder. For instance, Dinner with Himmler would be a file category all to itself. I move the files up or down within the category so they appear more closely in the order they come into play in the book. I sometimes make sub-files. The idea is to have all the online research easily accessible.
I do not discard research, be it online or in-hand. I never know when someone might raise an issue over a fact, so I keep the hard copies in files along with my outline. Research does not do me any good if I cannot locate it or lose track of it while writing and miss some good points as a result.
Research takes time, but taking the additional time to properly save the research and notate your book or screenplay outline accordingly will pay off.
Marcus Nannini began his journalistic career when he published his own newspaper in the sixth grade, charging 25 cents for the privilege of reading the only printed copy of each edition. During his undergraduate years, Nannini was a paid reporter and worked three semesters as the research assistant for journalism professor and published author Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D. Nannini is a life-long history buff with a particular interest in World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. His continuing curiosity over several Japanese aerial photographs and the turtling of the U.S.S. Oklahoma lead him to write Chameleons, first as a screenplay and now as a full-length novel.