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Writing.ie | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Researching Non-Fiction

Rachel Fehily


You’re at the stage where you have decided on your idea for your non-fiction book and you think you have the skill and expertise to write and sell it. Now is the time to stop thinking and talking and get off the starting block and do your research.

You may spend months or years with a file or a notebook studying or gathering information about your subject before you think about writing anything, or you may be a lucky writer who knows so much about your subject that your job is to simplify it for your reader.

Writing fiction is wonderful because if you want to, you can pluck your ideas out of the air and literally make it up as you go along. You can make up names of places, people and anything else you choose. If your book is set in a realistic setting and you’re describing the work of something you know nothing about, for example, a goldsmith, of course you’ll need to research. However with a fiction book you can change the occupation of a character or details of a story if it gets too complicated.

Books that are set in historical times and add fictional elements are a beautiful form of fiction and can teach you a lot about research. Brian Moore’s brilliant historical novel “Blackrobe”, follows the story of Father Laforgue’s mission to convert the Huron Indian’s in New France in the 17th Century and is a perfect example of the product of great research.

Phillipa Gregory’s page turning historical novels about the Tudors and the Boleyn Family make British History exciting and dramatic. She hosts and interesting discussion on her web page www.phillipagregory.com about the differences between History and Historical Fiction. In it she proposes that history isn’t wholly facts and that all histories rely on imagination. So there is a fine line between fiction and non-fiction.

Kate Grenville writes like a poet and researches like a Professor in her novel “Lieutenant” a story of convicts who settled in New South Wales. All of these novelists are worth reading because they have the power to combine the artistic ability of the fiction writer with the research ability of highly trained academics.

The internet has revolutionized access to information. Of course there’s a lot of dross out there but for research it’s invaluable. The trick is never to believe your first source, but to verify it with at least one or two other sources to be sure the website you have found is accurate.

Unless you’re John Banville and you love writing your script in notebooks in beautiful longhand, you can’t function as a writer without having a good computer and proper internet connection.

Is Your Idea Original?

So you’ve had a great idea, now is the time to look at other books. Check Amazon.com and abe.com and see if there are other books already out there that will help you or that are similar to your idea. Many of the booksellers allow you to look at a few pages of the books that are for sale on line.

Look inside books, buy books or make a list of books. Looking at the index of many different publications will give you ideas. Go to ordinary and specialist bookshops and do the same. Browse through your local library, get a reading card for a University if you can, and read up on everything you can find that is related to your book and subject area.

Look at the bibliography on the back of books and see what books the writer has used in researching his book. You might find something useful.

Primary Sources

An expert on a subject must have first hand experience or knowledge. If you’re going to refer to laws, events, information, studies or documents you must go to the primary source, the original publication or documentation. Don’t be lazy and read someone else’s take on it. Read and absorb the actual information. It’s like reading the notes on Lord of the Flies for your exams rather than the actual text. You’re not going to get an “A” unless you make the effort to use genuine sources.

Why should you when there is so much information on the internet? Trust me – reviewers of non-fiction books take huge pleasure in pointing out “glaringly obvious” errors in books on obscure subjects. Newspapers hires reviewers who are experts in the subject of review to tear apart errant writers.

Mark Logue, Lionel Logue’s grandson used family documents to piece together his Grandfather’s relationship with King George VI and wrote “The King’s Speech”. As part of his research he looked at original diaries, and letters written to his grandfather by the King and the Queen Mother. His research stood testament to a fabulous story and presented facts that only could be found in the original documentation.

If you’re thinking of writing a biography have a look at www.deborahheiligman.com. Heiligman wrote the book “Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith” about Charles and Emma Darwin’s marriage and its part in his scientific work. On her author page she describes how she did her research. She shows pages and links she used, names her primary sources and describes her visits to locations and libraries. It will give you an excellent idea of the depth of research that makes a great book.

You need to talk…

Don’t forget to pick up the phone and contact real people while you’re doing your research. It’s amazing how a discussion about your subject can clarify your mind or send you off in an interesting direction. Travelling to a location, going to lectures and talking to people who are directly involved can bring your subject to life. You’ll be surprised how helpful people can be when you tell them you’re writing a book. They will appreciate a thank you in your acknowledgement section!

Researching non-fiction (or indeed fiction) is part of the joy of writing a book, and good research shows – don’t cut corners, make your research work for you.

About the author

© Rachel Fehily for writing.ie

Rachel Fehily is a barrister and a mediator. Her book·“Break Up, Don’t Crack Up: A practical guide to dealing with the end of your marriage or relationship in Ireland”·is due for publication in January 2012. Her website is http://www.familylawmediator.ie/

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