You get a bonus post this week! Here’s a post that I made for a writer’s community I belong to that I can now share. It’s in a slightly different style than my blog posts here (because it was designed for that community.) Several of the examples used came from people’s questions when they requested this kind of help.
(I have redacted two examples that are more identifying of the specifics of my day job than I do in public, but the rest of it is as posted for the community in February 2018.)
Hi! Welcome to a (not that brief) guide to researching complicated details.
I’m Jenett. I’m a librarian by profession, and I work somewhere where I get asked weirdly specific questions a lot. I also really love geeking about the process of finding random bits of information and making sense of them.
I’m drawing some experiences I’ve had below, but also a couple of examples from the original comment suggesting this topic. Those asked about in-depth research about the effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US Military, or details of things like whether a minor in Ohio can go to a psychiatrist without parental permission.
0) What do you actually need, and when?
Not everything is online or readily available (lots of stuff isn’t) so at some point, you may have to make a decision between ‘can find this with reasonable searching’ and coming up with something that may not be ideal but will work.
Because of this, it’s worth pausing with a complicated question to figure out how much time you want to spend on it. How important is it to what you’re writing?
Is it something you can write around (by referencing people doing the appropriate thing, without details, or by cutting the scene at that point and picking up in the aftermath of the thing happening?)
Getting something actively wrong is more likely to throw readers out of your story than either glossing over it, or picking something that is pretty likely but not actually provable.
Some topics are notorious for getting letters from readers if you get the details wrong, and others aren’t. If only a small number of your possible readers would know the amazingly specific thing, then maybe you can fudge more easily than something like horses, which a lot of people know a little about (and definitely have opinions about.)
1) Read widely
Not just books, though books are good too – but read a range of other material, so that you start to have a sense of what kinds of resources are out there. The goal isn’t to retain all the details, but to get a sense of where you can find them if you need them.
Soak in your topic:
Find a few blogs, or Twitter accounts or whatever your social media of choice is that are relevant to your current project (especially the places you might have questions.) Read them. Follow links sometimes. Don’t take notes, but do have a system for bookmarking particularly useful items you may want later.
The thing you really want to do when you know you’re exploring a topic is get a sense of the terms that are used about it. Don’t trust Wikipedia as the final word, but it’s great for giving you a sense of commonly used terms or phrases, and for putting things in some sort of historical, geographical, or intellectual context.
Beyond that, though, I really recommend adding a couple of general purpose things. Longform highlights a couple of longform journalism articles every day on a huge range of topics. Not only are they often very interesting, but I learn a lot of terminology, approaches, and ways people look at the world from them.
I also find Metafilter and Ask Metafilter really helpful in broadening my knowledge.
The former highlights links from around the web, with discussion, and the latter is a personal advice subsite. The kinds of questions people have – or specific detail about things like neighbourhoods or things to visit – can be really amazingly helpful. Even if they don’t have the specific information, they can help you learn about terms for searches you need to do.
2) All knowledge is contained in the Internet.
Not actually – we’ll get to that – but a lot, in the sense of ‘people who can point you to the information you want’.
Building up a diverse set of people you know online who know about stuff you don’t will pay off again and again and again. Online communities for people with shared interests can be a great place to ask (or shared goals, like writing communities.)
Of course, you want to be respectful of people’s time. That’s why a general “Hey, anyone know about X? Can I pick your brain for a couple of minutes about a specific piece I can’t find information on?” request can be better than asking specific people. Also because unexpected people may have answers. (It’s also good to tell people where you’ve already looked.)
I have a story about this. In my job as a librarian, someone asked me about particular map, which was not labelled in a way that he (or I) could read. I thought that if I could identify what the map was and when it was, I’d be able to figure out the names. (I’m obscuring some details here.)
I posted a photo with a few aspects highlighted to my personal Dreamwidth account, and within 2 hours, three different people had all identified it. Why? Because all of them are big board gamers, and the specific map is one used in the Diplomacy board, of Germany around 1901.
Not the way I’d have gotten that information, but with that, I could figure out what the place names were, and why it was labelled the way it was.
I have this kind of thing happen a couple of times a year on average. I am really good at searching, and using library tools – I do it a lot, after all – but sometimes someone with specific expertise will save me hours or days of work.
So long as you’re not interrupting or being pushy, people also often really love to share their knowledge, passions, and interests. A general post with a “Know anyone who can help with this?” lets people share that in a way that works out well for everyone a lot of the time.
3) Is this a topic there might be substantial resources about?
One of the things that happens for writers is that we want to know a lot of pragmatic details about how things work.
What was it like to put on clothing? How did it feel to move in it? How did cooking work? Or things people did in the household? What was the street outside like? What did medicine look like or taste like or smell like?
Unfortunately, these are often not the sort of details that are in a lot of resource books – you often have to dig pretty hard, and on the more academic side, they may not actually answer the questions you’re really interested in. They might talk about how to make the thing, but have no clue about what it was like to wear it or use it every day.
These days, this is getting better. For a lot of time periods (at least for English-language places) there are actually books called things like “Daily Life in Elizabethan Times” or “Daily Life in Colonial America” or whatever, that will fill in a lot of these gaps for you. Even if you can’t find quite the right time period, you can often get a long way by finding the closest one and then adjusting specific things that changed.
If you’re writing fantasy, this can also work if you can figure out what point in history your world is similar to.
Reenactment groups, experimental archaeology, and other similar resources can also be a huge help – there’s a genre of videos on YouTube, for example, of people getting dressed in clothing from different time periods. The Royal Ballet did a fascinating lecture series on changes in dance over time. Obviously, someone has to have produced the thing you’re interested in, but there are a lot more options around these days than there were 20 years ago.
4) Is this a topic that there will be public info on?
In some cases, the answer may be no.
For example, you usually won’t find a lot of detailed information on enforcement of online terms of service harassment issues (not them happening, but how a given site’s process handles them step by step) because advertising that kind of thing can make it easier for people to walk up right up to the line of what’s actionable and still make people miserable.
The same is often true for harassment, abuse, domestic violence issues, etc.
In other cases, people don’t publicise the information because it might put first responders at risk, or be easily misused in ways that can harm others. (For example, lots of sources on poisons won’t get specific about how much a lethal dose is. Which makes a lot of sense when dealing with people, but complicates things for mystery writers.)
Closed settings also present problems for research. Some details about military policy, practice, or procedure may only be available for people in the military or in some closely associated group. Handbooks about how a school handles something may only be available to parents, staff, and students at that school.
Other items might technically be available, but sufficiently hard to get to it’s like they’re not. This covers things like detailed legal resources (not the laws themselves, but analysis), some kinds of genealogical records, and other things where there are business interests who’d like to make you go through them to get it.
If you’re looking at a topic where this might be a case, one way in is through the next step.
5) Are there people who’ve lived through this experience?
Is it possible there’s a biography, memoir, podcast, blog, or another resource from a person who’s done this thing, is interested in this thing, etc? Sometimes this can be an incredible way to get details – especially for smaller things or emotional reactions.
Looking at our examples that started this, this is where I’d probably start for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I might look especially for things from advocacy groups or lawyers working to help people affected by it, as well as people who were in the military and affected at the time.
(At the same time, I’d be exploring more formal research and writing through library database resources and focused internet searches too, so that I could get both the ‘official’ side, and the actual experience.)
6) Is this a law?
It can be really hard to track down legal information. While the actual laws are usually public in the United States (and also in other countries with at least a premise of democracy), a lot of the more functional ways to access those laws are through indexes, databases, and other resources that cost money to access and are designed for lawyers, firms, and law libraries, not for random authors. They’re also (unlike many other online resources) harder to get access to through your local public library.
One trick here is to figure out what the law is (the numbers or other identification) and do searches on that. Or, failing that, try tightly focused internet searches.
For our question about Ohio, minors, and whether they can go to a psychiatrist, I tried the search terms “ohio law minors parents medical appointments” (because I suspected that the relevant laws actually cover a range of medical issues, not just psychiatry.)
For reasons having to do with filter bubbles, your precise results will probably be different than what I saw (that’s a whole different discussion!), but on the first page of my search results, I found <a href=”https://www.akronbar.org/when-can-minors-consent-to-medical-treatment”>this article from the Akron Bar Asociation website</a> which says that minors can consent to outpatient psychiatric treatment on their own behalf at the age of fourteen.
Now, that blog post isn’t dated (though it comes from an organization that’s relevant to the question and likely to be accurate at the time it was written) so I’d want to confirm this information in other sources. But that post gives me the specific laws to go check, and here’s the law, which explains it covers only six visits, no medication, and what should happen when you hit those limits.
7) Is this a city/state/regional thing?
You can ask libraries in many places for help with local/regional questions – even if you’re not from there! Try other options first, since this can both take some time to hear back, and libraries have a large but limited capacity to answer questions, but if you get stumped, a lot of libraries will be glad to help you.
You may be able to get help from your local library, or from a large library in your region. (For example, anyone who lives, works, goes to school, or owns property in Massachusetts can get an ecard for the Boston Public Library.) But even if that’s not the case, you can also often ask libraries in other locations.
Many libraries have an email option or contact form. (It’s usually under ‘Research’ or ‘Research Help’ or as an option or link on their Contact page, but you might have to hunt around a bit.)
Some places require you to have a barcode for their system, but a lot of libraries are glad to get reasonable requests from other places. (And obviously, you want to do your best to ask in the language the library uses, though sometimes you’ll get lucky with other options.)
How do you figure out how to contact a library?
First, start with a large city in the state or area that you’re interested in (the largest one is usually best here – try the capital of the state or province, or if you need something slightly smaller than that, the largest city or town that will do.) Look for a contact form or method, and see if they put any limitations on asking that affect you.
How to ask:
The best way to ask questions, in this case, is to be brief, clear, and tell them what you’ve already tried or what you’re hoping for. It will be useful to the librarian to know that you’re looking for information as an author rather than for a school project or immediate legal need (because they might suggest other resources that could also help you.)
Take a minute to prepare what you’re asking. Your question shouldn’t be too long – two to three paragraphs is plenty. Explain your question in a couple of sentences, why you’re looking for the information, and where you’ve already looked. Here’s an example.
I’m an author working on a story set in Cleveland, and I’m trying to find information on what Ohio law says about medical treatment and consent for minors. Can you direct me to a reliable source that explains what the options are?
I’ve tried online searches, but haven’t found anything that quite fits the question I have: I’m looking for the options and laws around someone who is 16 and dealing with mental health issues, specifically seeing a psychiatrist.
Note how this makes it clear in the first sentence why you’re asking a library in Ohio about this, which is helpful.
Getting an answer
Usually, libraries that answer questions in the first place will provide at least a brief answer (though it may take a bit of time for them to get back to you), but there may be costs if you want copies of material or longer research times.
Some libraries offer additional services for a fee if you go over a set amount of time, others just won’t answer questions that take the librarians more than 15 or 20 minutes and will point you at some resources and you take it from there. Some libraries may refer some topics – like detailed business questions or genealogy – to other sources, and libraries generally don’t answer detailed medical or legal questions other than pointing you at resources from reliable sources.)
8) Is there a relevant museum, society, or library?
If there’s a reasonable way to contact them, try asking.
I work for a highly specialised library, and I get questions from authors every couple of months. I’m always glad to answer them because it can help people understand what we do and our particular community better. (Also, they’re often fun questions to dig into.)
Small libraries, museums, and historical societies can be very slow to get back to you, though, especially if they’re mostly staffed by volunteers, or if the paid staff are wearing a dozen hats. The more clearly you can phrase your question, and the more you can do for yourself first, the better.
“I’ve looked at your website and your annual reports, but I haven’t been able to find something that explains exactly how the fees worked for students in 1890. Can you point me to something?” is a pretty easy question for someone who’s familiar with their materials to answer.
Either they’ll be able to point you at something, answer it quickly from materials they have handy, or they’ll know the information isn’t actually available like that for some reason and can tell you that (and maybe a best guess.)
A “Tell me all about your institution in 1890”, however, is a much harder thing to answer. That could take days to work through, and still not touch on the parts you were interested in.
And sometimes information just isn’t available.
We’ve had two questions about how domestic chores were handled at our institution in the 1840s, and we just don’t know a lot of details, because it’s something that the white professional-class men who were writing the annual reports didn’t write much down about.
We know there were servant-type staff, and we know students had some minimal chores. We know more about the fact that the students had to take cold showers (it was considered good for their health) because the students wrote a letter protesting it.
There might be more in some of our correspondence, but it’s in volume after volume of 19th century handwriting, and even the people who work there haven’t read all of that yet!
On the other hand, if someone asks me about that (as an author has), it’s pretty easy for me to explain what we know, where to find more, and what we don’t, and to point them to some things they can look at in more detail if they decide to.
A few final notes
The kinds of questions I mention here are exactly the kind of thing I’m glad to help with through the research consulting part of what I do here.
(To give you an example of how doing this a lot improves speed, none of the examples here took me more than 5-10 minutes to poke at, though obviously they took a bit longer to write up.)