From February 2006
While fiction relies comfortably on an author's ability to imagine, most fiction writers are bound to encounter the need to research. Sometimes this can be quick and casual—looking up a city's landmark—and other times it can be intensive and long term, involving information gathering about time, place, historical events and more. Many fiction writers turn to books, the internet, documentaries or magazines for research. While these are great sources to inform your work and even guide you to additional sources, this often shouldn't be the end of it. A printed interview will give great information, but you'll miss out on the cadence of the speaker's voice. A documentary is bound to offer vital tidbits, but some of the most valuable footage of gesture and nuance that build character may be on the cutting room floor. An article about the subway system in the early nineteen hundreds might mention the vivid advertisements, but you won't get the opportunity to view them yourself and imagine how your character would perceive them.
When researching, you want to get as close to the original source material as possible. If you're writing a story set in Maui, for instance, your best bet is to go to Maui and experience the place for yourself. If you're writing about bungee jumping, give it a try first. This, of course, isn't always possible. We certainly can't experience occupied France during World War II, if we haven't already done so. Some experiences you may not want to have, like those that are illegal, unsavory or life threatening. When you can't experience something yourself, look for the second closest source: someone who has. The internet is often a great way to connect with such people.
Also, track down other forms of original source material. Historical societies often have photographs, newspapers and even telephone books from different eras. The possibilities are diverse and varied. The New York Historical Society, for example, has an extensive collection of printed materials that document the subway where you can look up some of the earliest routes of the system. Some institutions even have collections available online. The New York Historical Society has an online museum with images and information on over 60,000 artifacts and works of art from their collection.
Don’t forget the experts. For every subject, there's bound to be at least one expert. Recently, I visited the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, which features over 4,400 mustards—in tubes, bottles and jars—that come from all over the United States and more than 60 countries. [Editor’s note: the museum has since moved to Middleton, Wisconsin.] They also display mustard related items, like mustard pots, mustard advertisements, different kinds of dispensers and more. There's a tasting station at the back of the gift shop where a Confidential Condiment Counselor assisted me in trying mustards—anything from chocolate mustard, to curry mustard to martini mustard. Barry Levenson, the founder of the museum, even gave me some insight into what prompted him to create it. After two hours of browsing, viewing, tasting and reading, I left the museum, clutching my bag filled with chipotle mustard and a super hot variety called Hit and Run. I carried with me, too, an appreciation for the people in this world who have a passion that they actively pursue and a willingness to share with others. No matter how obscure or unexpected the subject, someone is bound to have explored it thoroughly.
Perhaps you're not writing mustard related fiction. (Although you might keep an eye on the Mustard Museum’s writing contests and reconsider.) Whatever your needs, look for the person or organization out there who has taken on the topic with gusto. Take, for example, the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project that has been documenting varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States—the regionalisms that exist even within one language. A vital source for writers with characters anchored strongly in place.
If you're looking for information, there's a source out there that has it.