Tagged with "research"
The Joy of Primary Source Research Tags: research writing primary and secondary research


Japanese-American students dressed up as American Indians.  East San Pedro Grammar School, Terminal Island, Ca. Circa 1930, Courtesy of the of the Archives and Special Collection Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District


Fifteen years ago my mother took my siblings and me on a trip through Eastern Germany.  There we visited the estates and farms, townhouses and churches of her ancestors.  Relatives showed us documents their parents had carried declaring them “pure” and “uncontaminated” by non-Aryan blood.  We heard tales of harrowing attempts to cross over the wall and of the bleak, hopeless days when their wealth was confiscated and their children were denied an education due to their upper class background.

I returned home charged up with a zeal to research the past.  I discovered my husband’s lines had never been traced and I volunteered to do it.

The morning I stepped into the National Archives I tumbled into a world that would consume me for nearly a year.  The archives were located in the basement of a seven-story government building not far from my home in California.

I remember how I felt that first day.  After passing through the security check I stopped and surveyed the enormous room full of file cabinets, tables, and research stations. Muffled voices drifted toward me, muted by the industrial carpet and the solid earth pressing against the basement walls.  The tables were populated by people, their heads bent over the work in front of them, or sitting in front of the magnifying screens for the census records, slowly turning the crank to survey the rolls of microfilm.  The warm and musty fragrance of old paper, dry with age and full of promise engulfed me.  I felt cradled with the reassurance I was safe in this place, like a nurturing classroom full of kind teachers and endless days of discovery.  At the same time my pulse quickened with the promise of unearthing treasure.  Maybe I’d sort out the mystery of my husband’s bloodlines, a mystery created by his grandmother, who told her children they were Russian, then German, then Slavic, depending on which immigrants were most popular at the time.  Perhaps, like my father’s ancestors, I’d find some outlaws, trail blazers or cowboys. 

I did solve that mystery, and many others, including one which concerned his great-grandfather from Texas. A sharecropper and father of two, he’d mysteriously disappeared after the birth of his second son, never to be seen again.  After weeks of research and speculation, I followed up on a hunch and found him in the Iowa census records twenty years after he'd left Texas.  He’d re-married, raised two children, and was a respectable officer of the law.  I was so excited when I discovered him I exclaimed, “there you are, you son-of-a-bitch!” Then I looked up guiltily at the quiet researchers. But they just smiled and nodded their heads knowingly.   

It wasn’t until some years later that I understood the unfiltered joy and excitement I experienced that year was the result of doing primary source research. There's an element of magic stored in the old letters, photos and records; an energy I felt even through my white archival gloves. Sometimes I felt I consumed their stories, perhaps absorbed them is a better word. I absorbed their lives until they walked beside me in my world and I in theirs.  

Sometimes I even spoke to them, in admiration or surprise, or occasionally, in deep sympathy. 

Some years later my mother handed me a box given to her by my father's mother. It was full of photos taken and journals written by my grandmother during her teaching years in the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. When World War II began the school and the town were bulldozed and the families put into concentration camps.  The contents of the box were the only school records that survived.

It took me another year to research and write a book about the school and its community of Japanese-Americans.  The research took me to glorious places that set my blood pumping and my hands shaking with anticipation.  One of my favorite places was the Los Angeles School District Archives, three floors crammed with books and photos, carousal horses from playgrounds and carved desks and pianos.  Barely visited, according to the overworked archivist.  I spent weeks there, seated on the floor, reading my way through the past and using all of my change on the copy machine.

I also traveled to the homes of the children who’d attended the school and had known my grandmother.  Now in their eighties and nineties, they were delighted to share their few photos and many memories with me, watching with fascination as I hooked up my computer and scanner and made copies.

I derived much satisfaction when I connected the dots between my archive research and their stories.  One of the more curious mysteries was solved one day as I played my telephone messages.  I’d been puzzled over old letters written between the school and the town’s fire station.  With polite but firm words, the school requested the station to move locations from several blocks down to somewhere more distant.  In equally polite terms, the station replied they would not.  I understood the sirens might be distracting to the students, but surely it could not warrant the persistence of the school to relocate it.  Then one day I got a phone message from an eighty-nine year old who had been a previous student.  I’d visited him the day before for an interview, and he’d shared wonderful stories of living on the island.

His quavering voice was full of amusement when I played his message.  “Mrs. Shelton, I forgot to tell you about something we did that used to drive your grandmother crazy.  Whenever the fire truck came by the school, us boys would jump out of the classroom window and run after it.  Sometimes we wouldn’t be back until lunch time!”

My happy place is doing primary research.  The only reason I have not returned to it is because once I begin, everything else fades away, and the research requires my full-time attention. It is a place of such joy and anticipation that it teeters on that precarious line between innocent happiness and addiction.

An addiction I hope to indulge in again, once I have the time to feed it!

Market Research Tags: writing market research magazines

Things change and each year when we return to England I look at the magazine market. Last week I escaped from my husband for a bit and spent a happy half an hour  researching magazines in Smiths. After Japan this is like candy in a sweet shop to me. None of these periodicals are available where I live – yes, I'm sure I could get some, or all of them on line, but I can't curl up on the sofa with a computer the same way I can with a magazine.

I crouched on the floor in the shop to browse the bottom shelf. The odds and sods seem to be at the lowest level in our Smiths: The Oldie, the Economist, Newsweek etc. A passing dog was delighted to find someone at his level and planted a kiss on my face, but an elderly customer gave me a disapproving glare as he almost tripped over me. I flicked happily through the current copy of The Oldie – the travel piece was on Europe, France I think. I'm glad no one else was writing about Japan.

Then I stood up to look at  the next shelf – woman's mags.

I picked out a copy of People's Friend. It was interesting to find the stories are now tagged in the top right corner with a category. In the June 22nd issue there was: one romantic story, an inspiring story, a feel-good story, two serials, an uplifting story, a nostalgic story and two emotional stories. In the June 29th issue there was also a period story and a family story. I shall bear this in mind when submitting to them in future, and I shall probably suggest a category for my story in the cover letter when I write to them.

I also picked up a copy of Take a Break Fiction Feast (July 2013) which had 17 stories, and at least two authors had two stories included. This is a market I should really like to break into so I shall be studying this magazine with interest. Woman's Weekly Fiction Special for June had twenty stories.

Finally I bought a copy of Prima for July 2013. This was interesting because although it doesn't publish stories as such it did have a 'Winning Short Story' in it, and invites writers to send their 800 word short stories for the chance of publication and £100 prize money. The story that was included was fiction.

Clutching my selection of woman's magazines I searched through the travel magazines looking for any that might be potential markets. 'Traveller' was on my shopping list, but I found there are at least two magazines called that, and both were wrapped in plastic so it was impossible to see inside. They appeared very glossy. I looked for Destination France but the branch I was in didn't have it – there was another France magazine and several Spain ones.

We are now into the second week of our holiday in the UK. I have every intention of escaping again and doing some more market research especially as July begins and new magazines will be released. When we return to Japan my suitcase will be full of magazines and teabags. When I get home I shall curl up on the sofa and enjoy.


Digging for Truffles Tags: fiction novels research

Digging for Truffles

Following on from Alyson’s blog about the importance of titles, I stole this catchy phrase from a chapter in Jonathan Falla’s book ‘The Craft of Fiction’, which is about doing research for a novel. Again, I’ll quote him: ‘truffles - those tiny nuggets of intense flavour that bring cooking and writing alive.’ Thanks, Mr Falla, I couldn’t put it better.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately and often get carried away, such is the abundance of information on the Internet. I scan and read and click on links, and before I know where I am the sun has dipped below the horizon, there’s a rumbling in my stomach, and my husband’s screaming for dinner.

Hurriedly, I bookmark or copy and paste far too much material to use. It was fun, but was it a waste of time? I don’t think so. By filing away the dull factual material for possible future reference, I start hunting for truffles. I’m happy to know more than the reader does, but need to force myself not to spurt it all out on the page. Just give them the quirky bits.

I often wonder how factually accurate a novel should be, if based around an actual period or event? Surely, the odd error is acceptable? This is fiction after all. Doesn’t a sprinkling of imagination add to the story rather than take away from it? It’s easy to search Wikipedia. Unreliable I know (my grandfather had a sister – no, he didn’t!) and certainly the content seldom has the ‘intense truffle flavour’ I’m looking for. It has the dry facts, not the ‘essence’. So where to look?

Sites like YouTube, Flickr and Google Images have helped me with settings, but mostly they show relatively recent videos and photos– so it’s easy to come up with glaring anachronisms. As an extreme example, a photo might show a background of high-rise apartments, but at the time of your novel the people lived in mud huts. Say no more. In general, though, the scenery of the countryside doesn’t change that much.

Then, I need to know what makes my characters tick (in a particular country/situation/era). What they talked about, and why. What their conventions were. How they reacted to things. One source is personal blogs. I’ve even found eye-witness accounts of an event I’m writing about. Here too, I’ll occasionally come across that tiny nugget – perhaps an emotional response – that I’m looking for. Call it a truffle, if you like. Novels and books come up with precious material too – unbeatable for the overall picture – though much more time-consuming to research.

So, with a computer threatening to explode with bookmarked Internet pages, and a desk scattered with near-illegible notes taken from books and novels, what comes next? It’s truffle harvest time! After I’ve deleted/tossed out the boring stuff (toadstools?) my laptop and desk have room to breathe again…until I start the next research project.

How do you research your work? How much do you include? And how accurate should the facts be when writing fiction? Have you any tips?








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