Gathering Research

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I’ve seen writers swear that research can ruin a book. Not true of historical fiction, and I’m amid the pleasure of researching the Progressive Era for my forthcoming novel Monsignor Dad.

My story takes place in Michigan and Ohio of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, so I’m in luck. There’s great documents and resources for the period. This is an era where moving pictures were taking the world’s forefront of storytelling. But the best facts and cultural color from the period is in the writing. 5,000-word articles were commonplace in periodicals of the day like McClure’s, where many a muckraking article emerged.

I have a personal connection to some of the events of Monsignor Dad. In a way I’m working on filling in characters from that period, ones who are only legend in my family. But I’m not allowing those family facts to stand in the way of a good story. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for knowing that Vicks VapoRub emerged in drugstores, or that railroads had become the dominant transportation vehicle because there were thousands scattered across Progressive America. Which leads to the trust-busting of the era led by Teddy Roosevelt and others. So there’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new The Bully Pulpit biography for me to enjoy. It’s a 914-page book. Something bigger than The Thorn Birds, which has passages that will tell you quite a bit about the life of a former parish priest.

Historical fiction writers, I am learning, lean on facts the way that journalists do: as needed to tell a story with authentic detail. But they’re not locked in to specifics like I was as a Central Texas reporter in the 1980s. We had a standing fine in the newsroom of the Georgetown paper in the county seat: 25 cents for misspelling a proper name. Or needing to gather a middle initial in any story about an arrest. A journalism degree has been deprecated a great deal since mine of 1981. But the fundamentals of research serve me in my work creating Monsignor Dad.

Storytelling, journalism live on The Wire

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Abby and I are reveling in the sweep and depth of HBO’s The Wire. It’s a piece of genius, 60 hours of entertainment that feels like reading a masterful series of crime novels. Or a week’s worth of old-school newspaper reports, what was once called “a series” and now is a rare breed indeed.

The creator of these connected, 1-hour dramas started as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, but after 13 years of crime articles David Simon aspired to say more than newsprint could carry about important issues. He wrote a non-fiction book in the late ’80s that became the blueprint for Homicide, another TV show. In The Wire Simon, along with his ex-cop, schoolteacher creative partner Ed Burns, takes on big matters like poverty, crime, education, graft, politics both good and bad. They have created a Book That Makes a Difference and plays out on your DVD screen.

In his closing letter after the series wrapped, Simon points out that The Wire was built on interviews and details with experts. Once upon a time, he asserts, journalism at its best told this kind of story.

For those of us writing The Wire, a television drama, story research involved dragging the right police lieutenants or school teachers, prosecutors and political functionaries to neighborhood diners and bars and taking story notes down on cocktail napkins and paper placemats. To be more precise with their tales? To record it and relay it in a manner that can stand as non-fiction truthtelling? Yes, that’s harder to do. But there was a time when journalism regarded that kind of coverage as its highest mission.

The true stories that The Wire traded in are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the time. And it is, of course, vaguely disturbing to us that our unlikely little television drama is making arguments that were once the prerogative of more serious mediums.

The lesson to take away here is the drive for details, usually accumulated through personal contact. Efforts to connect with resources in this way will make a story stronger, whether it’s drama or non-fiction or the creative non-fiction that blends both. (There’s also the lesson about journalism fundamentals being a sound foundation for fiction, but this old newspaperman will not wax on too long about that bromide.)

By the way, if you rent The Wire, be sure to turn on the subtitles. It adds a level of richness for a writer, or anyone who enjoys a good read.

New resources for researching

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The Internet makes it easier than ever for the writer to research a subject. Back in the day, we had to get good with the phone, or write letters, to learn about a subject. I used to keep very wooly magazine files, or trod down to the library to learn about subjects like genetics, viruses and AIDS (all part of my Viral Times novel project.)

Now your instinct would be to tap a series of keywords into the Google search box. Google’s great, but not perfect. If it frustrates you after a few minutes, let me pass along a few other research start points, courtesy of the journalism Web site.

At Poynter, publisher Jonathan Dube recommends (the name comes from “Hakuna Matata,” which means “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in Swahili).

The site’s news and business search engines are built on artificial intelligence algorithms, which enable the search engine to return not just results containing your search term, but also any stories the artificial intelligence thinks are associated with the search term.

Dube’s column also points out, a site that

searches Google, Yahoo!, and MSN simultaneously and delivers results from all three. A neat feature that differentiates this from other metasearch sites is that you can weight search engine results using the “Search Tuner button” so that, for example, Google’s results are given more weight than MSN’s (but MSN’s are still included).

You can get lost in research, and forget about writing your dreamstorms and drafts. But a story also needs accurate details. Having several search tools is better than just the obvious one.