In which we talk research books

On a previous post—the one where I put up photos of the 55 books in my collection that helped with the writing of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS—Danica left the following comment: Deanna, I’ve decided that I have a book girl crush on you… you always manage to find the most interesting but obscure books for your research. I tend to sit and drool over the books you manage to find. How do you do it?

There are two caveats before I answer that. First, some readers assume that because I have a history degree I got to spend a lot of time reading about Victorian England and getting credit for it. Actually, no. My university’s history program was so small I had to take what was offered which meant I had far more African and Russian history than English! It’s ironic that it took me twenty five years to write a book whose beginnings were firmly rooted in my first African history course, but there you go. (And no, NO plans to write anything with Russian ties. I honestly think I blocked those studies out.)

Second, my methodology is strange and idiosyncratic. It’s the product of what I’ve figured out works for me, and I have to say, I go by gut. If I feel a certain topic needs to be followed up on, I do it, even if I don’t necessarily know why.

All of my books have their start in what I read for pleasure, so I tend to have a fair number of research books already at my fingertips simply because I bought them to enjoy. Each book’s research begins with a pull where I go through my library and take down the books that will serve this particular plot/setting/characters. I research all topics at the same time, although I have learned to be a little less rigid about insisting that all research had to be read before I could begin writing. That little rule is LONG gone.

Once I’ve done the initial pull, I start with the internet. I read every archived article I can find, check out blogs, and look at the sources on Wikipedia articles. People love to slag Wikipedia, but it is a good place to START your research. There are sources listed at the bottom of each article, often linking to official sites, archived magazine articles, etc. I follow those and bookmark, and every time I find a mention of a book that might prove useful, I make a note of it. Articles that prove useful get printed out and put into a binder and highlighted—with an index. (I also make a point of looking up notable events, moon phases, and holidays for every year I’m writing in.)

Once I have compiled a list of books to hunt down, I cross off any I own. Then I check to see which books are out of print. If they have been digitized, I download them for free either from Amazon or from a university website. (This isn’t my favorite way to research because I don’t like making notes on my Kindle, but some books I’ve downloaded for free would have cost upwards of $100 to order a hard copy. So, Kindle it is!) After finding the freebies, I hit my library’s site. I reserve everything I can and cross those off the list. Then I head online to shop for out of print books and as many of the new ones as I can manage without selling my car. Sometimes I have to spread them out because there are just too many, but they tend to arrive in batches. Usually the initial reading prompts a second, and occasionally third, round of ordering until the research library is complete—and my only consolations are that they books are a write-off and that once I have assembled a collection, I have them in case I go back to the same time/place.

When I’m done with a book, I get rid of VERY few of the research books I’ve bought. Some will turn out to be duds, but most of them pay for themselves many times over. The most fun is when I find I have some of what I need already on my shelves, and the longer I write, the more this happens.

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2 Responses to In which we talk research books

  1. Lynne says:

    Deanna, I loved this article – I find I love reading about how my favorite authors research and how their thought process progresses. (Tracy Grant wrote something similar and it was so intriguing.) And I could absolutely relate to your “history class dilemma”. I wanted to minor in history in college (majored in art), and discovered that my university offered mostly US history and not much else. My love was English history – medieval – and there was one course – every other semester. When you said you ended up in African & Russian classes, I had to laugh! I so understand!!!! So I started collecting books on the subjects I loved and learned it the hard way. Thanks for sharing a little of what goes into the books you write – I loved it!

  2. Danica says:

    So glad you wrote this post!! Thanks for sharing!

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