Research for Writers, #1: Going There

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


By the time this post goes live, I will be in Japan. It seems like a good time to talk about traveling for research — aka “oh my god, this is the best scam ever.”

The thing that makes it so fabulous is, it isn’t even a scam! If you’re legitimately looking to do research, you can arrange some surprisingly awesome stuff. In four years of writing the Onyx Court series, I’ve made four trips to London, visiting museums, libraries, National Trust properties, the offices of the Metropolitan Police Archives, and very nearly the London sewers. (Only ankle surgery stopped that last bit; somebody else kindly went on my behalf.) I’m here to tell you how.

First of all, this takes groundwork. If you’re visiting places locally, you have a fair amount of flexibility, but if you’re flying to a foreign country, you have to plan, plan, plan. (And then be ready for your plans to get blown up — but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Be ready to send out e-mails to strangers, and if you’re on a trip, pack in as much work as you can for the time you have. (I’m going to operate here on the assumption that this is a trip scenario, but most of the points apply even if you’re working in your hometown.)

What kind of places are going to be useful to you? Museums will show you objects, but out of context. If you’re researching history, the exact places you’re writing about may not be there anymore — but maybe you can find comparable sites, to give you something to triangulate from. People can answer questions. Replicating the experience of your character — white-water rafting, say, or riding along in the back of a police car — is yet another type of research. Figure out what you want to do, and make a list.

If any of those things can only happen on specific dates, that gives you some fixed points around which to organize the trip. Now you start e-mailing people. (Or calling, if they don’t have an e-mail address; it’s happened to me.) Tell them you’re a writer, doing research on a particular subject. Be specific; it helps establish you as a professional. Ask whether somebody at the site or museum might be willing to meet with you to show you around or answer questions. If there’s something special you want — access to an area not normally open to the public; a chance to handle some kind of museum artifact — mention that.

Do this WELL IN ADVANCE OF YOUR TRIP. Sometimes it takes a while to get an answer. You may have to follow up. There will be some back-and-forth as two different places suggest you come by at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, and you have to see if one of them can do Wednesday instead. A few of them may ask for proof of your bona fides — a note on your publisher’s letterhead, for example — but surprisingly, that’s only happened to me once. But you want to leave time to set that up, if necessary.

Sometimes people will say no; thank them politely and move on to the next part of your plan. But don’t make that decision for them: try everything, no matter how long of a shot you think it is. I once e-mailed the Archives of the Houses of Parliament asking for permission to see the death warrant for Charles I. They said no, unless I could make some clear argument for why a high-quality reproduction wouldn’t suffice. (I figured a writer’s ghoulishness doesn’t count.) I once ran over to the offices of the Tower Authority to see if they’d let me into the restricted top part of the Monument. They said yes. You never know until you ask.

You’d be amazed at what happens when you do this. I’ve had personalized tour guides at Hampton Court Palace, Thomas Carlyle’s House, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. I’ve been into parts of the Tower of London that aren’t open to the public. Librarians have moved heaven and earth to find me obscure manuscripts; historians have geeked out for an hour or more, telling me things I would never have thought to ask. I’ve dug through Special Branch files from the nineteenth century. Whole worlds open up to you, when make a few plans.

Here’s the cherry on top: half the time, you’ll be let in to these places without even having to pay. (And if you’re American and filing a Schedule C for you writing income, you can deduct what costs you have as a business expense.)

Take notes. Take pictures. Take souvenirs, within reason. (Don’t go pocketing artifacts or chipping bits off buildings.) Take the names of everybody who helps you, so you can thank them later. Keep your receipts, if you’re planning to deduct this.

We can’t always afford the time or the money for research travel. If you can manage it, though . . . there’s nothing like actually going there. You see, here, smell, and touch things you just can’t get from books. And you’d be amazed at how willing people are to help you. If you can possibly swing it, I encourage you to try.