Most of you know me as a speculative fiction author and blogger. But I’m much more than that. I am a Gemini after all, duality is in my very being. So I am a speculative fiction author and a blogger. But I’m also a critic and podcaster. And as if that weren’t enough, I’ve decided to add nonfiction author to my list.
That’s right, I’m working on my very first nonfiction book. It’s an emotional project that I’m not ready to talk about publically yet.
Writing a nonfiction book is totally different than writing fiction. And there’s been quite a bit of a learning curve. I’m writing something where facts matter, statistics matter. I need to get things right. But it also needs to be entertaining and people need to want to read it.
I’m learning a lot in this process. So I thought I’d do a series on nonfiction writing.
Today, we’re going to talk about where it all begins, research.
Yes, I do research things when writing fiction. But it’s not the same. If I mess up a fact in a fiction book, most people aren’t going to notice. Or I can just say this is a fictional world and this is accurate for the book.
Nope, none of those cop-outs exist in nonfiction. Here’s what you do instead.
Know what you’re looking for before you start researching
For the sake of this series, let’s say you’re writing a book about how crystals have been used by different cultures through the years. That’s not what I’m writing, it’s just a handy example. Before you start diving into research, have an idea of what information you’re looking for. I found it best to have certain questions I wanted answers to. I kept track of them at the beginning of my notes. (Don’t worry, I’m doing a whole post on organizing your notes both digitally and physically.)
This keeps you from getting too far off in the weeds while you’re researching. Because if you don’t know what you’re looking for, then you’re looking for everything.
Of course, you’re going to find new things as you learn. New questions you didn’t even realize existed. And as you do, feel free to add them to your list of questions. But at least having a basic idea of what you want out of your research at the start will help you with some direction.
Vet your sources
Some people think they know everything about a subject there is to know. It does not matter what subject we’re talking about. Someone out there thinks they are the expert. That someone is usually a Youtube commenter.
I kid. But you must know where information is coming from before you believe it. If you’re using a book, who is the author? Are they a specialist in this topic? Where did they learn it from? If you’re on a website, do some basic digging. Is it a reputable website? Do they cite sources? Are they the original source? Basically, where was this information before it was in your hands?
I did this a lot when I was researching for the first season of Off The Bone. It turns out there’s a lot we don’t know about HH Holmes, for instance. But lots of dumb schmucks on the internet think they know. I do not want to be one of those dumb schmucks.
On a similar note, let me advise you to double-check facts, even if you think you know them.
I’ll use Off The Bone as an example again. When I was researching for the episode about Dauphine LaLorie, I thought for sure she’d had some sort of run-in with Marie Laveau. They never met. I’m pretty sure I got that from American Horror Story, Coven. I’m really glad I double-checked that little ‘fact’ before I just threw it out there.
Don’t lean too hard on books
A lot of people have written a lot of books about a lot of topics. So no matter the topic of your nonfiction book, others are going to cover at least similar topics.
And if all you do is regurgitate information from the other books, that’s a waste of time. It’s also kind of shitty behavior.
It’s much better to do the research yourself. I’m not saying that you’ve got to reinvent the wheel here. If you’re writing about crystal lore, you don’t have to ignore historical knowledge. But you also want to go talk to people who know about these things. At the very least, you want to add a new perspective to your topic. Otherwise, why the hell are you writing the book?
But at the same time, read a lot of books
All this is not to say don’t read books about your subject. But maybe be a little more varied about the books you read. Let’s go back to that crystal lore example. (Is it weird that I kind of want to write that now?)
Maybe you can research what other kind of lore a culture had. Or what minerals were around them. What was more or less valuable? What kind of society did they have? What were their means of saving stories and information? All of these things can be avenues of research that can dramatically change how you write your book.
Keep careful track of all of your sources
You’re going to learn a lot for your book that comes from other people. I mean, that’s the whole point of this post. And since this information was not yours, but obtained through working with others, you have to give them credit.
There’s always a source list at the back of books for this reason. When I’m doing an episode of Off The Bone, JM and I include links to our sources. We want you to know where we got the information from.
So for the love of Gatsby, write down your sources and keep very careful track as you go!
Never for a second think you’ll remember later where you picked up some obscure fact. Write it down. Get a link to the site. Write down the author, book title, edition and page number. You will need it.
Personal stories are fine, but cannot be relied upon
Finally, let’s consider personal stories. This is also called anecdotal evidence. And it’s a tricky thing.
Lots of people will tell you to leave these kinds of things out altogether. But I’m not one of them.
Anecdotal stories are great for showing different sides to a subject. They give an emotional punch. They put a real face on your topic. They move your topic from the hypothetical to the relatable. And if you’re using an anecdote to do these things, you’re using them right.
If you’re using an anecdote to prove a point or a fact, you’re doing it wrong.
As House says, everybody lies. But even if your anecdote isn’t a lie, it might still be total bull. We don’t mean to lie. We just often see things differently than other people.
If you need proof, here’s an experiment. Think of something in your childhood. Some memory that you have a clear recollection of. Now, go as your parent about that memory. I imagine you’ll get a wildly different set of facts.
I’m planning on doing a whole series about converting to nonfiction writing. If you’ve got any specific questions or topics you’d like me to cover, please drop them in the comments. Until then, have a great day.