How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Two: Plan and Research

Topic in hand, you’re ready for the next phase of writing your book: planning and research.

Before you begin go back to Step One: Choosing Your Topic and review this bit:

1) What kind of book do you want to write?
2) What research will you have to do? (e.g. What’s the gap between what you know and what you want to write?)
3) How much time do you want to devote to it?
4) What are your constraints?

These questions shape your research agenda. They will help you figure out what you need to know and who you’re going to ask.

In the case of Oregon Wine Pioneers my primary source was winemakers. I had to figure out who I was going to interview, why, where and when. My brother and I put our heads together and started making a list.
He’d had a nice bottle from A to Z Wineworks, so they went on the list. Plum Hill is a family favourite. I’d already interviewed the owner of Abacela for a different project. I went to Willamette Wines and made a list of potential subjects.
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Don’t get too hung up on a particular angle, subject, or idea at this point. My initial contact list was probably 40 wineries. Of those, maybe 25 responded. In the end, I interviewed and wrote about 15 of them. Some people I contacted were enthusiastic then stopped answering emails; others were initially aloof but wound up being great subjects.

Depending on the project your primary research focus may be people, books, newspapers, archives, websites, films, police blotters, or YouTube videos. For each source or type of research consider the following:

1. Access: Is the information you need accessible in your area? Your language? Is it confidential?
2. Cost: Phone bills, gas money, subscription fees, printing/copying costs, buying equipment e.g. software, camera, etc
3. Time constraints: What’s your deadline? Is your topic time-sensitive? Are you limited by your work/travel schedule? Is certain information only available at certain times (for example, do you have to attend an event?)

For Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers my access was determined by the willingness of my participants, so that was straight-forward. Other resources such as existing Oregon wine and travel guides were available in the library or local book shops.

Costs included gas money, phone top-ups, office supplies, and sundries. The biggest expense was a high-grade Sony digital camera to ensure we’d have book-quality photos.

And I was working against the clock: with just six weeks in Oregon I had to schedule my interviews as efficiently as possible. This meant visiting adjoining wineries on the same day, in some cases.

Once you identify your access, cost and time constraints all that’s left to do is research.

You want to have more information than you “need” (remember what Hemingway said about the iceberg) but you don’t want to get bogged down in detail. Here’s a few tips:

-Go into every interview or research session with a list of questions
-Take copious notes
-Use a voice recorder
-Take photos (they’re great memory prompts even if you don’t use them in the book)
-Label your notes/photos/etc (e.g. “Jean Smith interview, July 3 2015, recorded and saved as file ‘JSmith 3/7’)
-Collect additional material (maps, brochures, clippings, ticket stubs, etc) in a file folders
-Gather everything that seems interesting and relevant (within reason) — you can edit later

Good luck! Share your research tips in the comments.

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One thought on “How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Two: Plan and Research

  1. Pingback: How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Three: Organising Your Material | Creative Writing Ibiza

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