Research! Strategies for Writers | Amy Stewart | Skillshare

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Research! Strategies for Writers

teacher avatar Amy Stewart, Writer & artist

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

9 Lessons (27m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Project & Resources

    • 3. Historical Research

    • 4. Genealogy Research

    • 5. Academic and Scientific Research

    • 6. Conducting Interviews

    • 7. Hiring Researchers

    • 8. Spotting Bad Information

    • 9. Final Thoughts

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About This Class

Whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, reported journalism, essays, or memoir, you're probably going to have to do some amount of research. As the author of over a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers, I've spent more time on research than writing over the years. Now I'm going to share my methods with you.

We’ll look at how to use scientific and academic sources, and how to track down experts in any field.

We’ll look at historical sources, like old newspapers and archives.

We’ll talk about genealogical resources, like Census records and other public documents.

I’ll show you how I conduct interviews, and when I hire expert help.

I’ll tell you how to spot faulty information and keep it out of your work.

Finally, I'll teach you to be a skeptic! How do you know what you know? How do you verify your facts?

Whatever kind of writing project you're embarking on, this class will help you up your research game.

Meet Your Teacher

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Amy Stewart

Writer & artist



Welcome! For the last twenty years, I've devoted my life to making art and writing books. It gives me great joy to share what I've learned with you. 

I love talking to writers and artists, and bonding over the creative process. I started teaching so that I can  inspire others to take the leap. 

I believe that drawing, painting, and writing are all teachable skills. Forget about talent--it doesn't exist, and you don't need it. With some quality instruction and lots of practice, any of us can make meaningful, honest, and unique art and literature.

I'm the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books. When I'm not writing or traveling on book tour, I'm painting and drawing in ink, watercolor, gouache, and oil. Come f... See full profile

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1. Introduction : Hi, I'm Amy Stewart. I'm the author of six nonfiction books about horticulture and natural world and six historical novels based on a true story. The only way I could write these books was to do a ton of research. And that's the question I get asked more than anything else is. How do I do my research? So in this class, I'm going to show you we're gonna look at how to use scientific and academic sources and how to track down experts in any field. We'll also look at historical sources like old newspapers and archives, and we'll talk about genealogical. Resource is like census records and other public documents. I'll also show you how I conduct interviews. And when I hire expert help and I'll tell you how to spot faulty information and keep it out of your work because I want you to be a skeptic, I want you to always be asking the question. How do you know what you know? How do you verify those facts? To be a good researcher, you actually have to be highly suspicious of even the most mundane pieces of information. So whether you're working on a novel of memoir or a nonfiction book of any kind. This class is gonna help you toe really up your research game, so let's get started. 2. Project & Resources: I hope everybody gets at least one good new lead for the kind of research that you dio from this class. And if you can take a screenshot or opposed a copy of that new lead in the project area along with a little explanation about what you found and how you're using it, it would be really great if the other writers taking this class could benefit from the resource is that you share. And if you guys could share tips for the particular kinds of projects that you're working on also, I wanted to mention I save all my sources into Evernote and I teach a class here on skill share about Evernote. So check that out if you need help organizing all this information when she found it. 3. Historical Research: first, let's define a couple of terms. A primary source is a firsthand account that means a diarrhea letter and interview. A secondary sources, you can probably figure out, is a secondhand accounts that's like a book written by a historian or ah, government report, and a contemporary source is a source from the same time period as the event you're researching. So a contemporary account of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is an account written at the time of the signing. I'm most interested in primary sources in contemporary sources, especially when it comes to historical research. Ah, good place to start a search. If you're researching an American subject at least since about 18 60 is newspapers dot com . You have to pay for this service, but your local library might have a subscription you can use at your neighborhood branch. Even the ads in these old newspapers air useful if you want to figure out how much something costs or what kind of products your characters might have used. I use newspapers dot com almost every day. I also use the Library of Congress is chronicling America Website to search other newspapers that they have in their collection. And there's another source, which is proquest. You can also access that at a local library, particularly a university library would have this. Some newspapers require that you access their archives directly to through their website and pay a subscription fee for that. So, like I subscribe to the New York Times Online specifically so I can get into their archives . And there are international databases like this, too. So in a few minutes I'll talk about how I hire researchers when it's, ah, foreign language. But not all newspapers are online. The most important research I do is in local libraries going through their microfilm collection, and I want to emphasize this. There's still a lot of newspapers that haven't been digitized. The Onley way you can read those papers is to go to the library and read a copy on microfilm. To find out about that, you can always call the library in the city where your research needs to take place, or search the Library of Congress newspaper directory, which tells you what newspapers were published in wet years and where copies of those papers can be found now. Old magazines air another great source. Google Books has scanned a lot of bound volumes of old magazines like Scribner's and if you notice it looks like they only have one or two. But when you click and look for other volumes, you'll see they have a ton of them. And these air fully searchable. On Google books, the National Archives has more records than I can even begin to explore in this class, including military records. Many of those records require an in person visit to one of their facilities, But you can hire people to go into those archives for you, and I'll get to that. But for as an example, I found all the records pertaining to the Army's World War Messenger pigeon program in the National Archives. The Library of Congress also has astonishing collections of books and photographs and music and so much more. So look at their list of subject areas and see if that would help. There's also all kinds of government reports stored in libraries, government agencies and even scanned on Google books. This 1916 Proceedings of the New Jersey Conference of Charities and Collection contained a speech given by Sheriff Robert Heath, who's one of the people I was researching. So here's another tip. Do a Google search for the personal organization you're researching, along with the words finding aid in quotes. Ah, finding aid is an index of an archive, an easy way to find the institution that has those archives on file. For instance, try searching Dorothy Parker and Finding Aid or Chicago's World Fair and finding AIDS. And there are the archives you can go visit and look at that stuff. Remember that local historical societies have records that won't be found anywhere else, so it's worth paying a visit there as well. And also, have you ever seen these Arcadia publishing books? They've published over 14,000 books of local history, and all those books were written by someone with a passion for history. You can contact the authors of those books and interview them. I walked around Rutherford, New Jersey, and heard all about its most famous resident, William Carlos Williams, with the man who wrote this book on the history of Rutherford. Also, institutions often have historians and historical collections. I interviewed historians at the U. S. Army Signal Corps program for my research into their pigeon program and I interviewed this story and at the New York Empty A. That's the subway system. I talked to their historian to make sure I had subway stops right for 1915. Museums also have collections and libraries. There's a cowboy museum. The Smithsonian has all kinds of amazing collections, including a fashion collection. Botanical gardens have barbarians with historical plant specimens. Whatever you're searching for, someone, somewhere has probably archived a collection of it. Now, when you might notice is that in every case I'm looking for the past. In the past, I don't want to read a book about the 19 twenties that was written last year. I want to go back to the 19 twenties. I want to look at their world through their eyes and to know what they knew and how they understood the world, not what we think about them today. 4. Genealogy Research: If you're researching specific people, it's very useful to sign up for ancestry dot com. You can find people in the census and start building their family tree. The best part about doing this is you might be able to see other people who are working on the same family tree. This is how I tracked down the family members of the people I was researching. We were able to meet in person and talk on the phone, and that's been the most important and most rewarding bit of research I've ever done in my career. Your local library probably offers classes on how to use ancestry, and they might have a subscription you can use. Also, there's some records that can be found online, and you have to go into local courthouses or City Hall in order to get hold of them. Sometimes you have to fill out paperwork and pay a small fee, and sometimes you just have to show up in person again. You can hire people to do this if it's across the country and hard to get to yourself, and I'll talk more about how to do that in a minute. Just know that these kinds of public records can be incredibly useful. I'm talking about court cases, birth, marriage, divorce or death certificates, deeds, wills, other documents like that. It was with these kind of documents that I uncovered the huge family secret that's at the heart of my novels. The clue was in a will that was sitting in an office in Queens. Obituaries are also really helpful for genealogy because they mentioned surviving relatives as well. And newspapers dot com is a great source for obituaries. But also a lot of libraries have thes hand written indexes. Toe local newspapers going back decades so you can look up a person and find out if their obituary ran in the local paper. Librarians have been compiling these forever. You gotta love librarians. Finally find a grave dot com contains millions of cemetery records, so it's a good wayto find out where someone's buried, and often you can get their birth and death dates that way or disconnect them to other family members 5. Academic and Scientific Research: If you're writing on a scientific or academic subject, you're gonna wanna head to your university library. You can use university library Resource is for free when you're inside the library, and most universities will let you pay a small annual fee to get a library card, even if you don't have a university affiliation. They have academic textbooks and scientific manuals that would cost hundreds of dollars to buy yourself books that aren't found in regular bookstores or neighborhood public libraries . They can get even more books like that through Inter library Loan. Now, university libraries also pay to subscribe to databases of academic and scientific journals , and you can sit at their terminals and search those journals all day long. And listen. I've talked a lot in this class about libraries. Let me tell you, reference librarians are there to help. You're not bothering them when you go ask them how to find information. They literally went to college specifically so they could get a job where they help people find stuff all day Now. Sometimes they might be busy, and sometimes they might point you to some handouts or some group classes on how to use these resource is. But trust me, they want to help. And this includes librarians at special collections all the way across the country. They don't mind you calling up and asking about their collection. That's what they're. Therefore, they can't necessarily do your research for you. But again, you can hire people for that, and I'll get to that soon. Um, now, libraries generally have access to Lexis Nexis and Proquest, which can give you legal records, government records, academic and research databases and so much more. And remember, it's not just universities. Also, a lot of institutions have libraries. The army has a library. Botanical gardens have libraries. The American Kennel Club has a dog library. No, you can't check out a dog from the library, but you can check out a lot of books about dogs. It may seem wildly old fashioned to read bibliography Ease by which I mean a book that's just a list of other books. But imagine if you were researching the history of magic and you found a bibliography of magic books that was published in 1920 Google Book Search is a great place to look for books like these. So is, um World Cat, which searches library holdings worldwide. I use World Cat constantly to find books I need. Figure out which libraries have him and keep list so I can make inter library loan requests and get my local library to borrow that book from another institution for me. Finally, keep in mind that there's all kinds of publicly available databases about different industries. And government agencies like I used the UN's Com trade database to calculate my own statistics about the global flower trade and to verify the statistics the industry was putting out. And when I was researching a book on plants and cocktails I used the FDA is database to find out more about obscure cocktail ingredients. The CDC is morality and Morbidity. Weekly Report is an absolutely fascinating glimpse into how people die if you happen to be researching a book on poisons like I waas. So if your research involves an industry or subject area that seems like it might involve a lot of data collection and reporting, there's probably a database out there for you to dig into a swell 6. Conducting Interviews: one of the best ways to find out what you need to know about any subject is to personally interview an expert. I've written a lot of books about botany. I can read about a plant in the most technical journals I can dig into its history. But what I've learned is that for every plant, there is a botanist somewhere who has devoted her life to it, and there's just no substitute for a lifetime of expertise. And, of course, I've done very personal interviews to with family members of the people I'm writing about. And again, there's no better expert on a particular person in their family or their close friends. So first, let's talk about finding those people. I mentioned that I've used ancestry to track down other people who are working on the same family tree and may be looking for the same person I am. I've also used obituaries to find out the names of kids or other surviving family members. Sometimes I've been able to get a hold of addresses or phone numbers from public directories online, and I've even reached out to people through Facebook. For experts, you might find a paper they've authored or an interview they've done. If they teach in a university, they'll probably be listed on the university website. One neat trick, if you're not sure whether or not they teach, is to Google a name along with the words site Colon et you and that limits your search to academic websites on they might pop right up. Then LinkedIn is another good place. Teoh. Look, if you're trying to contact a particular expert, if someone's a professional in their field, they may well have a linked in profile. What's most important is that when you do reach out, be very clear about your intentions. Let them know exactly what you're writing, what it's gonna be and what it won't be. I once interviewed the family of a famous botanist, and I thought I went to great lengths to explain that I was not writing a comprehensive biography of their relative. I was just going to write one short chapter about actually what was a pretty difficult situation in this botanist career, and I'd be talking to other people so that I would include all sides of the story. I thought I explain this really thoroughly, but apparently I didn't and the family was upset to read what I wrote. Of course, I never intended that. So I learned from that. And since then, I've made sure to explain what I'm doing. Not once, not twice, but over and over, both out loud and person on the phone and in writing. I'm sure I do way too much explaining now, but I just want to be sure everybody's really clear with their expectations. So about the interview itself. My first piece of advice is to do everything in your power to conduct in person interviews . I want to write a book about earthworms, and it turns out that the two major earthworm experts, the United States lived only a couple of states apart in the in the Midwest. Now I didn't have a budget for a travel for this book, but I scraped together enough for a cheap flight. I rented a car, I stayed with friends and I did this little driving tour to get out and see those people in person. Those chapters were by far the best chapters in my book, so in person is better than video conference. Video conference is better than a phone call. Phone calls are better than email. An email is terrible. Please don't do email interviews. There's no opportunity in an email interview for back and forth. People tend to be kind of stilted and restrained in a way that they wouldn't be if they were just talking, but mostly with an email interview. When you send off a list of questions, you're just creating a chore for the person you're interviewing. Your interview is one more task in their inbox, and nobody wants that. So go talk to people. Meet them at their place of work. You'll be amazed what you learn. If you can actually spend time with a person and look him in the eye, you'll probably want to record your interview with your phone. Then there's lots of APS for this you've heard me talk about ever know to. You can even record directly into Evernote. Obviously, you want to make sure your phones fully charged. Point the microphone toward the person who's doing the talking and try to do the interview in a quiet space. If you're in a noisy restaurant or something like that, you could plug your headphones in and have them just use the microphone as a Laval ear and be sure to do a short test first so that you know everything's working. Ah, lot of people tell me they don't bother recording because the transcription would take so long. But there's a lot of transcription services and software out there, and they're really pretty affordable. But I do have an old school method that I really like. While the conversation is happening, I number a sheet of paper one through 31 for each minute at the top of each minute. I just make a quick note about what the person saying just a word or two is plenty. This also works great for phone interviews. These indexes are really easy to use, and I never have any trouble finding what I'm looking for in that audio recording. Finally, I want to point you to my favorite resource for learning how to do interviews, and this is something I learned from this American life. If you listen to the show, you'll hear them do this all the time, and here's what it iss when somebody is telling a story. You, as the interviewer can just flowed out a question about their state of mind or the their reaction to the events they're talking about, you might say Were you surprised that nobody had thought of that before or when you first met that guy? What did you make of them? Did he seem like a snake oil salesman to you? And they might well say no. They might say no. I wasn't surprised that nobody had thought of it because And then they'll go on and they'll tell you something amazing about that. Or they might say no. He didn't seem like a snake oil salesman. He seemed like a really solid guy. He actually reminded me of my dad. Those kind of responses air so great. And they happen because you just sort of float an idea out and make room for them to consider it and to answer. The thing is, people tend not to be real introspective around strangers. But if you take a moment to reflect and to put yourself in their shoes, even if you're wrong, they'll reflect as well. And also don't be afraid to ask dumb questions. Experts understand that you don't know their field very well. They're used to that. They really really want you to get it right. So I asked them to break it down for you. And don't hesitate to get back in touch later with follow up questions and to check on your fax to make sure that you explained what they do and explained their work accurately. Generally, they're very happy to review all that one more time and make sure you got it right. 7. Hiring Researchers: okay, I said I would talk about hiring expert help. Here's how I have done that over the years. Up work is, ah, online marketplace for freelancers. You post a job and people can a bit on it. Apply for it, or you can invite highly rated freelancers to apply. So, for instance, I've hired translators to give me word for word translations of documents, but also just to read over a book or an article and just tell me the gist of it. I've also hired researchers to go look at, for instance, the French or Italian version of these online newspaper databases, like newspapers dot com, to find historic information in other languages. You can narrow down your up work search by geographical region, and I have done that to find researchers who live near a particular library or archive and might be able to go look something up for me. I've also used Task Rabbit, which is a platform for hiring people to do all kinds of small jobs and errands, and I've used Task Rabbit to get people to go into county courthouses and things like that to request documents. This works when it's a task that doesn't require a particular research skill. You just need someone on the ground who can basically run an errand for you. Some archives and libraries will refer you to a list of researchers you can hire. For instance, the National Archives has a list like this, and I have used their list of independent researchers before. State genealogical societies are also a great resource for hiring professional genealogists who know how to get records in their state. Over the years, it's been well worth it for me to hire a researcher for a few $100 or even less, which saves me the travel expenses of going across the country and doing it myself. 8. Spotting Bad Information: I want to say a few things about how to spot bad information. You've really got to be a huge skeptic and always ask how it is that we know a particular fact, especially those things that are repeated over and over again, with no source ever attributed to them. You know, stories that sound too good to be true probably are if it involves a famous person. Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Cleopatra. It's almost certainly false in the booze world, there's the story about how Benjamin Franklin invented a recipe for Spruce Beer and okay, so Spruce Beer was popular at the time. But did the world's most famous inventor actually invented? I could find no evidence of that. Benjamin Franklin's writings air pretty well published and widely available. There's a Benjamin Franklin archive. If he published something on Spruce Beer, it was nowhere to be found. But finally I did turn something up. A little pamphlet published in the 19 fifties by Guess what? A reference librarian who worked in the archive about a few stray recipes that were found in one of Benjamin Franklin's notebooks. One of them was for spruce beer, but he hadn't invented the recipe. He never even claimed Teoh. He just copied it out of a cookbook the way anybody would who wanted to remember a recipe back before the days when you could just take out your smartphone and snap a picture of it . And guess who did write that recipe? Ah, woman who never got the credit, Of course, her name was Hannah Glass. The book was called The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy. And here's that recipe in the original 17 47 addition. See, this is the kind of research that I live for. When I was writing a book about earthworms, my editor called me up. One day. She was so excited she had read that Cleopatra once passed a law banning her subjects from ever harming an earthworm. Go ahead and Google it. You can find this out for yourself. It's right there on the Internet. What a great fact. She said she couldn't wait to use it in the publicity materials for this book, but the only problem? There's absolutely no evidence of it. I searched every authoritative biography of Cleopatra. I looked into the sources to find out what we actually have in the way of reliable, authoritative contemporary sources about Cleopatra. And I talked to the world's most respected Cleopatra expert, who is a professor at Oxford who just laughed and told me that all kinds of crazy things get attributed to Cleopatra. My editor was so disappointed, and she even wanted to know if we could included anyway and just say something like, Well, according to a legend. But according to a legend, what does that even mean? You mean just, like, totally made up? And that brings me to phrases like, according to legend. Or it was once believed. Or the ancient Romans thought, Be very suspicious of phrases like that. And remember, books are almost never fact checked. This is particularly true of books published by commercial publishers like Random House or even my publisher. Now the copy editor does check a few small things. So, like if I had said that Dallas was the capital of Texas, she probably would have caught that. But nobody gets down in the weeds and checks every single quote statistic. So when you rely on commercially published books, remember those air secondary sources. You got to be suspicious. You need to do your own research. Check your fax and double check them and always keep track of your sources. All right, one last thing. You've probably noticed that I have never once mentioned Wikipedia, and I haven't really talked about using the Internet except as a way to get access to real people in real books and real documents. I actually love Wikipedia. It's a great place to find out a bunch of things that might be true about the subject you researching. But it's your job to find out if they're actually true or not. And it's also your job to discover what it is that Wikipedia left out. After all, why would anybody want to read your book about a particular subject? Everything you're going to say about it is already on Wikipedia. In fact, I think the best use of Wikipedia is to find out what not to write about a particular subject, because everybody already knows it or they can find out with a few clicks. So check out Wikipedia, but then head out in the opposite direction because that's where the good stuff ISS 9. Final Thoughts : Okay, so I know this is a lot and I've barely scratched the surface. I have talked about the sources I use for the kind of research I dio, but that's just a fraction of what's out there. Still, I hope it's given you a place to start and a new way to think about your research. I hope that you'll go out and find new sources of your own and post a screenshot or a picture of the sources you're working within the project section and tell us a little bit about it. I'd love to see what you find and how it helps you in your research. Also, post your questions or comments in the discussion area, and I will definitely poppin Answer those And remember what I said about Evernote. It's a great way to keep track of all your research, and I've got a class here on skill share about Evernote, so check that out. I also teach a lot of other writing and our classes. Take a look at those and you can always find me on my website social media, all those things I would love to hear from you. So good luck with your research and stay in touch