Here’s five approaches to research that worked for me.
1. Choose a research subject that you’re fascinated in — not just something you think would make a good story subject. I’ve been interested in Detroit ever since a brief visit in ‘94, but despite it only being 4 hours away I’d never visited again. Writing a book set there was a great way to spend some focused time learning about the place. Even if I decided not to write the book it would have been time well spent.
2. Talk to people. Let everyone know what you’re researching. Talk to experts & enthusiasts alike. On the phone or in person — email interviews are just work for people. Be social, have some fun, meet some characters and see how far a conversation with a stranger can go.
3. Go places. There’s a million details that even a gorgeous photo won’t expose you to. Get a list of places of interest you’d like to visit and maybe go with one of the strangers from #2. Research as adventure! Shannon and I went to Detroit twice for a few days — she got tons of photo refs, and I got lots of story and character ideas.
4. Niche websites and blogs are good starting places. Especially when they can connect you with people and new places to go. For me it was a good starting point for cultural touchstones like scrappers, 8 Mile, political corruption.
5. Read some books in a style you enjoy. Long form non-fiction generally makes me glaze over (which allows me to daydream about the subject at hand, so admittedly still useful) so I went with some more entertainingly written books. While a bit sensational, Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit by Zev Chafets was a compelling read and gave me some ideas about the racial dynamics that are still relevant today, 20 years after it was written.
Final thoughts: in excess, research can be a procrastination method with diminishing returns. But for someone like me, who is more on the make-it-up-as-you-go school, it’s helped bring a richness in ideas and specificity in detail to my recent work — and has been enjoyable to boot.
This is good advice for any researcher with special emphasis on number one.