Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Research for Writers Level Three: Books

Okay, so for level three, we're going to cover books. That post title should really say: Books, Librarians, and Libraries, but that's too damn long.

Like yesterday's post about websites and the internet, using books to do research for writing novels is an incredibly broad subject, one that is almost impossible to cover without getting incredibly specific.

Before I go into my own specific example I just want to cover, for a moment, how to find books on the topic you need. Obviously you can use Wikipedia, as we covered on Monday. The References listed at the bottom of most articles usually point to some excellent books about the subject. You can also search Amazon.com or B&N, or even Google, just looking for a specific title. Google used to even have a great tool for shopping, called Froogle, but it looks like they've changed it to just a tab across the top called shopping now. Anyway, there are countless ways to find books on a specific topic, but far and away the very best is to go to your local library, and talk to your librarian.

Librarians are Masters of Books. They've spent their whole career gaining and maintaining knowledge about books, research, reading, and even sometimes, writing. If you have never talked to a Librarian about research for writing I highly suggest you do so as soon as possible. There is no better method, no better technique, no better experience in existence. You absolutely cannot compare the value of human ingenuity, especially when someone has spent most of their life mastering a craft, even when compared to the power of something like Google.

If, like me, you live in a small town, still go to your local library. The Librarian there will usually happily point you to a bigger library if necessary, and even if they don't stock the books you need, they can still help you find out that the books exist. Which is a start.

If, like I used to, you live near a big city, I highly suggest that you visit the main downtown library. There is nothing quite like the main library in a large city. You may not be able to track down the head librarian, but almost every librarian in places like those is a genius.

So, now that my library rant is over, let's cover my specific example.

WARRIOR-MONKS contains a scene in which the characters take part in the forging of a steel sword. To be more precise it's a traditional Japanese Katana, but when researching how to write this scene I wanted to cover the art of blacksmithing in general as much as I could.

Hands down the very best book I found on the topic was The Craft of the Japanese Sword, by Leon Kapp, Hiroko Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara. I actually heard of this book in the acknowledgements of a novel I read, so that goes against my points above, I suppose, but it doesn't really matter.

It was the only research book I bought to keep, but I checked out several other books on smithing, sword-crafting, metallurgy, and other topics that seems related, like polishing steel, scabbard making, hilt making, armor, and so on.

Here is a list of several other books I looked at. I did not necessarily check all these out, and it was a while ago now, so I don't remember for sure which ones I used the most, but each of these books deserves a look, especially if you are interested in swords or blacksmithing:


I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point. The blacksmithing scene was by far the one that required the most research, but there were several other things I had to learn more about to write my novel. About half of the books listed above were suggested to me by my librarian, the other half were found by plugging the names of the books she showed me into Amazon, and letting it suggest similar titles.

I didn't necessarily have to read every single one of these books. Many weren't available, but by getting a look at the first few pages, the cover art, and the title, I was able to tell with decent accuracy how much help a particular book would be.

Questions? Thoughts? Have you ever rocked your nerd card this hard and went so deep with research on a topic that you had fun with it? Lost your mind? Gave up on the scene?

Don't forget to come back tomorrow for level four.

32 comments:

D U Okonkwo said...

Getting good research is invaluable. At the very best it can give you sub-plots that you can add to your story that you wouldn't have originally thought of.

I like to buy books off Ebay. If you're writing about a specialist subject those books can be very expensive. I combat this by buying books on Ebay. That way I can highlight, fold, and write all over it without damaging a library's copy.

Laura Pauling said...

I love amazon for finding books for research. After finding one title, they'll give a bunch of others like it. Sometimes I can then buy them used, pretty cheap, or through interlibrary loan.

Sarah W said...

You absolutely cannot compare the value of human ingenuity, especially when someone has spent most of their life mastering a craft, even when compared to the power of something like Google.

Okay, if I wasn't a fan before . . .

Jess said...

I could go on and on, but I'll keep this comment short: yes, I have rocked my nerd card in this department :)

Bish Denham said...

Librarians are the best. Our world would be a sorry place indeed without them. And yes, I am a card carrying member.

Tracy said...

I haven't rocked my nerd card with swordsmanship or anything, but I did a ton of research about the Irish country side. In truth it was for a very small part of the story, but I wanted to make sure I had all the locations correct. And to add more challenge to it, these had to be locations that existed 500 years ago. So yeah, I've nerded out.

Um, when are we going to get non-pink Matthew back? I mean don't get me wrong, I totes understand why you did it (I'd have to not be on the internet to be clueless as to why everyone is sporting pink hair) and I think it's awesome...but your pic with the pink hair, freaks me out a little bit. :O

Anne said...

I had to research blacksmithing as well. I LOVE weapon history. I was fortunate that at the time of my first draft, the history channel was running marathons of swordplay and knight battles. It certainly kept me motivated.

Can I just say that I can't wait to read your novel! It sounds really good.

Kristine Asselin said...

I use WorldCat.org to research books I want to use, then my local library to find them locally. It's a great way to browse the shelves in your slippers. :) Great post!

Hannah Kincade said...

you don't have to tell me! LOL! I have so so many boks I use for research. The joys of working in a bookstore and also, half priced books and other used bookstores have fantastic collections and reference books.

Katie Mills said...

When I wrote my first book, it was a historical and so yes, I spent a lot of time researching how you'd get from point A to point B in 19th century england, etc...and as interesting as it was, I found it wasted a lot of precious writing time. So I developed a new method. I write out my ass. I don't know something is done? I make it up as I go along- whatever sounds plausible. I can always research the details later and find out if I'm completely off the mark. This works for me because otherwise I tend to be too detailed when what I really needed was an overall. My new method keeps me and the reader focused on whats happening and just kind of grazing over those kinds of details.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post, Matt. :D

I love the library for research. My current WIP partly deals with Latin Dance. Thanks to the library, I was able to get books and DVDs on the topic. I also got part of the plot idea while at the library. I was looking for kids' magazines to illustrate a point I wanted to make in a workshop I was conducting in my son's fourth grade class last year. I flipped through an issue of Kid's Sports Illustrated and wham, I had an idea for a new YA contemporary novel.

Did I mention I love the library? :D

Carolyn Abiad said...

Books are probably my favorite research tool. Google gives us great snippets and academic research, but a book takes it that extra step. I love finding specialized titles on special at Borders. Expert advice for $3.99 is ridiculous!

Carolyn Abiad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Haha, nerd card! I will admit that libraries are not my favorite place to go because I became a disgruntled college student with way too many papers to even count. But, with time that has dissipated some. I have had to rock out action scenes. More specifically I had to learn free running/parkour and I had no way to learn it physically so I had to interview, read, and youtube it thousands of times for instructionals and I think by the end of my WiP I will owe a few free runners a dedication. I also had to research how to throw a ninja star, and youtube helped with that as well, so yeah I rock the nerd card quite often...just not as much as I should in a library.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Man, I could get so lost in research if I let myself. Once I find a topic I love or a topic that's going to make my books stronger, I want to know it inside and out and become an expert. But there's only so much time. So knowing where to look (and how to research) to find exactly what you need is invaluable. Librarians are a great resource, and mine has helped me on a number of occasions. There's this one site, and for the life of me I can't even remember how to access it now or what it's called, but I've used it a number of times, but basically, it lets you look up books and then read excerpts to see if it's really what you need. OMG, I can't believe I've blanked. If I remember (which I better because I'll use this again), I'll come back to you.

Melissa said...

These are EXCELLENT tips to find the books you need. Thank you so much for this post.

Jessica Bell said...

If only I had a library!

maine character said...

Librarians are wizards of words.

And hey, right now I'm reading Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai, by Dave Lowry.

Nothing like having a book in your hands, but Google Books is also good for perusing what's out there. Often you can read more of a book there than on Amazon.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

completely OT - did you change the name you publish yoru blog under? My reader says you're not MacNish. Is this a recent change or did i just miss it?

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

sigh. *your*

Charlie Pulsipher said...

I rock my nerd card for things that have nothing to do with my book. Sometimes I just like learning crazy things for the sake of learning them...like I have weird survivalist stuff in my brain along with all sorts of ant related trivia, theoretical physics, and interior design. Yep. Nerd card is highly used.

Jared Larson said...

Sounds like we've gone through the same type of process. From Wikipedia to Librarians. And yes... Google rocks. Thanks for these posts Matt. Great job.

Sommer Leigh said...

I love libraries and librarians for research, but if I know I'm going to need a book long term or if I know I'm going to have to fill it with post-it notes, I love used book stores for random, old, out of print research books. Most owners of used book stores are as knowledgable as librarians too (in my case, my favorite used book store is owned by a retired librarian. Score!)

I have also gotten into the habit of buying books I think would be handy in the future. For example, a few years ago I found this book on unusual inventions and was like 80 years out of print. I bought it because it had a cool cover and I thought "Yay, weird, useless trivia!" Then late last year I decided my next novel was going to be a steampunk fantasy. That book has been a godsend. Who knew?

Suzie F. said...

Well, Mr. MacNish (sorry. I couldn't resist using your last name since I noticed you changed your username from just Matt), I haven't had to do any book research with my current WiP yet, however I rock my nerd card every week anyway.

I've adored my library since I was a little girl. It's like a second home. My librarians are fantastic and so helpful. My best writing is done at a big table on the second floor of the archive room :)

M Pax said...

Oh yes. I love research. Most of it never really comes onto the page, other than you seem to know what you're talking about.

Professors are great resources, too. I emailed several who were a great help.

I purposely work at an observatory for access to astrophysicists.

Lydia K said...

It's so easy to get lost in research. It's fun, after all. Everything I write seems to need some research here and there. It never ends.

Hey, did you change your name? Coming out from behind the curtain of anonymity, perhaps?

I thought some other Matthew stole your Yoda avatar or something.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips. Google allows you to preview many of its books listed and I found this helpful to decide what I needed. Our library has an interlibrary loan with other state libraries so that helps for finding books. But like you, I had to buy a book for one of my areas of research. This is a great topic. Thanks for thinking of it.

Old Kitty said...

There are other levels after BOOKS?!?!?! :-)

I can't wait!!!!!!! Take care
x

LTM said...

one of my BFs is a librarian, and I can tell you, you just made the day of librarians everywhere. Possibly the year. :D

good stuff, but I'm so LAZY... I'm sure it's all those years working in news. Nerd. ;p

Matthew MacNish said...

Librarians rule. Enough said.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Are movies involved at any point?
I also researched directly through real people. In case you were worried that I locked myself in a room for a science fiction movies marathon.

Emilia Plater said...

I actually decided not to write a book a few months ago because I didn't think I could handle the researched. You, my friend, are much more courageous than me! <333 Great post! :D