Have a seat. We need to talk.
First things first, I’m a retired English teacher (for medical reasons… I’m not really that old). Moreover, I’m a retired college English instructor, hence the pennant, who taught research writing. (clears her throat) Now that I’ve established myself as a reasonable authority on the subject of research, let’s talk about doing research for your novel.
NOTE: If you’re a student looking for help honing your research skills, please go elsewhere. Run. This information is geared for authors of fiction, not student researchers.
Wait, what? Oh, what do I know about novel writing? I’m the author of seven novels, six Sci-Fi and one Contemporary Fantasy, so I have a little experience in that regard as well.
I didn’t say the above out of some sense of one-upmanship. I’m merely stating fact. I know what I’m talking about when I tell you about researching for your novel, meaning I employ many of the same tactics research writers use.
- Reputable sources (Sorry, but Wikipedia still isn’t that. It’s better than it once was, but it’s still not there. That said, looking at the sources used for the Wikipedia article is a great place to start your research.)
- Double check your sources against other information (if possible)
- Credit your sources (always)
No, this isn’t rocket science, and writing fiction does not equate to research writing. As an author, you’re going to look up lots of little things… Who makes 9mm handguns? Did a ‘55 Chevy have tailfins? How does dark matter work into wormhole theory? White dwarfs and earthlike planets. Oh yeah, I’ve looked up all of those, and I didn’t cite any of them because they can be filed under the general knowledge for fiction writing category. Yes, even the wormhole-dark matter issue.
General or common knowledge, info that a lot of people know, and is very easy to find online, doesn’t need to be cited for your fiction work because it’s not plagiarism. I use a thirty-second rule. If I can find my answer online in thirty seconds via Google on numerous sites, it’s probably common knowledge for an author*. Now, if you quote someone’s dark matter theory, yep, that’s an issue. Please cite them. (Caution: copyright might be a problem. Do your research into such laws before you proceed.) But general wormhole theory (available from hundreds of sources) written in your own words qualifies as general or common knowledge. My personal list of common knowledge information includes brief, one-two word, Spanish translation, names of mountains near me in Appalachia, when three-in-the-tree transmissions were popular… I could go on, but I won’t since this is a blog post.
So what sort of research should an author give credit to? Anything not in the public domain that you’ve quoted or paraphrased for starters (check copyright law before you use it at all). This applies to song lyrics, poetry, and other fiction. If in doubt, check! I would also add that you should probably cite (meaning place in your acknowledgments if you’re writing fiction) any source where you obtained rather obscure information. What qualifies as obscure info? The name of a medieval peasant dish that’s unique to Iceland, the process for Chinese foot binding during a particular time period, technical aspects of a surgical procedure (unless you’re a physician who does such surgery, then it’s your common knowledge). Why should you give credit for such things? Obscurity. They’re not easy to research on your own, and you’re using someone else’s research to your advantage. If you think you should cite, do so. If not, check with someone else, someone who knows what they’re talking about, before you make a decision.
I’ve given credit where credit is due for the following:
- words in the Tsalagi (Cherokee) language
- Appalachian mountain folk magic beyond my own scope of knowledge (I’m Appalachian so I have some knowledge there, but not what I needed)
- the use of mineral-based dyes by the Tsalagi in the Bumpass Cove region of Northeast Tennessee.
The Tsalagi wordage came from two great online sources. The folk magic comes from two local practitioners, and the mineral-based dyes info came from a graduate thesis about the Bumpass Cove area. I credited all the sources, among others, in my acknowledgments.**
Additionally, if you have a lot of knowledge about a particular subject or set of traditions you’ve used in your novel, take the time to establish yourself as an authority in a note at the beginning of your work. These are commonly called Author Notes (or A Note from the Author).** Will everyone read your notes? No, of course not, but some will, especially if they want to know where you obtained your information.
But then again, I’m one of those nerdy types who often reads the author notes just so I know ahead of time.
I establish myself as knowledgeable on several topics in my author notes for my newest release, Cleaning House.
- Appalachian native and current resident: (you should be from here to write about here correctly, IMO) This is called Own Voices fiction. #ownvoices
- Queer Appalachian: also, #ownvoices
- Appalachian resident versed in both pagan and Christian traditions: yep, #ownvoices
- Northeast Tennessee resident writing about Washington County: (sips from her Pal’s tea and smiles) You got it, #ownvoices
In short: I’m a queer Appalachian from Northeast Tennessee writing about a queer Appalachian from northeast Tennessee.
And, yep, I’m writing Fantasy too. More to the point, I’m writing Contemporary Fantasy built on my known. And, yes, I did research to make things historically and scientifically accurate, even though Cleaning House is a Fantasy novel set where I live.
Here’s a fresh nod to those who helped me with Cleaning House.
- Ian Allan, Mountain Witch, provided the information concerning snake bones and their power that I used in Chapter Thirty-Four, the tradition of blackbirds foretelling death that can be found in Chapter Thirty-Seven, and the information concerning what I call witch-nailing which appears in Chapters Thirty through Thirty-Four. All this information derives from Ian’s workshop “Introduction to Appalachian Granny Magic” and the provided handout. Readers can find out more about Ian Allen, Mountain Witch, via the following source: https://www.facebook.com/AppalachianWitchery
- Anne G’Fellers-Mason, my sister, historian, and the Special Projects Coordinator for The Heritage Alliance, for her contributions concerning the Civil War era in Northeast Tennessee. Readers can find out more about The Heritage Alliance via the following source: http://www.heritageall.org (Anne has a YA novel coming out later this year, just saying.)
- Jake Richards (Dr. Henny), Conjure Doctor of Jonesborough, Tennessee, provided information concerning rolling stones for answers (a Tsalagi tradition) as used in Chapter Thirteen and dividing herb bundles and placing them in the water to see if they’ll be effective as used in Chapter Thirty-Two. Readers can find out more about Jake Richards (Dr. Henny), Conjure Doctor of Jonesborough, Tennessee, through his blog: Holy Stones and Iron Bones. https://littlechicagoconjure13.wordpress.com (Dr. Henny has a book on Appalachia folk magic traditions coming out soon.)
- Information concerning the Cherokee presence around Embreeville Mountain and their use of mineral deposits derive from “A Historical Overview of the Bumpass Cove Landfill Controversy, 1972-2002” by Robert Clinton Marsh III available at: https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1848&context=etd
Thanks, Ian, Anne, and Jake, for your vast knowledge, and an appreciative nod to Clinton Marsh III for his hard work and to East Tennessee State University for giving public access to such valuable information via its Digital Commons.
This is but the first novel in the Appalachian Elementals series, so I’ll probably be referring to your wisdom again.
I also cite two good resources for information on the Cherokee language:
So how does any of this apply to you as a fiction writer?
- Cite the obscure unless it’s your obscure
- Give credit where it’s due
- Say thanks to your sources, especially if you ever want to use them again
- Place your credits in acknowledgments and/ or your author’s note page because footnotes and formal citations in fiction look messy (and plays havoc on ebook formatting, I’m certain, but neither have I tried). Surely, there is a standardized method for this somewhere, but if there is, I’ve yet to find one that works across ebook formats.
Simple enough, isn’t it? It is if you keep notes as you write, so you’ll know who to thank for what when you write those acknowledgments.
*Use common sense with the thirty-second rule, and use it at your own peril. Don’t quote or paraphrase. And above all, if in doubt, ask and/ or cite it.
** Some authors place their notes and acknowledgments at the back of their work, but I consider that more of an oh, yeah, afterthought, because I legally must, recognition at best. Put it in the front. Show that you did proper research and give a nod to those who helped you along the way.