Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Five years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. I really love this series because I get a chance to share the writerly words of some of my writerly friends like Deborah Amadei.
How to Start Your Non-Fiction Research
By Deborah Amadei
Are you a writer doing historical research for the first time? How should you start? Let’s say your topic is George Washington. You can get a general idea by reading an encyclopedia article but only as a jumping off point.
In this hypothetical case, I want to write something about George Washington’s contributions towards United States government.
My first step would be to visit my local library and check out books on George Washington and the era in which he lived.
Here’s a couple of books I would check out: Washington: the Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner because I know he is well regarded as an historian. Another title I would choose is: George Washington, the Writer, a Treasury of Letters, Diaries and Public Documents, compiled by Carolyn Yoder.
But I would need to use primary sources: documents written by him and his contemporaries. It could be newspaper articles and government documents. The writer needs to search primary sources for details that help the reader connect with the subject.
One source I recommend is the American Memory Collection from the Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/browse/
This link will take you to a page where you can select Presidents only and then to the collection for George Washington’s papers. Diaries give the reader a window into their subject’s thoughts and George Washington was a dedicated diarist.
I went to this link: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html
I chose to browse the collection and typed this phrase in the dialogue box: “exercised with Mrs. Washington in the post chaise.”
I selected this item and bookmarked it in Google chrome: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mgw:1:./temp/~ammem_qGzu::
What’s interesting about this? I learned how George Washington exercised.
He and Martha rode in a post chaise, which according to Bing dictionary is: “A horse-drawn carriage: a closed horse-drawn carriage with four wheels that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a fast means of transporting mail and passengers.”
Other forms of exercise for him were horseback riding and walking around the Battery (At the time, his official residence was in New York City.
And if I wanted to get a photocopy of a printed edition of a diary I could. The Diaries of George Washington (in six volumes) are available at some public libraries.
Deborah Amadei’s research experience comes from her 25 years as a librarian. She writers picture books (both fiction and non fiction) and is currently working on a middle grade novel. Visit her at www.deborahamadei.com