Friday, May 16, 2014

Making the Most of a Research Trip

by Jennifer Lamont Leo

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, chances are you will benefit from an in-person research trip at some point. Recently I found myself in Chicago with a day dedicated to research on my current novel-in-progress. My primary goals were to find out:

*What was it like to work in a certain factory during World War II? One of my characters has a defense job in a certain factory that no longer exists, but I found out where the archives are kept and made an appointment to see them. That visit yielded such fabulous finds as employee manuals, newspaper articles, and company literature from the years my character worked there. Along the way, I was able to see what the surrounding neighborhood was like, although it took some imagination to picture it the way it looked seventy years ago. A side trip to the local public library helped in that regard.

*What exactly happened when the Eastland sank? Another of my characters experiences the sinking of the Eastland excursion boat in the Chicago River. I was able to visit an exhibit of Eastland artifacts and interview an expert who is writing a nonfiction book about the disaster.

I came home from my trip with stacks of information, some to incorporate into my novel and some to file for future reference.

Here are some tips on how to make the most of a research trip:

(1) Know what you're looking for. The amount and type of research you're able to do on a research trip will vary, depending on where you are in the project. At the beginning of a project, you may be looking for general story or character ideas, or just getting a feel for the place and time period. If you're well into the writing, as I am, you may have some very specific questions that need answering. Before your trip, think through what you want to learn and set some research goals, right down to a list of questions to jog your memory. Be as well-prepared as possible, but also expect to be enticed down a few "rabbit trails" you didn't anticipate ahead of time. That's part of the fun of on-site research!

(2) Plan ahead. When you have some idea of what you want to learn, do an Internet search to discover the places most likely to have the information you want. For my Chicago-based research, my options included the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago Public Library, the Newberry Library, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, and scads of smaller museums, historical societies, libraries, and special collections. It was, of course, impossible to visit them all on a single trip, so I used the Internet to prioritize and zero in on my top destinations.

Once I'd decided where to go, I looked up practical details like maps, directions, train schedules, parking availability, etc., and roughed out a schedule, saving myself a lot of time and headaches later. Also make sure you have all the supplies and equipment you'll need, from a simple notebook and pen to a voice recorder, laptop, camera, or handheld scanner. For me, simpler is better when it comes to equipment, but think through what you need to do your best work and make sure it's charged up and ready to go.

(3) Make appointments. When your time in a given locale is limited, don't leave arrangements to chance. By making an appointment you're more likely to get the staff's focused, undivided attention during your visit. Archives, libraries, and museums may be open irregular hours, especially smaller ones run by a volunteer staff. Or if you learn that three busloads of field-tripping second-graders are scheduled to descend on the gallery on the morning of your visit, you may choose to reschedule at a quieter time.

(4) Observe the rules. Some museums, libraries, and archives forbid the taking of photographs or scans, or request you wear gloves while handling old documents, or insist on bringing specific materials to you instead of allowing you to roam the stacks at will. Be a gracious guest and observe the rules. In my experience, when you treat research staff with respect and courtesy, they are more likely to go the extra mile to help you, or to bend a rule or two to accommodate you.

(5) Roll with the punches. When I went to visit the spot where the Eastland turned over in the Chicago River, I found the entire area fenced off and under construction while the city builds a new pedestrian walkway along the wharf. While disappointed to not have access to the exact spot I wanted to see, I can look forward to seeing it from an attractive walking path on a future trip.

(6) Have fun! While it can seem like a lot of work, doing on-site research is like a treasure hunt. Who knows what gems you'll come across in your travels? A bit of preparation can make the whole trip even more rewarding and worthwhile than you'd anticipated.


Jennifer Rova said...

Once again, you teach us how to do research in simple, clearly understood language. I appreciate having this check list in my files for future use.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Researching is so much fun! Your post has inspired me. I need a new topic!