Friday, 7 July 2017

Research methods - by Dawn Finch

In May I was interviewed by fellow author Anita Loughrey for Writer's Forum magazine about my research methods. I write non-fiction for young children, and also carry out research and fact-checking for other works. This interview is a closer look at my research methods for both fiction and non-fiction. I hope you find it useful.

What specific research have you undertaken for your books? e.g. species, dates, historical sites, ancient monuments, weapons, etc?
I prefer primary sources and so tend to visit sites, libraries and museums. Going straight to the most reliable sources is really the only way. I take almost all of the photos for my books and so visiting historical sites and important locations really brings it all to life for me. If can get a clearer view, my readers can too. I do like to get up close to real objects, and so talking to local museums and historical societies is great for that. Elgin Museum recently allowed me access to some of their objects and it really brings things to life.

When researching historical non-fiction what resources have you found most helpful? E.g. books, Internet, maps, libraries, photographs, museums, tourist office, experts, etc. Please give examples from your work to show how you have used these resources? 
I would say that the best resources are people. I use the internet to find books, libraries and people, but nothing beats being able to talk to an expert. I am a researcher and writer, not a historian or archaeologist. I rely a lot on the skills of people who have dedicated their lives to the study of these subjects. So far everyone I have contacted has been amazingly helpful, particularly the staff at Historic Scotland and Historic England.

Is there a pattern for the way you research?
The first thing I do is think about the audience for the material. I write for a number of different age groups but writing for secondary school children is completely different to writing for very young children who might still be tackling the mechanics of reading. I can’t really get started until I have a clear picture of the language level I am going for. I then write a rough chapter-plan for the book so that I can work out the journey through the book, and I think about how it will be used by children. I then go back to the national curriculum documents, and talk to teacher friends about what they need in the book so that I make absolutely sure the book doesn’t come up short in the classroom. After all of this is done that leaves me with a sort of wish-list for the manuscript. Then I start to gather sources and names of people to contact, and I build a file for each chapter with the kind of things that I want in the final book.

How do you organise the information you find?
For non-fiction I tend to create a different folder for each chapter on my computer for research material and notes, as well as a single master document for the main body of the text. I keep each chapter separately as this allows me to move the chapters around if the final manuscript requires that. I keep another document for glossary suggestions as there is no point in writing the glossary until the main body of the text is finished. I also keep yet another document for notes relating to the photographs and images. I always make sure that I rename the photos with chapter and brief description so that I don’t muddle things up or duplicate.

What research techniques (i.e. taking photos, recording thoughts audibly, note-taking, visiting location, reading books, surfing internet) do you find most useful? Please give examples on how you have used these techniques for your non-fiction books?
I think one of the most useful things I have is a waterproof notebook! Seriously, if you are going to do outdoor research, you have to have one – it’s a godsend! I always have notebooks on me, and I always have a camera. I am forever taking photographs of things like signs from sites so that I remember what the site officially says. My photo files are huge and I have many archive drives with them on. 

How do you decide what to use and cut out?
That entirely depends on the audience for the book. I’ve been mainly working for primary age children in the last few years and I have to think about their reading and comprehension levels at all times. I have to achieve some fairly high-level concepts like tribal disputes, settlement destruction, invasion, and ritual into language that a primary school child will understand. Sometimes things just have to be cut if they might cause confusion rather than support understanding. I have an amazing editor and she has always been spot on at helping me get the level just right. I couldn’t do it without her. I am not precious about my work, and I totally trust her and understand that sometimes my favourite bits might need to be cut to make the book better.

Please give an example from one of your books to demonstrate how you have used your research to add authenticity to your writing.
I’m not sure if it counts as authenticity, but I do love finding different ways of making comparisons that children will understand. For my latest book (Stone Circles) I spent an entire afternoon working out that the Cove Stones at Avebury in Wiltshire are as heavy as three London buses full of passengers. For Hill Forts I worked out that you could stand a giraffe inside a certain hill fort ditch and stand at the top and pat it on the head. Those bits are fun to write and research!

What is the most unusual piece of research you have done?
Oh, that’s a good question! I have done some very strange and interesting things over the years, and I think one of my favourites was having a backroom tour of the old sections of the Natural History Museum, including the empty library space. For my book on Hill Forts (to be pub Sept 2017) I climbed to the top of one the highest hill forts in the UK and spent a very windswept afternoon searching for Iron Age vitrified rock. I have also dangled headfirst in a Neolithic drain under Skara Brae, so maybe that one!

How does writing on location help you when writing your books?
I think that maybe because I also write fiction there is a part of me that seeks atmosphere as well as facts and information. I find that writing on location brings it all to life for me. It does also make practical sense as I might make changes to the text whilst on location and then need different images or references, and these can be done on site.

How does your research help you to make events beyond living memory relevant to the young children of today?
Ancient history is so far out of all of our reach that it is genuinely hard to grasp. Picturing what life was like thousands of years ago is beyond most of us. Many children think that prehistory is all furry underpants and clubbing woolly mammoths over the head. I try to find similarities to their own lives to show that even though life was different, the people weren’t. They were creative and imaginative and worked out ways to improve their lives just as we do today. I think that highlighting the similarities is a powerful way to get very small children to understand how relevant the past is to the present, and their own future.

What resources do you own, which you frequently return to when doing your research?
I have a large collection of history books, but the problem with working with prehistory is that those dazzling and brilliant archaeologists are out there finding out new things all the time. I never rely solely on what is in reference books and always make sure that I find someone who is out there working in the field to fact-check for me. I know that there is no such thing as an absolute certainty in most areas of history, and so I never rely on just books, I need a historian, archaeologist or librarian.

Outline a research tip that you think would be of interest to other writers wanting to write historical non-fiction? 
My best research tip is ask. Get out there and find the right people to ask for help. Never be arrogant about your own knowledge (or embarrassed by your lack of it) and always defer to the experts. Never try to do your research alone, and never rely solely on the internet. Even if this is your field, get things checked and double-checked. Social media is brilliant for making contacts and many of my best contacts have been found by me asking a question online and having some fabulous experts get back to me. The key to success in research is never assuming that you know all the answers, but being absolutely sure that you can locate where the right answers are.

Is there anything else about your research you would like to add?
Your research is your most valuable collection, and you really should take steps to protect that. Because I work in many different locations I make sure I have remote access to all of the material I’m currently working on, but I also have a collection of archive drives and memory sticks. Delete nothing, and back up everything. I know that people say that a lot, but as a researcher you never know when you will need something again. Remote access (Cloud, Dropbox etc) is incredibly useful, but it’s not 100% secure and so backing everything up onto a physical drive that can be carried around can be a lifesaver. Two of them, three of them - don't make excuses, make copies!

Dawn Finch is an author and librarian, and former president of CILIP - the UK Library Association. 
Her books on prehistoric Britain are used in almost every primary school in the UK. Her latest book on the hill forts of ancient Britain is due to be published by Raintree in Sept 2017.

A version of this interview first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Writer's Forum Magazine

1 comment:

Helen Larder said...

Thanks for this post. It's really interesting xx