#5onFri: Five Hands-On Research Techniques for Spot-On Writing

by Ann McCallum Staats
published in Writing

They say, “write what you know.” But I’ve written a few books, and mostly that wasn’t the case. At all. Even after the release of Thrill Seekers: 15 Remarkable Women in Extreme Sports, I still have never gone wingsuit flying. I haven’t surfed, or climbed Mount Everest, or been in a dogsled race. I have certainly never dived inside an Antarctic iceberg the size of Jamaica. I wrote about women who have done these things, but their exploits are about as foreign as it gets for me. Similarly, for my other books, I didn’t start off as an expert in science, or women in the military, or even U.S. history—I grew up in Canada, so any exposure to American history was as an adult. As you can see, I’m usually not writing from a place of familiarity. It’s hands-on research that taught me what I needed to know.

I’ve met and become friends with lots of writers over the years. If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that we’re curious. I believe it’s curiosity, that insatiable desire to explore and push boundaries, that leads many of us to spend hours, months, and even years sitting behind a computer or scratching out a story with pen and paper. Certainly this is true for non-fiction authors. I believe it’s true for fiction writers, too. The topic of this piece is hands-on writing with a focus on non-fiction. How can you write about something you know little about while staying authentic and not ending up with something that sounds like a Wikipedia article?

Writing for me starts as a whisper. There is a tiny waft of interest that floats like a dandelion’s parachute seed into my consciousness. If it’s a good idea, it stays entrenched, and soon tugs and pulls and prods me into finding out more. If I’m truly interested and want to pursue it further, I’ll start some hands-on research. This ‘head writing,’ the initial phase of writing, comes far in advance of any actual composition. It’s time for me to get to know what I’ll write.

Research Tip #1: Talk to People

I can claim to be an expert on, well, not much. But for every topic under the sun, with nearly eight billion people on our beautiful planet, there are plenty out there who do have the relevant expertise. Lately I’ve been writing biographies. Obviously, with a story about a specific person, the best source is that person. My job, then, is to tease out a story from the subject’s rambling thoughts. I don’t usually start with the interview, however. My thoughts—and theirs—are too disjointed. Whenever I’m writing about someone’s life, I begin by finding out what I can from books and online sources. I take notes and even go so far as to write a rough outline. That way, when I finally do talk to the person, I know what I want to ask. I already have threads that seem interesting. I pinpoint my questions for my hands-on research to learn about and expand these threads, thus creating a viable and engaging story.

Research Tip #2: Find out the “Why”

To understand a topic, it’s valuable to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Or, if you’re writing about extreme sports, you can climb, run, or parachute in someone else’s figurative shoes. For example, I interviewed nearly two dozen people for Thrill Seekers. One theme that kept coming up over and over was that, hands-down, these women were fervently invested in their sport. They lived, breathed, and adored what they were doing. But why? There was often little if any tangible reward. Despite the challenge and even danger of the sport, the women remained deeply rooted in their passion. I spoke with one person who quit her 6-figure job to pursue professional skydiving. I interviewed someone who relocated to Europe with little money and just her sports equipment in her suitcase. And let’s not forget the grit and sacrifice it takes to exercise your body into becoming a top athlete. I found out the “why.” In pursuing these outside-the-line activities, pushing themselves to greater and greater challenges, each had found a beautiful appreciation of what it means to be human.

Research Tip #3: Try it Yourself

I’m not and never have been a super athlete. With my exercise videos, walks, and occasional runs measured at a slightly more than snail’s pace, let’s give me the benefit of the doubt and say I’m average. So what is the allure of extreme sports? When I was lucky enough to sign up for a scuba lesson at a local resort, I had no idea how scary it was going to be to sit 5 feet underwater and breathe through a mouthpiece. It felt wrong. It wasn’t logical. But then when it was okay, I walked into the ocean and witnessed the flight of a stingray firsthand. Then I felt the adrenaline rush of the racetrack, a noisy, high-octane affair in Richmond, Virginia. The ride-along in a Formula race car was exciting, enlightening, and made me feel alive. The pinnacle of my hands-on research was tandem skydiving, a total rush that awakened my senses and gave me an inkling into what propels my subjects into such a life. Maybe now I could start to write from experience—at least a little.  

Research Tip #4: Check for a Different Perspective

When I was sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool in scuba gear, I looked up and I wasn’t drowning. It was a bizarre and novel experience to breathe underwater, as different a perspective as humanly possible. Similarly, when studying history or learning about extreme sports, hands-on research that includes diverse viewpoints is crucial. If it’s people I’m writing about, I try to solicit a broad assortment of backgrounds and viewpoints. If it’s a topic area, I’m careful to read widely and to incorporate a variety of outlooks to avoid bias. When I’m including facts, I check multiple sources—at least three—to verify the accuracy. When gleaning information from the web, it’s easy to find mistakes in articles and other sources. Wherever possible, I look for reputable sources to confirm information.

Research Tip #5: Get Organized

It’s fun to learn and discover but easy to get overwhelmed. Without some sort of organizational process, pieces of insight gather together into a tangled mess, sort of like how I recently packed away the Christmas lights. But moving on. Organization really is a key component of getting from A—excellent but untried idea—to B—cohesive writing project. Of course, depending on the size of the project, there are steps C through Z as well … When I begin a project, I buy spiral notebooks for my note taking. I prefer the feeling of pen on paper for this initial step. I read books, either from the library or purchased, and I comb the internet. While the web is limited, I find that videos are often extremely helpful, especially when I’m writing about real people and want to know what they’re like. I also reserve a couple of pages in my notebook for a timeline. Having a chronological record of important events helps frame the hands-on research. Once I have several pages of notes, I go over them and highlight pieces that are especially relevant. Then I come up with my inciting incident, that first anecdote or discussion that I hope will hook the reader as strongly as it hooked me. I prepare a brief outline and then dive in.

Finding out something new is, to me, a privilege and a pleasure. In the end, I do end up writing what I know more about—but only after the process of hands-on learning.

A high school English as a Second Language teacher by day, Ann has eight traditionally published books—she recently signed a contract for a ninth. While she is represented by James McGowan at BookEnds Literary, for many years she worked without an agent. She learned the craft through dogged determination and believes strongly in the concept of community. Her critique group is integral to her success. Today, reading, writing, and exploring are Ann’s hobbies. She is intensely curious and looks for the goodness around her. Here is some video buzz about her newest book. 

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