Saturday, May 28, 2011

Research: When It's Time to Dig In

We've all seen them. Those legal thrillers or crime shows where the hero just can't find the one single detail that ties everything all together. And then they go to the library, sit down at a public computer, open up a search engine and, after a few quick keystrokes, find the answer that leads them to the villain, the secret lair, the unknown weakness and the pot-o-gold at the end of the rainbow. But research is rarely that easy.

I just finished the first draft for personal essay/memoir kind of thing. Although it's mostly based on things that happened to me, there are a couple of fine details I want to research and nail down before I even think about sending this thing out. One of them being the date of a concert I went to in the mid 1990's. I know the year. And it was snowing that night, so I know it was sometime between November and March. But beyond that I really don't remember.

So I spent a couple of hours digging through the electronic databases at work, accessing The Washington Post as well as some more local papers, looking for any mention of the specific concert tour. It wasn't a major stadium tour, but at the 9:30 Club in D.C. Not the current super-warehouse space, but the old, dingy bar near the Metro Center metro stop (oh how I miss that dirty place). I couldn’t find anything, so it became apparent that it wasn't a show Mark Jenkins or one of the other critics reviewed. But I thought I'd still find it listed in an events guide in old weekend sections or something. But the databases don't seem to capture any of that stuff----just the actual articles. In the end, I think I'll have to trek out to the one library in my library system that still has old issues of The Washington Post on microfiche, and go through the weekend sections week-by-week until I find what I need.

I was at writing conference once and heard Karey Joy Fowler talk about her process and how one of the greatest tools for her in writing historical fiction is going through the advertisements and personal ads to get a sense of the language, what people bought, ate and did for fun. Details like that are still getting left out with most of our digital tools. It just points out to me some of the limitations of using digital sources for research. They can be a wonderful time saver if they have what you want, but for those pieces that are a little more esoteric----and those are often the pieces that are the most fun-----you still have to get your hands dirty flipping through physical newspapers, magazines and microfiche.


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