The Best Research

In the previous post I covered some guidelines for researching on the web. In my own experience, the internet is broad but it is not deep. That’s fine if you merely need to establish a point here and there—e.g., a silk dress 100 years ago was likely worn by a rich woman. Yet if you are trying to present facts that are truly eye-opening, you need sources that go beyond what is commonly known. 

The first step in that direction comes from the back of a book. Within that term I’ll include the footnotes along with the bibliography, since many times they are aggregated in an endnotes section. A book you research in the early days likely is an overview of a topic. By now you probably already have initial probes in your notes that indicate what you really want to learn more about. The back matter of a general book will break down the categories covered into subsets. Professors rarely write broad books: they pick some aspect for which they can show more diligence than other professors. They’re in their own race to the top, and you are the beneficiary.

Let’s suppose that you want to study 19th-century New York City theater. If you merely want to know technical aspects of what happened backstage, it’s possible that a book on a theater in Philadelphia is worth exploring. The guys who built that theater drew on British models, just like their confrères 100 miles northeast. Likewise, any book on theater gaslights will suffice. That’s because the specifics of one bygone theater you have settled on as a setting may be lost in the sands of time.

The problem you may run into on a broader topic—let’s say, how a lower-class worker fared during the city’s rapid expansion up Manhattan island—stems from a lack of discernment in terms of the author’s discipline. A sociology professor will write a different book than a women’s studies professor. What is really right for the characters you are considering? Then too, many books on a topic, such as policing during that era, may focus more on the growing organizational apparatus of the police force rather than: how did a detective pre–Sherlock Holmes solve a murder? That’s because the author can access data recorded by the long-ago organization’s officials.

You may be better off searching the footnotes for memoirs and magazines written at the time. Sure, you have to forge through the archaic language. Yet such accounts reveal more of how life was experienced at the street level. Just in their casual observations you may find a wealth of interesting details that would never be included in a top-down study. And, because memoirs are just on the other side of the nonfiction line, you may find that novels are the richest source of all. You want to know how thieves operated in that century? Try Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man. Mind you, I’m not advocating plagiarism, but a detail from a paddle wheel can be put into your own words. 

“The knives of jealousy are honed on details.” —Ruth Rendell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.