Doing Book Research Without Breaking the Bank

If you're planning to embark on a career as a writer, there's something you need to know: When it comes to research, you'll be paying your own way. Authors are faced with many economic challenges, but one of the hardest is that they often have to use their own cash to get the wheels spinning.

It's a rare event indeed that the average author has that elusive advance money up front to spend on research. As a beginning writer, you'll generally have to pull together everything you can to figure out how to make your story work.

But there's another little secret that no one but you needs to know: You don't have to spend anything if you don't want to.

Sinking Your Book. . .Or Keeping It Afloat

Research is the iceberg of writing a book. You can spend hours, weeks or months learning about the most esoteric subject, and all that will culminate in a single line in the story. Or you can throw yourself into a world you're not familiar with, and use the gathered fragments to build your new realm.

Thankfully, we have new tools that help defray the economics -- Google especially. But there's no substitute for actually walking the streets your characters walk.

I've done both hands-on and online research, focusing on law enforcement. My main character is a homicide detective. When I first started writing, the closest I'd ever been to the police was a speeding ticket. I probably could have spent a ton of money learning what it took to be a cop, but I didn't have that money to spend.

Instead, I made a call to my local homicide office, introduced myself, and started a series of ride-alongs. All it cost me was a couple of dinners and a cigar or two, and I made contacts who are now friends and invaluable to my research.

On the Road. . .or on the Phone?

I set my novels in Nashville and, although I live in the city, I'm constantly trying out my scenes to make sure that all those little details that make the story ring true are absolutely correct. I drive down the roads my characters use to make sure they look right, check that stores and restaurants are still open and that the trees mentioned are still standing after a storm. For little more than a tank of gas and the occasional Starbucks for fuel, my fact-checking lets me sleep at night, knowing I got it right.

It's great to work from home, but there are times when my stories venture away from Nashville, and that's where the tough questions begin: Should I fly to New York to get a sense of what Long Island City looks, feels and smells like, or can I get away with talking on the phone to someone who lives there? Admittedly, there's no substitute for the real deal, but sometimes the money just isn't there to make that happen.

As my career has progressed, I've increased the money I put into my research, mainly in the form of trips. For my second novel, 14, I took my first trip to New York City for research, on my own dime. I'd been talking to locals, but I wasn't getting the sense of things I wanted. So I splurged, and got to smell and see the city in person.

For my seventh novel, Where All the Dead Lie, I went to Scotland (I know, poor me). In those cases, I chose to be hands-on, and I think it made the stories better.

Saving Money on Your Research

You don't have to break the bank to get the research right. I reached out to my friend and fellow author Allison Brennan, a New York Times bestselling author of 15 novels, and asked how much money she spent on her research. Her advice is golden: "Research doesn't have to be expensive if you're smart and plan it out," she said. "I think people can go overboard in the research department. I set books in places I've been and write about things I know enough about that I know where to get answers if I need them."

With that in mind, here are some tips for doing research on a budget, regardless of setting and topic:
  • Go to the library: This is an obvious solution, but one that we sometimes overlook, especially since we can go online and find the answers we need. But a good library, and librarian, can help you find little details you would have missed otherwise. I like to read old newspapers to get a sense of what's happening in my character's past, and microfiche is the best way to do that. Plus, libraries often have experts in for talks.
  • Meet your fellow writers: Almost every professional writer's association has an online listserve full of scribes who are experts in their own fields. I can't tell you how many times I've reached out to a doctor, a lawyer, a weapons expert or former police officer through these groups. And almost all the organizations accept associate members. International Thriller Writers, Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime are all excellent groups that even have "writer's universities," in which they offer classes on writing and various research methods. Best of all, you get to rub elbows with your favorite writers!
  • Go online. . .but be careful: You can find out anything online, but be sure you double- and triple-source your information. Just because it's on Wikipedia doesn't mean it's accurate. When I started doing research on Scotland, the first thing I did was add Scotland's major newspapers to my RSS feeds. It allowed me a snapshot of the country, and the political undercurrents soon made their way into my story. You can become an expert pretty quickly by putting in the effort.
  • Go back to school: Through a writer's organization or your own diligence, you can find tons of online classes that are relatively inexpensive and will give you a fuller understanding of your topic. From writing to guns to romance, anything and everything is offered.
  • Talk to the experts: Regardless of what you're writing about, there's nothing better than finding someone who's lived it. Weapons experts, cops, FBI agents, SWAT team members, doctors and lawyers all have one thing in common: They want you to get it right. Just don't forget to say thank you in the acknowledgments.
  • Reach out to readers: Blogs are a great way to get information, with the caveat that you need to double-source, just like with Wikipedia and Google. Most blogs are subjective, so you can't use them as gospel. While you're getting to know private experts, don't forget to talk to people at your local bookstore. Most folks who work in bookstores do so because they love to read. Which means they'll be a font of information for you to mine. Check your local independent bookstores as well as the chains to find people who are fascinated by your topic and can point you to the best books to use for research.
  • Explore local resources: There are innumerable ways to do research in person in your city. Big and small towns have access to the FBI Citizens' Academy, your local Citizens' Police Academy and multitudes of other offerings. Don't forget to attend author signings as well -- your favorite author might have a tip or two for you to find the perfect research tool.
  • Meet some strangers. . .and some old friends: Even though many groups have moved online, there are still plenty who meet and mingle in person. The members tell stories. Lots of stories. They have professional speakers. They have archives. And they want to share this information with you. For that matter, don't discount the ones around you when you're looking to do research. I always check with my parents when I have a question. Send up a flare within your intimate circle, and see who knows what. This is especially good for places, because if you're anything like me, your friends and family live or have traveled all over the world.
No matter what research technique you use, be sure to keep your receipts. Everything you do in the name of research is tax deductible to a point. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the current tax codes for writers, and keep track of mileage, expenses and fees. Good luck!

J.T. EllisonJ.T. Ellison is the author of bestselling crime novels set in Nashville that star female detective Taylor Jackson. You can read her blog on Red Room.

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Ms. Ellison: Enjoyed reading your article. Since your good advice does not apply to me, I will pass it on (Email it) to my granddaughter.

January 17 2011 at 11:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply