Research for writers, #4: Get Help

Sometimes the thing you want to research is either so unfamiliar to you or so obscure that you don’t even know where to start.

The strategies for these two scenarios are not quite the same, because the root problem is not the same. In the former case, you may be facing an abundance of information, with no way to sift the wheat from the chaff. In the latter, you’re grasping at straws. But both of them can be solved by judicious application of the same strategy, which is: ask for help.

When I need to go that route, my first tactic is usually to post on LiveJournal. I have a “help me, o internets” tag that gets put on any post where I’m soliciting advice from the great online hive-mind; over the years, it’s turned up all manner of fabulous help. This works, though, because I have a large enough group of readers that my odds of catching a knowledgeable eye are pretty good. If you don’t have that, though — or if your readers turn out not to be well-versed in transgender issues or feudal Russian honorifics or whatever it is you need today — then there are other options, like the “Little Details” LJ community. That one has more than 7,300 people watching it, which is an order of magnitude more than my blog gets. The chances of finding somebody knowledgeable over there are quite good. (I’m told the Yahoo group “Joys of Research” is similar, but I’ve never tried that one.) And this, of course, is what reference librarians are for; they may not know the subject themselves, but they can quite possibly point you at good resources, or at least a starting point.

If you’re trying to sift wheat from chaff, you need recommendations for good books, or useful websites, or whatever. If I were starting from a dead halt in researching, say, Celtic mythology, I would not want to just start browsing the bookshelf; that topic has been so intermixed with modern neopaganism that any inquiry into the real historical religion has to step carefully. And if you really want to make sure you’re getting the hard-core academic neepery (if, you know, you’re the sort of person who likes that kind of thing, not that I know anybody like that SHUT UP I CAN QUIT ANYTIME) . . . then you go digging for an expert.

This overlaps with “what do I do when I don’t know where to start?” My example here will be onmyōdō, aka “the yin-yang way,” a form of traditional Japanese magic.

Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. I first came across it in an anime (X: 1999), followed by a manga (Tokyo Babylon, which involves the onmyōji character from X), followed by a pair of Japanese movies (unsurprisingly called Onmyōji and Onmyōji 2). Then I decided I wanted to make use of it in a role-playing game, and set out to learn more about it.

So first I read the Wikipedia article. Alas, it is not very long, and cites no English-language sources. Undaunted, I searched Stanford’s library catalogue. No dice. Okay, I went to Stanford’s library and browsed the shelves, looking in the indices of books. All I turned up was a paragraph here, a sentence there, mentioning that during the Heian period there had been a “Bureau of Onmyōdō” that oversaw such matters.

Ladies and gentlemen, I needed expert help.

I went online and pulled up the webpages for several universities with good East Asian Studies departments. Then I looked through the faculty bios to find people whose specialty was Japanese religion and history. Then I started e-mailing. One guy referred me to a former student of his, so I e-mailed that guy, and the upshot of it all is that this turned out not to be a failure of my research fu: there is basically nothing written on the subject in English. Period.

Okay, so my example is a dead-end (unless I learn to read Japanese well enough to cope with an academic work on the subject — not likely). The process, however, stands. You may be reluctant to cold-contact strangers with a query like this, but don’t be. I have never had somebody respond snottily to me; the worst that happens is I never get a reply. And most people do answer. Look at it from their perspective: they’ve devoted years of their lives to learning all the esoterica of some random subject, and you’re sending them an e-mail that says, “I value your expertise.” Man, some of them will go off like a geyser, dousing you not only with the information you wanted, but things you never would have thought to ask about, that turn out to be gold.

Be polite, of course. It’s like location research; you’re imposing on the time and goodwill of strangers. Explain what you want the information for, what you’ve done already to try and find information, and what exactly you’d like help with. (“I need reliable academic sources on the religion of pre-Christian Ireland” is a lot more useful and professional sounding than “can you point me at some books on Celtic mythology?”) Thank them for their time, even in your initial letter, before they’ve responded.

It’s surprising how willing people are to help. A lot of them would be delighted to see more accurate stories out there, rather than the usual error-ridden slop, so don’t be afraid to ask.

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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    Great post, Marie!

    As a former reference librarian, I have often been surprised (and pleased) by the willingness of experts to share their knowledge. Sometimes, the major goal is to figure out who would have what type of information. Once that question has been asked and answered, the job is nearly done :-)

  2. 2. Kari Sperring

    I second the ‘polite email to the expert’ approach. In my other life, as Celtic specialist, I’m happy to help with these when I can, though I may take a few days to reply.
    And polite is the key. The ‘I know you’re an elitist snob and I already know the Truth but I want you to hold my hand/do my homework’ approach is not constructive.

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, you’re a nice lady! Great resources, one question. How, (if this is even relevant) do you determine politics/bias/prejudices/etc?

    BTW, “SHUT UP I CAN QUIT ANYTIME) . . . then you go digging for an expert.” FUNNY!

    God, I want a smoke.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Mindy — yeah, so much of it comes back to just getting the first bit of traction.

    Kari — it puzzles me why anybody would start off by insulting the person they want a favor from, and yet they do . . . but yes, there’s a difference between a respectful question and a “do my homework for me” request. That’s why I tend to phrase my queries as, “could you point me at a couple of books to read,” rather than “can you tell me the contents of those books.”

    Elias — good question. Most of the things I’ve had to query for haven’t been terribly at risk for bias, but some topics (like, say, the American Civil War) very much could be. I’d say it helps to get multiple opinions, and to pay attention to who you’re asking for those opinions.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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