Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Researching the Details

Today's guest post comes from Michael K. Bohn, author of Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports, and focuses on researching the details to create stronger, more intriguing nonfiction works.

As an author of narrative, or “creative” nonfiction, I try to use literary devices from the world of fiction. My stories are true, but I develop characters, build the narrative with a series of scenes, and create tension and drama even though the reader likely knows the outcome. Think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a landmark narrative nonfiction book that reads like a novel.

Research is necessary to capturing the setting and characters with authenticity. The methods I use can be applied to both fiction and non-fiction:

Your Own Eyes. Writing the new Bridges of Madison County? Go see them, tour the countryside, and take notes and photos. Before I wrote about Babe Ruth’s youth, I visited the site of the reform school where his parents committed the seven-year-old in 1902. It’s now a Catholic school, but the tour helped me add realism to his chapter.

Images. Collect details from photographs or videos. The Library of Congress has an immense online image collection of people and events. Another great source is Google Images (or Yahoo). I found a photo of Yankee Stadium’s opening in 1923 at Google that showed the players bundled up in their woolen warm-up sweaters—cardigans, buttoned to the throat. Cold spring day; cloudy, packed stands, dignitaries, brass band; lots of details. Bingo.

Contemporaneous Reporting. Online newspaper and periodical archives allow you to read an on-scene reporter’s word image. For sports events, I found ground truth for game results, start time, crowd size, and the weather. Also, I used newspaper ads from the 1920s to understand consumer trends and prices.

Secondary Sources. There’s a book about everything, but finding the right one at your local library is tough. My go-to sources for hard-to-find books are the second-party vendors at Amazon and For example, New York’s Polo Grounds was an important sports venue in the 1920s, and I needed details about the long gone Harlem ballpark. At Amazon, I found a cheap used copy Land of the Giants, a detailed history of the Polo Grounds. Point, click, and I had the information I needed.

Once armed with details, I try to use them with some style. I avoid drowning the reader with them all at once and vary how I introduce the atmospherics into the narrative. Further, a subtle turn of a phrase is more fun to write and read than a dry recitation of details. “At 12:10 PM on July 15 . . .” is less lyrical than “A high midday sun greeted the . . .”

Good luck, and although the devil is in the details, so are good settings.

Bohn is the author of Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports, recently published with Potomac Books. His other books include Money Golf, 600 Years of Bettin’ on Birdies (2007), The Achille Lauro Hijacking, Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism (2004), and Nerve Center, Inside the White House Situation Room (2003). As a freelance writer, he regularly contributes features and golf reporting to a group of newspapers in Virginia. For more information, visit his website


Laura said...

I think settings are being left out of books a lot lately. A well written setting can change or bring into perspective your feeling about the book/ story.

James Bent said...

Firstly - Laura, I totally, totally agree with you. It might be because settings take too much time without much necessarily happening, and maybe with attention spans of readers rapidly decreasing, they just want something to happen! But it's a shame, as settings give depth.

And from the post - I understand Brady that you write non-fiction, and I write fiction, however it's really nice to hear someone else's "methodology" being similar to my own (and probably lots of people / writers) - I use pictures from photo books - usually of characters, place and object - and then I start to build a story from there. So in many ways I am using what has existed once, and which was real, but developing beyond the edge of the photographs and into my imagination.

I particularly like photographs where there is an inherent tension i.e. a photo of a room with empty seats, maybe an empty coffee cup or a cigarette left smoking in an ashtray - all suggesting there should be "someone". And likewise photos of people who are looking off to the side or moving or who have an expression in their face which must have come from sometime before the photo or is for something that comes after.

It's fascinating - I'd love for some of my characters (and characterisations) to come face to face with the real world people that they came from! Probably be total antitheses of reality!

I write daily 1000+ word offbeat fiction short stories at - if you'd like to read you are most, most welcome!

Brady said...

Thanks for stopping by, James. This was a guest post from Mike Bohn. I am glad you enjoyed it.

I primarily write fiction as well.

I hope you continue to make HuntingtheMuse a regular place to visit. Please sign up for my rss feed if you found the blog helpful.