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
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