How to Research

Saturday, April 27, 2013
To bring your writing alive incorporate detail using as many senses as possible.

You hear this advice all the time, but to write about each sense you have to research it. Although writers can, and do, write about how foods taste and wind sounds, as much as possible use your own five senses when doing the research.

Whether you need to know how Claude Monet’s Rock Arch West of √Čtretat or a quetzal look, you’re not going to just read someone else’s description, not when a quick Google or Pinterest search can give you dozens, if not hundreds, of images. You should also do a Youtube search. It is one thing to see the brilliant green of a quetzal’s feathers in a still photo, another to see the flash of green and red as it takes wing. Visit the places and sights that you can, but use a series of online searches when you cannot.

Whether the notes you need to hear are Joplin’s Magnetic Rag or the lilting call of a wolf, try a Youtube search. Wildlife sites often have recordings of animal calls such as those at the Audubon Online Bird Guide. Another handy source is the Library of Congress which includes musical performances and also speeches.

Scent and Taste
We don’t yet have smell-ovision, but sometimes you can research a smell by visiting just the right place—a Mediterranean garden at your local botanical garden or the ocean through a day at the beach.

Fortunately, smell is linked to taste and you can collect details for both senses by cooking and dining on foods from the place or time in which your writing is set. I can read about red bean paste in ice cream but I’m not going to know what taste lingers on my tongue or how it feels in my month unless I try it.

Touch and Movement
How does raw silk feel? Is a tiger’s fur soft like a house cat’s or course and wooly like a lion’s? You can read what someone else has written, but their description might vary greatly from your own.

Sometimes we simply do not have access to the things that we would need to touch but we can experience a full range of motions. Kinesthetic details, those related to movement, are vital if you are describing something physical. How can you write about chopping down a tree if you’ve never held an axe? I didn’t get the details right until I tried it for myself. Whether you are writing about snowshoeing or kneading bread, duplicate the experience before you drag the pen across the paper or send your fingertips skittering across the keyboard.

You won’t work every sense into each piece of writing, but the more you include, the more vibrant your work will be and it will grab the attention of not only editors but word-hungry readers.


Sue Bradford Edwards is teaching the WOW! course Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.  The next section of this course start on May 6, 2013.


Margo Dill said...

Good reminders, Sue, and I love that photo--take an axe to a tree before you write about it. Maybe the only people who shouldn't 100 percent listen to this advice are people who are writing murder mysteries. . .;)

Anonymous said...

It would probably be for the best if they didn't. Deep holes might also be hard to explain. ::smile::

Angela Mackintosh said...

Hah! I said the same thing to Sue in an e-mail, Margo, except I mentioned serial killers. And perhaps prostitution. LOL ;)

Nothing beats real life experience, but I love the idea of using Youtube for animal sounds. I use it for just about everything! If I don't know how to do something--most recently, the proper way to wrap your hands for MMA--there's always a video for it. Great advice, Sue. :)

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