Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne
This post briefly describes the main types of research material available to the creative writer with some pros and cons offered on each type.
What are primary and secondary sources?
These terms are common to the historian, though are applied to other areas of research, too. They refer to two basic types of research. Primary sources are original or contemporary records (material from the period of research). A common historical example is a letter or diary. Secondary sources relate to original sources and are written after the fact. They are generally written by experts and presented in journal or textbook form.
Let’s take an example! An eighteenth-century diary may bring aspects of life into sharp and vivid focus for the reader. It gives us an echo of the past from the inside out. A well-written diary may offer us an interesting account of the intellectual and emotional ebb and flow of the writer’s personality as they tackle the daily obstacles of their world. This enables the fiction writer to pick bits and pieces of the diary writer’s character or other characters referred to in the diary, and use them in developing his own set of characters, confident that his own characters’ thoughts and feelings will have a genuine historical basis to them.
A really useful diary will offer us anecdotes, titbits and personal observations of the smaller, more personal world as well as the broader, social, cultural, economic and political one; and why not poignant physical and psychological descriptions to go with these. Topics may include contemporary attitudes to war, politics, capital punishment, democracy, deference, and equality on the larger scale, and daily rituals, household problems, seasonal variation in diet, family sickness, common preoccupations and trivial fashions in clothes and entertainment, for example, on the smaller scale. The diary may also include examples of vernacular as well as formal language.
Let’s stick with our example of an eighteenth century diary! The non-historian, unfamiliar with primary sources, will generally take them at face value. But the best way of thinking of the diary’s drawbacks is to imagine it as a present-day diary. When you do this, straightaway its weaknesses become only too obvious. You know the world you are living in, unlike the world of the distant past. We would not be so naive as to take any diary written now at its face value. Would we? We are involved intellectually and emotionally in the here and now. We have a stake in it. The vast knowledge and experience we possess of our own world means we can measure and weigh everything in a modern diary critically and confidently from our own perspectives and ideals.
Everybody is limited in their experiences, perspectives, emotional range and intelligence, so why take one personal account as anything other than what it is: a single record left by a single person of a limited intellectual and emotional range, writing about a limited number of subjects. You would not expect to learn much about the world we live in now with all its complexities from a single diary or even a handful of them. So don’t think you can do it about the past.
The further back you go, the more likely the diary writer will have come from a high social status. So don’t be fooled into thinking that lower status people thought and felt like the diary writer. Certainly with a diary that was meant for publication, but possibly even one that wasn’t, the writer’s political agenda might cloud his perspectives on his writing. A diary or letter meant for publication might well have been pure propaganda. ‘Trolling’ is a modern phenomenon but something similar always existed where you had the means to publish. As far as the diary’s language and style are concerned, it may well be written in a pretentious and even unrealistic form, which is obviously something the fiction writer does not want to emulate.
Though secondary source material is concerned with the original material and in the historian’s case is often written long after the fact, it will have many advantages that primary source material lacks. For example, the historian’s work will be peer reviewed so he will have gone to great lengths to make sure that it is credible. His research will be exhaustive, often covering many years of study. His work will cover a diversity of both primary and secondary sources and the proof of this is in his bibliography.
The secondary source writer will bring a thorough analysis and interpretation of his subject to his text. Whatever he discusses will be placed within the historical context. So, for instance, if he is using the diary above as primary source evidence to help build up a picture of the past, he will make us aware of its strengths and weaknesses and point out its specific value as it relates to his own work. Secondary source texts are invaluable for getting to grips with an unfamiliar subject as some offer a broad introduction for the beginner.
Just as a primary source writer may have his own agenda, so too, may the secondary source writer. If the secondary source writer leads the reader astray because of his propaganda, almost always politically motivated in the historian’s case, this may very well have a great effect on the interpretation the fiction writer brings to his own work because the secondary source material is misleading the reader in a very broad and detailed way, and not in a small, specific and isolated one as with primary sources. The highly politically motivated historian interprets the past through a very narrow prism of political prejudices which leaves his work looking very lopsided and lacking in nuance. The problem for the fiction writer is that if he is not aware of this, it might leave his own story heavily biased and lacking in nuance, which in turn may well narrow his readership.
Do you need to know what time is sunrise or sunset at a certain place and time of year anywhere in the world? There are sites that will give you this information. Do you need to see a street view in downtown Dallas to gather some description for a scene in your story? Lots and lots of information, especially small but necessary details that might once have taken weeks or months to gather, are now only a click away.
But not all sites are accurate, which is a big problem on the Internet. An overabundance of material, much of it written by opinionated non-experts, means that some of it is far from being accurate. Look for official sites rather than casual ones for relevant information.
A great way to help you build description of a landscape or street scene is by actually being there and allowing your five senses to take it all in. Museums, zoos, circuses, battle re-enactments, historic sites, a busy police station are just a few of the places to visit. They will give you an overall feel of things that will help you hone your scene descriptions, and possibly even inspire you with some new ideas.
Unfortunately, simple observation alone is often not sufficient. You need to know what you are looking at. For example, if you are looking at a battle-re-enactment, you will need to know what the battle formations are telling you about each side’s expertise and experience, strategies and tactics. You need to know the names of the soldiers’ clothing and weaponry, what they are made of, even what the weaponry is telling you about contemporary technology. So, in this example you would combine your textbook research with your observational research to create a powerful, authentic and accurate battleground scene.
Think of the great wealth of information a retired police officer could pass on to you about the job! Things she will never write down; things that are never found in any book; things that are esoteric and nuanced, full of insight and wisdom. Such a person would be like a gold mine to most crime writers.
A police officer recalling her personal experiences is also a primary source example, as in the example of the diary in the primary sources section. So here, as there, caution is recommended. A single policewoman is offering up her own personal and limited perspectives of a world you may only have knowledge of through her. It is not the whole of the policing world she is telling you about. A retired policewoman’s information may also not be up to date; things may have changed dramatically since her life on the force.
Moving away from the specific example of the police officer, other problems can be: your interviewee bores you to tears and talks about anything but what you find interesting. She may be stupid, dull, shallow, exaggerating things or simply lying to look big in front of you. Her memory may be poor and she may make things up even without being aware of it, just to fill in gaps. A person with an agenda will always give you a lopsided version of events. You may not bother cross-checking what your interviewee tells you because you treat it as authentic, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, so you don’t think it needs to be challenged in any way.
Maps and visual material
Maps are obviously very useful in helping you negotiate the landmarks and set out the boundaries of your story’s setting whether urban or rural.
An old ordnance survey map instantly reveals something of a landscape’s history. For example, a fifty-year-old map showing countryside of a now urbanized development offers you an immediate and striking picture of the changes during that time. A chronological series of such maps over the fifty year period shows you the gradual changes. Such maps can be extremely useful research aids, for example, in stories about real or imagined urban-development protests.
Maps are also very useful for verifying material from other relevant sources.
Photos, paintings, statues and artefacts can help build accurate and authentic physical description, and can also help with inspiration and mood.
The only real downside is that they are hardly likely to be sufficient on their own as research material but will no doubt be used in conjunction with secondary and possibly other primary sources.
The obvious conclusion to draw here is that you will probably need to work with more than one type of research material in order to develop a strong working knowledge of your subject. A combination is certainly more likely to help you build up both an intellectual and physical understanding of your subject. But start off with some general and broad-based reading which means starting with the secondary sources. The more you research and learn about your subject, the more you will come to see both the pros and the cons of the different research types on which your knowledge and insight is growing.
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