Writing Your Nonfiction Narrative Book: Part 2-The Research Process
Updated: Jul 2
Here’s the second in our series of narrative nonfiction building blocks. This week we’re looking at research techniques, tips, and tricks. Stay tuned for next week’s post, showing you how to pull together your research into a compelling tale, with a guide to narrative structure, character, plotting, and citing your sources.
In last week’s blog you learned how to find right story for your nonfiction narrative. Now begins the next phase, which is sometimes the most fun aspect of authoring a book: your research. As example of how research is done, let’s focus on how I did a deep dive in gathering sources for my book Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing. (Read up on the story first if you’re not familiar with it, then return to this blog post.)
Always Best to Begin at the Beginning
The first thing I checked out is the research hotbed of choice these days: Google. While Google has merits, I’m not convinced it’s the best resource for information. There’s an old joke—at least “old” in Internet years: How do you bury a secret? Answer: put it on the second page of a Google search. I agree. Consider how many narrative nonfiction books were written before Google. You can Google that number.
Another joke: what did we do before Google? Answer: the original Google, your local public library. Good reference librarians are your best friend. They know how to dig into their collections and point you in other directions and collections. Still, we can’t discount Google. It would be downright foolish to do that.
Go to the Source
I began my research in 2005, what we might call the Iron Age of web pages. They were rudimentary but functional. One of the first pages I found on the crime listed a contact who was the self-styled “town historian” of Bath. He was the key I needed to unlock the story. I emailed him and got a quick reply. Sure, he’d be happy to speak with me. I arranged a time to go visit. My home of Chicago is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Bath, which is about twenty miles from the Michigan state capital of Lansing.
Making that human connection was vital. The town historian (since passed away) and I hit it off from the start. He introduced me to other people in Bath, many of whom were direct descendants of survivors and eyewitnesses to the crime. This led me to the most primary of sources: meetings with survivors, people now in their eighties and nineties. Though the crime was many decades in the past, the bombing on May 18, 1927 remained fresh in memory. These interviews were profound...and provided me with a gold mine of information thanks to these first-hand accounts from people who were most affected by the horror.
The crime itself involved electricity and explosives, two things I don’t know anything about. I went in search of experts. My wife’s uncle was a retired lineman for a utility company. He provided insight on how electricity works its way through power lines to ignite anything, including setting off a timer device like that used by the killer of my story.
Next, I contacted a friend who was an explosives expert during his time in the military. Gave me a layman’s understanding of dynamite worked, and what it would take to blow up a school We joked that if anyone saw our emails, we would have been in serious trouble.
Let’s Go to Press
With the human aspect covered, I looked to other primary resources: newspapers that chronicled the story as it unfolded. First, I checked out the archives of the largest regional newspaper, The Lansing State Journal. It was filled with eyewitness accounts, backstories of murdered individuals, and information on killer himself. These stories provided both an overall picture of the crime, coupled with intricate details of victims, their families, and others involved in the story, including police officers, local politicians, funeral directors, and more. Filled with vivid first-hand descriptions, this initial reporting thrust readers to the front lines of the story years after the fact.
I also turned to other accounts in major national newspapers like The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. These outlets provided me with an outsider’s perspective and the far reach of the Bath School bombing.
Next were news accounts in the decades following the crime. Whenever there were similar moments, such the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, school massacres like the shooting in Columbine, CO, and the horrors of 9/11, reporters went to Bath, looking for historical perspectives. The resulting stories were filled with fresh accounts by survivors and their children, now gifted with reflective knowledge of their personal histories.
I won’t delve into other alternative resources, such as documentaries, television reports, radio, and YouTube videos, as I didn’t use these entities all that much. Still, the research techniques are the same. Look for stories, accounts, first-hand knowledge, and perhaps eyewitness footage that transports you to the genuine scene of your story.
A Word About Wikipedia
I’m wary of Wikipedia, and for good reason. The wonderful thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. The terrible thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. Jokers have been known to hijack Wikipedia entries with fanciful claims, none better than Stephen Colbert.
What Wikipedia can do is provide you with possible research leads. A solid Wikipedia entry has good endnotes and links to reputable sources, all of which are fodder to send you in the right directions. Look over the Wikipedia page on Martin Luther King Jr. While the entry itself has weakness, the endnotes are a voluminous array of potential material for your own research if you’re writing about Dr. King.
The Bath School bombing is a crime, one that generated hundreds of pages in legal documents. The week after the bombing, an inquest was held with the purpose of investigating why the killer had done what he did. Victims and witnesses of the crime told their stories. Friends and colleagues of the killer provided considerable background information on the man. Local officials, including first responders and attorneys, had their say. All of this was transcribed by a court reporter. The resulting document, a couple of hundred pages long, was filled with scenes, dialog, interior thoughts, and character sketches, all vital elements I needed to tell the story to its fullest.
Another series of legal documents were school board meeting reports. The killer was a school trustee and board treasurer, so it made sense to look at the minutes of these meetings, Mundane though these board reports were, they provided moments that I used to foreshadow the crime to come.
Previous books on the crime are obvious choices. There were two major titles: the first was The Bath School Massacre by Monty Ellsworth, a self-published work written by a Bath resident shortly after the crime to memorialize the victims. It had biographies of each person killed, eyewitness accounts of the day, and background history on the killer. The second book, Mayday by Grant Parker was a straightforward true crime book, published about twenty years before my work. Though the prose was dry, the information within those pages backed up my own research.
Other book sources included a history of the town written by a survivor of the bombing and published in 1976 in conjunction with the American bicentennial in 1976; and two “scrapbooks’’ put together by the town historian. These photocopied scrapbooks contained personal reminisces of the town, newsclips about the bombing, and more eyewitness accounts. Between the town history and the scrapbooks, I got more personal insights about the crime and its long-term aftermath, written by people who lived that aspect of the story.
You should also consider privately-published family histories, memoirs, and even diaries or journals. These resources are filled with intimate material you won’t find in the history books. When I wrote my book about Chicago and the Civil War, The Hoofs and Guns of the Storm, I found a diary poked away in the research room archives of the Chicago History Museum. It was the private journal of a woman who lived here during the Civil War years.
One line from her book, written in precise cursive handwriting, encapsulated what I wanted my book to be: “Those were days of great anxiety, and I felt like we were living on a volcano ready to burst any moment.” There’s a sentence with emotional punch. It’s the kind of thing that can only be found in private accounts.
Culling Your Research
Now that I had all my material together, it was time to go through it. What was I looking for? Patterns and familiarity. As I read through the material, I used Post-Its, highlight markers, and other notations to mark key passages. I cribbed together a rudimentary timeline, which I could later flesh out. Repeated ideas and accounts, sometimes from different perspectives, showed me key moments of the crime that had to be part of the final manuscript.
All this research, interviewing, reading, and absorbing the material did one thing: it made me an expert on what happened that day. With the material fully absorbed, it was time to start writing.
Next week: how to pull all the research together to write the book. Meanwhile, what do you think? Leave feedback, questions, and other musings in the comment section or shoot me an email. See you next week!