History Class, Teaching Writing, Uncategorized, World War 2, Writer's Life, Writing, Writing Tips

Three Questions To Ask When Choosing Your Research Sources

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Hello Readers and Writers! Today, I’m revisiting and refreshing a post from 3 years ago. In a period where news stories diverge widely depending on where they come from and even Facebook (that authoritative pinnacle of reliable information) is busy “fact-checking,”  exploring the reliability of sources isn’t just for writers—though it’s still awfully important for us! I hope these quick tips are helpful—

All the best, Anne

One of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction is keeping it “historical.”

Since all of my current stories are set in the 30s and 40s, I’m required to know all sorts of minutia, from skirt lengths to cigarette brands to how to simulate silk stockings when there are none to be had. Some days, research takes more time than writing.

Finding sources isn’t particularly difficult. Finding trustworthy ones—that’s the trick.

The internet is full of information, some of it true, some well-meaning but mistaken, and some blatant lies. I enjoy scouring the library’s shelves for texts on my topics, but even paper and binding aren’t a guarantee of accuracy.

It can be frustrating, but I’ve found that asking a few simple questions helps eliminate unreliable sources quickly and gets me back on track.

1. Who wrote it?

Photo courtesy of Braydon Anderson via unsplash.com

A quick visit to a site’s “about” page, a scroll to the bottom of the screen, or a peek at the sleeve of a book can reveal a great amount of information.

Is the author a primary source—in other words someone who actually witnessed the events they’re writing about? Are they an expert in their field? Is it a hobbyist who uses reliable sources they’ve uncovered? Are they affiliated with a particular group or philosophy? Or are they just a mysterious voice from some dark corner of the Web?

Personally, I dig for primary sources whenever I can. Diaries, memoirs etc. have the benefit of giving historical information, plus a ‘feel’ for the era. I pair these with books written by experts, especially ones with long lists of primary sources that they used in their research. (I may as well let someone who’s paid to do the research do some of it for me!)

Sometimes something as simple as the website’s address can be an indicator of reliability. Since my primary focus is World War II, I’m always pleased to find a website with a “.mil” at the end of the address—these are official sites of the U.S. military, and often have a wealth of information from the period as well as modern sum-ups. (My most recent find was an article of a U.S. doctor’s observations of German field hospitals—a little obscure, but exactly what I needed!)

2. Why did they write it?

Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson, via unsplash.com

Most writing fits into one of three broader categories: writing to inform, writing to entertain, or writing to persuade. It’s helpful to discern an author’s purpose because their purpose will affect the way they present their information. Are they going to list carefully researched facts or are they going to arrange them strategically to try to elicit a reaction from their readers?

One key to figuring out an author’s purpose is to look at their use of facts vs. opinions.

A fact is something verifiable, something that can be tested and proven.  An opinion is a conclusion that an individual draws, generally from their perception of facts.

Canned meat played a role as a food source during World War 2: Fact.

Spam is tasty if you cook it right: Opinion.

It’s almost impossible to write without including opinion statements. The question is, does the source use facts to strengthen and verify their opinions?

“She was a terrible girlfriend,” is one person’s opinion. However, if you tell me that the “terrible girlfriend” never silenced her phone during movies, vandalized his apartment, insulted his mother, and kicked his kitten every time she came in the door, I’ll probably agree with your opinion.

Of course, not all facts are created equal.

It’s a pretty clear sign that an author is trying to convince you of their point of view if they fall into using “ad hominem” statements. Meaning “against the person,” these statements use facts that don’t have any bearing on the discussion at hand. The goal is to tarnish the person’s character.

For instance, what if “She was a terrible girlfriend” was supported by the facts that she flunked her seventh grade Social Studies exam and once got arrested for jay-walking? First, I’d wonder if anyone actually does get arrested for jay-walking, because I’d better be more careful, and then I’d wonder what those facts have to do with her girlfriendliness and question the reliability of the author.

3. How does it compare to other sources?

Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

One day I was researching Rudolf Hess’ bizarre choice to parachute alone into Scotland, apparently attempting to create peace between Nazi Germany and Great Britain. I poked around the internet and found a site that seemed to have a pretty thorough account.

It didn’t take too long to see that the author was a pretty big fan of Hess. And it was odd that he kept trying to blame Poland for Germany’s invasion…

Oh. It was a neo-Nazi site.

It took me far longer to figure that out that it should have, but there were no swastikas, the site title and footer didn’t tell anything about the writer’s philosophies, and the writing tone was calm and reasonable. The author even used real quotes to back up his points.

Aha! The quotes!

The quotes were the first thing that gave him away. You see, I’d read the books he was taking the quotes from. He used the words of Churchill and other Allied leaders verbatim but completely out of context and in such a way that they supported his bias. Closer examination of the other facts revealed an unreliable source.

If accuracy is your goal, it’s essential to take time to examine multiple sources and multiple types of sources. (Don’t get caught by internet sites that just copy and paste from each other!) Not only can a broad base of information help us catch errors and false information, but different sources provide varied points of view. They round out our understanding of people and events. They make our stories richer.

Do you have any advice on finding reliable sources, questions you ask, or stories to share?

Happy researching, reading and writing! I’m off to research the effects of my morning coffee on my sink of dirty dishes.

Many thanks for visiting!

17 thoughts on “Three Questions To Ask When Choosing Your Research Sources”

  1. Some seriously good pointers here!
    I have encountered a few books so painfully biased I had to put them down, but usually you can get a pretty good idea of how credible a book will be from the author’s bio. Web sites do get trickier! Your experience with the neo-Nazi site is a good cautionary tale.
    A favorite author of mine, from the very earliest time of my WWII fascination was John Toland. But late in his life he wrote the book “Infamy” where he seemingly bought into every Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory there is. I’d previously liked him so much as a writer I wanted to take him seriously. But I’ve come to realize there’s a difference between being a great story teller and a great researcher. I think the very human and eye witness element to his writing let him down in the end when he was overly influenced by some people with an axe to grind.
    I’d aLso mention a sort of Murphy’s Law experience with research. I’ve had it happen several times, with building models, that I found something contradictory when it was just too late to do anything about. A recent build I did of a Spitfire Vb, I’m pretty sure now should have been a Spitfire Vc. I found the contradictory information late, and painfully concluded the later information was probably more reliable. Which also leads to the point this was now 80 years ago, and in some cases completely correct answers are not really available. Like the ferocious arguments I’ve seen over colors in period photographs…. truly the sign of someone with too much time on their hands…
    At a certain point, thankfully mostly with less important details, you make a best guess and move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      That difference- “a great storyteller and a great researcher,” is huge! It’s a bummer when the two don’t mesh, but I appreciate your story of the Spitfire. The weight of all of the years between events can distort information and make it tricky to be completely accurate. When I first started doing this, I went a little crazy over sources that couldn’t agree on numbers and dates- reliable seeming sources with tons of research behind them. Now…well, some details that I can’t verify just don’t make it into writing. And sometimes, like you said, it’s best guess or (in my case for novel writing) playing the “fiction card” and admitting that I don’t know exactly how it was but this event/place/etc seem like it COULD work based on everything else.

      Oh-by the way, I got the 1970s Midway for Christmas! I can definitely see how, as someone who’s into planes the newer one would be your preference- I’d take the newer battle scenes, no doubt. I did enjoy the characterizations of the different players in the first part, though. The movies are really different animals even though about the same battle- it was fun to compare the two!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even so, as a fiction writer, I imagine it’s easier to say in a blog post when you’re using a “best guess” than when you put it in a story. I did read your book “Whom Shall I Fear” and was impressed with your attention to period detail, there were no immersion breaking errors which I find to be a rare thing (also really appreciated the faith elements, but that’s a whole other thing!)
        But even in the blog post there’s times when it seems better to avoid some contested issues than open a can of worms. That, or be clear about the contested issues or include some sort of “according to so and so” disclaimer. Sometimes the disputes are amusing enough they just HAVE to be included.
        I did not mean to trash on Toland too much. Some of his books remain absolutely brilliant narrative histories. I’m currently reading a book by Thomas Cleaver on first six months of the Pacific War, which means it covers the same exact ground as Toland’s “But Not in Shame”. Toland was a journalist who prided himself in interviews and eyewitness testimony. So even if the newer book is more correct and accurate, the older one is a much more riveting and human story.

        Obviously the 1976 Midway will fill a gaping hole in your education. I do own both and do see (very different) merits to both of them. The older one does tell a more complete story of the battle itself. And I think its more broadly respectful of the military men themselves (they act more like professional adults). But yeah, the technical details weigh really heavy on me. I think too, with the newer version, I’m so excited about what the future of historic film-making could be. The whole idea of achieving realistic depictions of things and events that have passed from time is kind of thrilling. And of course the new Midway was very specifically depicting things I really wanted to see!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks so much for your kind words regarding my novel- they’re much appreciated! You’re right about the challenge of not being able to point out the guess work in fiction- it was tempting to put a looooong list of author notes for minutia at the end, though I mostly satisfied myself with listing reference books. One thing I’ve used the blog for is a chance to write about all of the little bits of info that just don’t flow well into a story. (Unless characters were to stand around and discuss current events and trivia a lot. Thrilling reading that would be…) Most things that I couldn’t confirm in reliable texts I just cut out all together. (When I started worrying over finding weather reports for every day, my husband nicely reminded me that I was writing fiction, and maybe should take a break ;)) On the blog, I do tend to use a lot of “according to some sources” because so much is hard to confirm.
        I didn’t think you were trashing Toland- sometimes a particular book just doesn’t “work,” for one reason or another- and eyewitness accounts, while amazing for giving flavor and personality to events, can be tricky as far as accuracy. (Later in the Italy posts I’ll get to the bombing of the Monte Cassino monastery. It was pretty controversial-there are eyewitnesses who said they saw German troops inside, though it doesn’t seem like the evidence bears them out. It just gets tricky.)
        I really did enjoy “seeing” the dive bombers in the new Midway film- and, while I did like the characterization, I missed those in the older version! We’re hoping to manage a viewing of Greyhound this week.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “…Stand around and discuss current events…” really makes me laugh! Not to say its never appropriate, but I’ve seen it so many times in fan fiction where a writer will address something from a TV show (from my own experience with fan fiction) via unnaturally long discussions about things no real person (uh, mentally healthy anyway) would ever go on about. Sometimes its an entertaining device, occasionally even a source of good humor; but its so easy to overuse and break believability.

        I’ve had similar “need to take a break” discussions with my wife like when I was looking for an airplane’s correct tire tread pattern or deciding which shade of Olive Drab to use… There is one particular scale modeling web site I visit that seems to be a breading ground for OCD behavior. Sometimes its tough to know when to quit digging into certain details!

        Is Greyhound now available somewhere other than AppleTV? Or did you just take that plunge?!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. HA! Yes- you can’t do completely without exposition, but there comes a point where it doesn’t serve the story.
        Good for your wife- those sanity breaks are important! 🙂 Some of the history groups are like that too- I’ll readily admit that I’m out of my league when they start criticizing films because of wrong stitching on the collars of uniforms. I think it’s amazing that they can notice that level of detail- I have to rely on many many notes.
        I believe that Greyhound is still just on Apple, and I haven’t gone for it, BUT we have friends who have it and offered us the use of their movie room for a “date” – assuming we can figure out logistics.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. …eh, so much for logistics. Greyhound is a no-go. However, I did get an older film “The Battle of Britain” for Christmas as well- that might be a substitute. I wonder how the planes look in it… 🙂


      6. Bummer about Greyhound.
        But “Battle of Britain” should be a good way to spend an evening. It’s a classic that manages to be its own sort of historically important. It sort of helped kick off the whole warbird movement (which you could be cynical and just say that means rich guys deciding reconditioned warplanes make nice toys; but I like seeing and hearing the vintage machines!) Its been a while since I’ve seen it, but I think they only had a single flyable Hurricane (there has never been more than a couple since the 1950s anyway). They did have several real Spitfires, although mostly later Marks (than they should be). The German planes are particularly interesting, they are all recently retired Spanish Air Force versions. Which means they use the same Rolls-Royce engines the British planes do! They don’t look quite right if you’re in to these things; but considering there were absolutely none of the real things flying the producers of the film did a credible job finding something that fit the part. Those same faux German warbirds have appeared in movies ever since, and are the same planes I complained about seeing most recently in Dunkirk. Not that there’s anything wrong them as such, just that real, period Bf 109s are now available and I don’t get using “faux” if you can have the real thing.

        I could go on… Or were just being polite in bringing it up?!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Sure! I am not at all familiar with the movie, and it’s interesting to hear where they got it right and where it varied! (Agreed about hearing the real machines- several came to an area airport…2 years ago? The kids and I had a great time climbing through bombers and watching takeoff was something else! )

        Liked by 1 person

  2. All, good, solid suggestions, Anne. I can think of a whole bunch of people who would benefit from them (fact) 🙂 but the chances of them ever using them are zero to slim (conjecture but strong). It does make me comfortable to read what you write, however. 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  3. These are such important tips for any writer, my friend! I particularly love seeing what else the author has done, whether it means more of their own subject matter, or perhaps collaboration with other notables that are worth using. Plus looking at an author’s own research can lead to some promising help, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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