researching from fiction


Written on Friday, May 22, 2009 by haleigh

So I managed to pick several ambitious topics for my current WIP, which are going to require a lot of research. International gun running, cooperation between British and US intelligence agencies, the inner workings of terrorist organizations, etc.

I've got tons of books from the library. I have books on illicit smuggling rings, memoirs of CIA agents, books on intelligence gathering. But what I can not find, for the life of me, is good non-fiction books on the IRA, a Northern Irish terrorist organization. I found one book, but it was written in the 1960's. Good for background info, but not so current.

What I did find is three well-written suspense novels revolving around the IRA. So what do you think? In the absence of good info, go for fiction info? One of the authors is actually from N. Ireland, so he seems like he might know what he's talking about. And I'm working off my basic memory of Belfast and Derry from those two weeks I spent in N. Ireland five years ago.

Ever used other fiction novels for research? Do you think it's okay to go with the fiction cannon of something, if no good research exists? I think this happens a lot with historical fiction. Things become commonly accepted in fiction, so we go with it even if it's not quite historically accurate. After all, you don't want readers being pulled out of a story to go double check your facts, even if they are true.

So what do you do for research when you can't find the truth?

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  1. MeganRebekah |

    I would never rely on fictional works for factual information. It's like relying on Wikipedia :)
    That said, I think you could gain a good understanding of the IRA through those novels and depending on how involved the IRA is in your WIP, you may or may not need to dig further.
    If the IRA is just a blip, or brief part of a backstory, you'll probably be okay. If it's a central part of the work, I would definitely look further for more information. Contact a nearby college/university and email or call the history professors. Find an older set of printed encyclopedias.

    Good luck!

  2. haleigh |

    LOL Megan! I teach in my day job, and I'm constantly harping on my students not to use Wikipedia. Our university has an excellent library and research staff, yet still, they go straight to Wikipedia.

    Unfortunately for me, the IRA plays a huge role in my story. My hero is undercover inside the IRA. Thanks for the excellent suggestions on research ideas!

  3. MeganRebekah |

    I was a middle school social studies teacher for two years, back when Wikipedia was still fairly new, but my savvy little 8th graders would still flock to it.
    It actually was a great lesson, because I good teach them about primary and secondary sources.

    Since the IRA is a major part of your story, you definitely want some primary sources. I'd suggest going to the Wikipedia page and scrolling all the way to the bottom and seeing what sources were used and see if you can find those books or articles. (that's the biggest benefit of Wikipedia!)

  4. Melissa |

    I think that fiction DOES have a place in research, but maybe as an indirect source? I mean if you read in fiction about "real" people or places mentioned, then it's kind of like a lead for you to further research, if that makes sense?

    For general descriptions; clothing, accents, setting, I think fiction is invaluable. I've done it myself for getting an "idea" on ways to actually incorporate that factual non-fiction clothing, architecture or furniture description. Not copying of course :), but as a way to learn and emulate what works.

    Another idea for using fiction sources is maybe the author's web site might just have posted some of the research information he/she used. Or, would it be a crime to be so bold as to ask the author directly a question on his/her research notes/sources?

    As far as searching for more non-fiction sources, out of curiosity I did a search on for "Northern Ireland IRA" and a lot of current/recent non-fiction books and articles came up. If you didn't want to buy (some of those scholarly journals get pricey!), it could be a starting point if you take the list to a library. I bet you could get an inter-library loan if something looked right up your alley and you had the bibliographic info.

  5. Jessica |

    Uh-oh. Wikipedia is not factual? Not reliable? *groaning*
    NO, I don't like research. Okay, well, I'm insatiably curious so I do like research, but I'm not mentally organized so I tend to mix things up, I think. I did a ton of research for my historical and still managed to not know logical details. Like whether there were fridges in 1918. Heh.
    So...I try to stick to stuff I know now.

    I think you should contact the authors of those books and asked them what they used for research. :-)

  6. haleigh |

    Wow, you guys have great ideas for research. This is excellent!

    Megan - thanks for the tips! Kids right? It's amazing how resourceful they are, even at that age :)

    Melissa - for some reason I was so set on books, journal articles didn't even occur to me. And our school has subscriptions to tons to those. Total blond moment :) thanks!

    Jessie - I'm curious too. I love just flipping through Wikipedia pages. You learn all sorts of interesting stuff :)


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