For me, investigative work goes along with writing. It usually begins with a question or questions.
Whether it is an historical piece, science, political and/or corporate criminal issues, crime scene, etc., it takes time, concerted effort, motivation and determination to find the facts.
It’s up to you to decide whether to weave the story into a non-fictional or fictional piece.
I usually start online. With online material, be careful. Don’t believe everything that’s out there, and double check and recheck what you find; it’s the best way to approach the truth.
I strongly urge anyone to visit the library. I say this for a couple of reasons.
First, the library holds a wealth of information that is at your fingertips; it’s just a matter of finding it.
Second, the librarian holds even more information than the library. That person has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. I encourage you to actually talk to your librarian; he or she is one of the best assistants and assets you have without a price tag involved.
In Philadelphia, The Free Library of Philadelphia is a good start, but the Library Company of Philadelphia is a great source for American historical information between the periods of the 17th through the 19th centuries.
Talk to People
Talking to the people you meet, interviewing them, listening to them, and observing them, is the best way to gather information. This information is living and breathing, while the other information you gather is not. Take this to heart and be wise.
Telling other people what you are working on can work to your benefit. Sometimes other people have information you don’t; and guess what? Discovering that information can open your world.
A human connection is the best connection, since the person(s) can become one of your greatest allies.
Examples of Investigative Work
Investigative work like this can be difficult. It depends on what you’re seeking for your story. If you’re going into crime, political and corporate criminal issues, plan on finding that information buried with roadblocks. It’s possible your search will be perceived as invasive.
But remember, it’s just a matter of getting around those barriers.
From online, to library visits, to actually visiting the place(s) you’re writing about, it takes time and persistence to find the information you’re seeking. Don’t give up, stay strong and keep going. Be patient with yourself.
Here are a few stories where research was a must:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
While sitting in science class, Rebecca Skloot questioned about where the immortal cells grown in culture came from…
“Good science is all about following the data as it shows up and letting yourself be proven wrong and letting everything change while you’re working on it. I think writing is the same way. I think the process of this book was that. I mean I started writing it, thinking I was just writing a book about the cells and the woman they came from. What you image the unknown is going to be is never actually what it is.”
A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr
Woburn, Massachusetts, 1970s, children getting sick and dying. The water tasted funny.
This book, later turned into a movie of the same name, has a personal note for me.
I was visiting my Woburn relatives during that time.
You could see the neon Beatrice Foods sign from my relative’s kitchen window. We all complained about the water; that there was something wrong with it.
We couldn’t have imagined the irony of our view.
My great cousin sitting in her living room pointed to all the houses and told of the number of neighbors’ children who were very sick, many of them with leukemia. The number was unnervingly high. And that was only her block.
I, too, succumbed to extreme illness during our visit there that year.
I never found out the truth until the movie was released in 1998. You simply cannot imagine my shock and horror to find out what I had been unknowingly exposed to; I realize if I had lived there, I would have been one of those very sickly, dying children, meeting my end much too early.
Daily Bread by Steve Edwards (short story published by Electric Literature)
When I initially read this story, I was completely ignorant of the truth it held, but there was something about the “feel” of this story that made me do my own research. After carefully going online to numerous and various sources, I found that the University of Minnesota did do a starvation experiment in 1944.
Trying to figure out how to handle the starvation issues that plagued World War II, the University of Minnesota was trying to draw conclusions to help those starvation victims, and asked for volunteers.
It is unclear to me how much Edwards kept the story as fact or fiction, but his character names did reflect those that partook in the experiment along with the doctors’ names being correct. Was the story 100% accurate? I don’t know, but I’d love to hear what Edwards says about how he came upon this story, and if one of his relatives were one of the members of the experiment…
And if he found that information tucked away…in the salted creases of paper.
Other recommendations I have are: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny; Into the Wild by Jon Kakauer
I encourage you to write what is in your heart, or what question(s) you want answered and then go find those answers. In the process, you’ll find much more than what you had imagined.
There are so many other stories, both told, and those yet untold, that need a voice and a place for them to be read and heard.
If you get overwhelmed and discouraged at times, keep working at it. The reward outweighs the difficulties you may have had. Look at the evidence of those writers who came before you and there are plenty more writers like them—now come join the club!