How to Research Non-Fiction Book Content On-Location
My 19 year-old son is a history major in college with aspirations of attaining his Ph.D. and someday teaching at a major university. This summer, he wanted to start work on producing his second book. He has already produced one book about how to become a teenage baseball umpire. This new book of his will have something to do with Civil War history, a hot topic in the news these days.
When I suggested we take a trip so he could research his topic on-location, he jumped at the chance. Over the course of 8 days, we toured 6 Civil War battlefields in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. No, we were not part of the Chattanooga riots! In fact, we didn't even know the event was happening at the time we were there because my son did not allow me to watch news for the duration of the trip. Smart kid!
Along the way, I accumulated a list of best practices for researching a book on-location since I had never researched a book by going on-location. Here is a quick list of core basics:
- Know what you want to see. Research locations online long before you see them on-site.
- Schedule your plane trip with direct flights so you can spend most of your time researching instead of fighting with plane transfers and airports.
- Schedule your time so you get to see what you need to see.
- Create a financial budget and stick to it.
- Stay at hotels with free breakfasts and eat there every day to stay ahead of budget.
- Plan to get up early and start the day.
- Wear jeans if you plan on walking in tall grass to avoid exposure to ticks.
- Party less...research more.
- Bring a jump drive so you can dump your pictures and video off of your phone or camera so you will have more room the next day.
- Beat rush hour traffic.
- Avoid toll roads using your phone's GPS. The back roads will provide much more details toward your research.
- Avoid social media posts until you return so that there is no chance of your home being burglarized while you are away.
- Never shave and rarely shower. If you want to be a researcher, ya gotta look the part, ya know?
Those are the obvious things you will want to do when researching your book on-location. Now, I'd like to offer some specific additional tips most people will not tell you.
Book Research Tip 1: Never Let Weather Stop You
We only had one day of rain, but we were prepared. In this picture, we are wearing very light rain jackets and refused to let the weather get us down. I even bribed one of the battlefield rangers to give us a tour in the rain.
Checking a bag with some extra clothing is well worth paying the luggage price. You can also ship a package to the hotel in advance and have them hold the package for you until you arrive.
When we were at the Manassas battlefield, we were amazed how many volunteers were just sitting around waiting for people to arrive and ask them questions. The weather obviously drove visitors away. Don't you be one to let weather sideline your book research plans! Come prepared for anything and stick to your schedule.
Book Research Tip 2: Go Where Others Choose Not To Visit
Our paid guide at Antietam voiced his disgust regarding how most visitors to the Antietam battlefield never get out of their cars. Battlefield parks are designed so you can walk the fields on your own and go right into the most historical (and bloody) areas of the war. We sure took him up on that as we walked right into the fields, corn fields, and the Sunken Road where soldiers died by the thousands in a single day battle.
In this pic, we are on horseback at Gettysburg, which enabled us to see a few places from a much different perspective that we would not have seen by car or on foot.
The point is that on-site research for book content demands your desire to get dirty and find the places most people are not willing to go to learn the facts you need for a high quality book.
Book Research Tip 3: Look for Things People Do Not Know About
During the first major battle of the Civil War (Manassas, also known as Bull Run), the battle was simply chaos. Neither side knew what they were doing and many soldiers lost their lives because of their inexperience and the lack of leadership skills among their young officers. By the time the Battle of Fredericksburg occurred four years later, both sides were so experienced, they used defensive tactics that would later be used in World War I.
This photo is a good example of finding things people do not know about. If you have seen the movie Gettysburg (which I highly recommend), you would see soldiers standing in formation lines shoulder width apart firing toward their opposing lines only 20 years away.
The average person seeing this image would have an entirely different view of the progression of the war. It is a gun hole. A soldier could point his gun through this hole and protect his entire head from being hit by a bullet coming in their direction. Standing behind a solid rock wall at the same time provided a fortified defensive position not seen in most previous engagements.
Book Research Tip 4: Be Open to New Book Ideas
I'm writing mostly about Manassas (Battle of Bull Run) in this post because it had the biggest impact on me. There were actually two battles there. The first one was the chaotic, unorganized one-day battle described earlier. The second was a year later and lasted for three days.
In this particular photo, my son and I are pointing out the location at Chinn Ridge where the southern Confederate army nearly won the war. Their intent was to overpower the north's Union army by surrounding it and conducting a slaughter fest.
Thanks to 1,200 brave Union soldiers and the skill and experience they attained over the past year of fighting, the Union was able to slow down the advance of the south consisting of 6,000 soldiers so that the Union had the time to gather its troops from multiple locations and begin their retreat.
The commitment and sacrifice of those 1,200 made me realize how experiences in the Civil War have a lot in common with starting and expanding businesses. In this case, the similarity is the amount of sacrifice you must be willing to make so that your business can go on and win at the end.
Voila! There's my next book topic! And, I was not on that trip to conduct research for my own book. I was simply open minded to consider ideas as they became made available to me.
When you go on-location to research your book content, be open to the idea that other book topics may enter your mind as a possibility resulting from your initial research topic intent!
Bonus Book Research Tip: Enjoy the Food!
A bonus research tip would be to make sure you enjoy yourself in the pursuit of your content. I still believe making a quality pancake in Colorado is impossible because of the altitude and dryness. So, anywhere I go down in altitude I am sure to read online reviews for the best pancakes in town. Pick a day or two to skip the free hotel breakfast and find a local non-chain restaurant to taste the local fare. As long as you stay within your budget, you will not have any financial surprises when you arrive home.
As a closing word about researching your book topic on-site, I'm thinking of a Warren Miller quote he always used to say in his skiing movies, "Do it now or you'll only be one more year older when you do."