I’m going to be called a neo-luddite for this post, but I’m not really too bothered. Despite having Internet access everywhere we go now, nothing compares to getting out into the world and doing some proper research. Internet access can’t tell you how something smells or feels to the touch. You don’t get the same vibe and you definitely won’t get the same off-the-cuff responses from people you interview if you do it by email. There really is no comparison. That’s why I wanted to write this post – to encourage more indie writers to get out and away from the computer when they research. Also, I wanted to make a check-list for writers so they don’t forget anything when they do head out on a research trip.
I’ve found that most people I have asked for help have been more than happy to oblige. Except for this one hotel receptionist in Aberdeen who completely blanked me. There’s always one. I would even say that some people find it quite exciting to be part of the novel-writing process. So, the first thing I would say is, don’t be shy. Get out there and talk to people about why you’re visiting and what you’re hoping to learn. It’s potentially more people who will read your novel. Just remember that if you thank them in the acknowledgements section, you must get written permission as per the new GDPR rules. *groan*
My fear about approaching people has to do with my ever-present imposter syndrome. I always worry that people won’t believe I’m a writer. Maybe I don’t look professional enough, or I don’t speak well and fluff my words so they don’t think I’m smart enough to write a book. These are the fears that sometimes prevent me from researching in real life so I’m going to put them all aside for good. You should too.
I recently went on a research trip to Dundonald Castle and I packed a few things that I considered to be essential. Here is my list of those 20 items that you shouldn’t research without.
- Backpack – It’s a good idea to start with the most basic thing and that’s a place to put all your research materials.
2. Smartphone – Most of us carry a smartphone around with us anyway, but it’s worth putting in since it’s essential. It can also replace some of the other items on this list, but I would never recommend relying solely on your smartphone. It can get dropped, crash or you can lose coverage.
3. Camera – It’s definitely something that is essential and even if you have a great camera on your smartphone, you can easily run out of memory. That’s why it’s a good idea to invest in a compact camera that will be light and easily transportable for your research trips. I use a Nikon Coolpix, and even though it is ancient in terms of digital cameras, it still takes awesome, clear, crisp photos that provide lots of detail I can work from.
4. Notebook – A plain lined notebook, or a notebook with just blank pages is essential. You’ll need to keep all your notes together and keeping them all in one book is the best idea. I like notebooks with cute animals on them. I find them quite inspiring. That’s just what works for me, because it’s what I write about. I’m sure that most people would find a plain notebook sufficient!
5. Pencil – If you need to do sketches of the area, a pencil is a good thing to pack. I also like to do shorthand in pencil because it’s easier to undo mistakes in pencil than in pen. It keeps things much tidier and it’s easier to read your notes back.
6. Pens – This is kind of obvious as every writer will take a pen with them, but it’s a good idea to take a few pens, just in case you run out of ink. And as a stationery addict, I don’t think you can ever have enough pens.
7. Livescribe pen – This is something that most people wouldn’t have heard of. I carry a smartpen during research trips. A smartpen is a pen that takes notes and stores them in audio files in the pen’s memory. You can listen back to them when you get home. It’s great for interviews and also for storing your own thoughts when you’re walking around. I wouldn’t be without one now. I originally got it for taking notes during university lectures but it’s been handy in my writing life too. I’m going to write a review of it soon, so when I do I’ll add a link to that here.
8. Nibs for Livescribe pen – The great thing about these smartpens is that you can change the nib and they come in black or blue. I’ve been using mine for over a year and haven’t had to change a nib yet but I guarantee that the first time I do will probably be on a research trip. It’s important to keep a spare nib handy because the nib coming in contact with the special notebook is how you operate the pen.
9. Livescribe notebook – As I just mentioned, the notebook is made of special paper that helps you to operate the pen. I wouldn’t recommend using the Livescribe notebooks for general notes because they are expensive and you obviously don’t want to waste the paper.
10 and 11. Powerbank and charging cables – This would be important for keeping the smartphone and the smartpen charged. I use one that has two USB ports so I can charge up two devices at once. It can also charge up using lightning cables or micro USB cables. I’ve posted a picture and a link to the one I use (I also reviewed it on OxGadgets last year if you want to read about it) but I also have another smaller and lighter one that I use. Depending on how much you’ve packed and how heavy your bag is, a lighter one might be a better investment.
12. Business cards – This is common sense but it’s amazing how often I forget to pack my business cards. It’s good to hand over your card to those you interview, staff at any places you’re researching or just anyone you get chatting to. I had a phase where I started leaving my business cards on public transport too, kind of like a Millennial Milk Tray Man, but obviously female.
13. Snacks and water – I’d like to say something worthy, like this is so you can keep your energy levels going and stay hydrated, but really I just like to cover every eventuality. If research takes longer than you expect or if you miss your bus/train, you might need a snack to keep you going.
14. Wipes or tissues – A good investment, so you can clean up, keep things clean and tidy. I’m all about the hygiene. And you never know what messes you might get into.
15. Cash – It makes sense. You might want to buy something interesting that you’ve found, like a souvenir or a guidebook that provides lots of photos and information. You might need to call a taxi or pay for public transport. Or, you might need to pay an unexpected entrance fee. It’s always a good idea to have some real cash on you rather than a debit card.
16. Spare batteries – A good idea for the digital camera, if it takes batteries at all. I know a lot of them charge with a built-in battery these days but if yours is as old as mine, you won’t want to miss out on any chances to take pictures.
17. Antibacterial gel – You never know what you’ll be touching, especially if you’re going to a historical site. Don’t let a mess put you off getting your research done.
18. Map of the local area – Your phone might die. Simple as that. It’s better to have a paper map as a backup.
19. Previous research notes – You might have made a list of things that you need to look into or there could be some sketches that you’ll have to complete with details you’ve found during your visit.
20. Copy of one of your books – I usually take a copy of Leger – Cat Sleuth. It’s my biggest seller, it has a cute cat on the cover and it’s a novelette, so it’s around 8,000 words and doesn’t look like it will take a long time to read. Take a book or article that reflects who you are but also gives you a lot to talk about. When I say that my book is about a Glaswegian cat who goes around the city solving the crimes that the human’s can’t solve themselves, it really gets people interested.
21. Last but not least, a sense of humour! – no affiliate link for this one. You’ll have to source it yourself!