Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Finding True Stories to Add Color to Your Writing

I've learned a neat little trick lately when I'm looking for background or research material for my novels. I want to read true stories written by people who've gone through the same things my characters struggle with. Sometimes you can find biographies that are helpful, of course, but I've been frustrated using those. It takes a lot of time to plow through a whole book on one person's life, and then you've only gotten one story, one perspective.

I've discovered there are lots of books out there that are crammed full of personal stories about people who have gone through a certain kind of experience or illness or trauma. And one good way to find those books when searching a library catalog is to add the phrase "case studies" to your search.

The term "case studies" is one of those terms that library catalogers use as an attachment to the main subject headings. If you just stick it into your keyword search, the catalog will locate books with the term in the title, subject heading, etc. I just played around with WorldCat (a really neat combined catalog from thousands of libraries that I told you about earlier) and tried things like "schizophrenia case studies," "domestic violence case studies," "poison case studies"--you get the idea.

Of course, as with any keyword search, you come up with a lot of junk to wade through, too. You know another trick you can use in library searches to get rid of all that irrelevant stuff? Zero in on one book title that looks good. Click on its title and open its catalog record. Look at the "Subject Headings" or "Related Subjects" that are listed. These aren't keywords; they're the subjects the librarians use when cataloging the books. In most catalogs today, the subjects are hot links, and if you click on one, you'll bring up a list of just the books with that heading. You should now have a very focused list.

In a story I'm working on, a character has a bout of memory loss after an injury. First of all, I didn't want it to come across like an old episode of Gilligan's Island or I Dream of Jeannie--you know, get conked on the head, memory flees. Conked on the head again, memory returns. Second, I'm struggling with one part of the story. I was so excited last night to start reading a chapter in this book that was so similar to my character's experience. I now know so much more about how she should behave during the ordeal. Not only that, I got ideas for making a couple of scenes so much more powerful because of this real woman's experience.