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How I see libraries.


I happened to stop in the library of a community library the other day. It looked gorgeous. It was bright and open with lots of couches and armchairs. I walked around looking for the books and only found a small area of about half a dozen rows of books.

I thought there must be other stacks somewhere else. I walked up the librarian and asked where their local history area was. She took me back to the shelves and pointed out the small area to me. I asked her where the other books were.

She said that the shelves held all of the physical books they had. The rest of their library was digital. So this community college has a library that is smaller than the library of the typical elementary school.

I was floored by this.

I am not against ebooks. I read them and listen to them often. However, when I research, I like having the book open in front of me (usually multiple books).


How my desk usually looks when I’m researching. It wouldn’t be easy to do with e-books.

The librarians seemed unconcerned that they were nearly all digital, but I know a lot of the books that I use for research are not available in a digital form. They are too old and aren’t seen as having enough interest to justify digitizing them. I’ve also heard people complain about modern texts being digital because their layouts can be awkward to use, particularly if there are charts and other graphics in the book. These are just the types of books that I would expect to find in a college library.

The small liberal arts college near my house has a nice multi-floor library with some of the floors filled nearly entirely with books.

I’m not saying that e-books don’t belong in a college library, but it seems that in the case of the community college, the physical books were sacrificed.

Am I wrong in thinking this? What are your thoughts?

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A great Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson. While curiosity may be deadly to cats, it’s an essential quality for writers.

I read a post this morning by Annette Dashofy called “Write what you want to know.” That title struck a chord with me so much that I knew the point she was going to make and why before I even read the post.

I often tell students in my writing classes that they need to be curious. Writers can’t rely on painting a word picture all of the time. They need to beyond that and look at why things are the way they are.

When I was a reporter, I found that a lot of reporters didn’t like to deal with numbers. They were wordsmiths, after all. So they would listen to a budget presentation, for instance, and simply parrot back the points that the budget officer would make without bothering to look at the raw data and see why the final numbers came out that way.

Years ago, I was reporting on a dispute between the sheriff’s office and the county commissioners. The commissioners were complaining that the sheriff’s office kept blowing their budget numbers with too much overtime and the sheriff’s office kept telling the commissioners that grants were paying the overtime. Neither side was giving an inch and nothing was getting solved.

So I looked at the sheriff’s department’s budget and I read through the grants that were being used to pay for the overtime. Then I looked through the county budget office’s numbers for the sheriff’s department. It turned out that yes, the grants paid for the overtime, but not all of the overtime. Taxes and benefits still had to be paid for by the county. So the sheriff’s office was reporting everything as being paid for by the grant and the county was only recording the net amount to the grant.

It was something that wouldn’t have been discovered if I hadn’t wanted to get to the bottom of the dispute.

Certainly having the command of language to create a beautiful scene is a talent, but to move characters through that scene realistically and to have them interact with the world around them in a believable way requires something more.

It requires research.

I can’t think of a book that you might write that wouldn’t require research of some sort. Even an autobiography would require at least cursory research to verify dates.

I would even say that most stories and articles require research. At the very least, you would want to check and see if you’re writing something that has been done before.

Good research goes further than that, though. Understanding character motivations, how things work, and the history behind things requires work.

I’m working on a biography of a WWII Marine right now called, Clay Soldiers. I’ve been lucky enough to spend hours with the subject interviewing him, but I have also had to research a number of topics, including Guadalcanal; Tarawa; the S.S. Bloemfontein; Auckland, New Zealand; the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; the last living Civil War veteran; atomic bomb testing; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Orrville, Ohio; sculpting; the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots; and Walt Disney to name a few. Not every topic has required the same level of research, but they all needed more information than the person I was interviewing could provide.

So how do you know what to research?


If you are writing and find yourself wondering about something that’s your subconscious telling you that you need more information. Perhaps there’s a gap in your logic or your lack of understanding about how something works is showing when you write about it. Trust that instinct and find out more.

I have never been disappointed when I did research. I found out enough to write knowledgeably about the subject. I didn’t always include everything I found out, but having that knowledge allowed my writing to sound authentic.

Often, I would find out something I hadn’t known that when I included it, made me sound a lot more knowledgeable than I am. I might also find out new storylines to pursue.

Your writing has to engage readers and make them curious enough to want to read on, but if it doesn’t engage you as the writer and make you curious enough to ask questions and want to find answers, then you need to go back and rework your story.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s the writer’s best friend.


norweg6I’ve been teaching a class about writing historical fiction recently. During the class, I try to stress the importance of researching not only events of the era in which you are writing, but also how people lived during that era. Even if you don’t use all of the information you research, what you discover could influence how your characters act.

In addition, you can discover wonderful nuggets of information that can add to the richness of your story.

I was researching an article today about a woman who fought with the Norwegian Resistance during WWII. It’s an interesting story, but the articles I found only referenced her as Mrs. Jorgen Hartman. It is the newspaper style of the time to reference married women in this was. However, my article is about her so I started trying to find out what her first name was.

I started trying to find her husband’s name and then her father’s. I found a couple interesting things right away before I even found her first name. Her husband’s uncle was Nils Bohr, who helped make the atomic bomb. I’m still trying to verify this since I thought her husband was Norwegian and Bohn was Danish.

Then I discovered that her father was also in military intelligence, although he seems not to have done field work, but he was involved in some major operations.

Then I found Mrs. Hartman’s first name (Norma), but I also discovered that she seems to have left Norway in 1945 by herself and remarried later in the year. That means she was either divorced or a widow.

I’m still trying to find out what happened, but if she was a widow, it begs the question as to what happened to her husband since he also helped her in the Resisitance. Was he caught and executed?

So now I’ve got another thread to try and unravel and my article seems to be growing in scope.

The searching can be a pain, but it is also fun, particularly when you start discovering things like I am finding. So don’t skip on your research, you won’t regret it.

confused-boy-with-books1I could use some feedback on a new project I’ve got going.

I decided to expand a short e-book I did a couple years ago into a full-length book. Should I keep the same title?

I’ve seen this done before in the past with other authors when they have expanded a short story into a novel. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is an example of this.

However, in that situation, the short story was in a magazine and so when the novel came out, it was obviously an expanded work. That won’t be the case with an e-book. I don’t want the people who purchased the short e-book to think it is the same thing as the longer, more-expensive book.

Would having a new cover be enough?

Should I put something on the cover or in the book description that says that the new book is expanded upon the shorter work?

I could change the title, but I like the original title and I think it captures the story of the book.

So what are your thoughts?


I took a trip out to Western Maryland on Friday to do some research for Saving Shallmar. I’ve finished the first draft, but I tracked down someone else who lived in the town and took the opportunity to talk to her about what she remembered.

I didn’t expect to hear much new at this point given how much I’ve researched the subject. I guess that’s vanity on my part because I did get some new information and a very different perspective on things from this lady. I’ve got plenty of information to weave into my first draft and some interesting and hilarious stories I’ll have to research for possible articles.

I don’t know why I’m always surprised (happily) when I interview someone and get a lot of new information for a story. That’s why I do the interviews.  Part of me is always looking for more information and part of me seems to think that there isn’t anything new to say.

I’m glad I’m able to fight off that lazy side of myself because my books and articles are much richer because of the research I do and the people who I can speak with. My hope is that people will have a real sense of life in a dying coal mining town in Western Maryland when the book is done.

I just looked at the bibliography for Saving Shallmar. So far, it includes 110 newspaper articles, 11 people who were interviewed, 16 books, 2 journal articles, 28 reports and 12 web sites for 50,000-word book. Those numbers will increase because I’ve still got some loose threads I’m investigating.

Not all research is going through old books in a dark library and sneezing every time you turn the page because you’re stirring up dust. No, research can be fun and it makes the job even more fun.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was talking to a business owner about an article I was writing and he asked if I was interested in writing about a new product line he was going to be carrying…dune buggies. I said, yes, it would make a nice business story for one of the newspapers I freelance for. He told me that I could come out next month and test drive one for a couple hours…yes…pictures to come.

That incident made me think of some other interesting research experiences I’ve had.

  • Researching an article on Western Maryland ghost towns: I’ve explored old mining ghost towns and had to claw my way up to the top of a slag heap, hoping I wouldn’t fall off hundreds of feet into the river below .
  • Researching an article on a WWII aircraft show: I’ve flown in a restored B-17 that had to make a forced landing because of ice on the wings.
  • Researching an article about advances in aviation: I’ve flown and landed an airplane to test out a new radar system.
  • Researching an article about a county fair:  I drove in a demolition derby and watched the car next to me catch on fire while I was stuck in my own car.
  • Researching an article on a big police drug bust: I following police into the home an alleged drug dealer as they forced their way in and made an arrest.
  • Researching an article about firefighter training: I participating with a group of trainees putting out a fire as a 1200-degree fireball rolled across the top of our water line only a foot or so above our heads.

Boy, writing can be alot of fun!

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