The way you go about researching?

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I’m often asked, ‘What do you write about?’ My answer is always, ‘Anything and everything’. Which doesn’t really tell anyone much at all, but it’s true.

I have my particular areas of interest (some of my published articles are on this website) and when I get a spurt of writing activity I might fire off a query letter to a magazine which specialises in that particular area. But often the ideas just come from the ‘random ****’ department. For example, I was recovering from the ‘broken leg on your wedding day’ scenario and laid up in plaster, when I started musing about the forthcoming Olympics and what related topics might not have much written about them.

Old dusty booksIn my early days of writing pre-internet, which makes me sound positively prehistoric, I would spend hours in the library, pouring over the huge, leather-bound and gold-embossed Encyclopaedia Britannica. (My husband and I can spend hours debating the plural of such Latin words, before turning to search engines for confirmation of who is right. Maybe we need to invest in some more interesting date nights.) This not only helped me produce articles on diverse topics, but also provided me with answers to competition questions in the days when you had to really put some effort into answering their questions, and especially when you had to write a slogan. For years I reeled in great prizes – so useful to me as a single parent at that time.

As to how I conduct research nowadays: the internet is, of course, a great source of info, as long as you really do double-check and cross-reference your findings. Wikipedia is in this respect a great starting-point and I tend to respond to the annual appeal to make a donation – whoever would have thought years ago that a free (and often unverified) online encyclopaedia would be so successful?

So – back to the Olympics – I embarked on trying to answer questions I was posing to myself. Have the winning medals always been gold? Who is the oldest Olympian ever? A bit of lateral thinking about who might be interested, and articles appeared in magazines as diverse as a hunting and shooting magazine and one devoted to the gold industry. This kind of research, about where there may be an interest in your ideas, is actually the hardest bit of the process – much harder than getting down to the actual writing. And I still find the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ invaluable, though I prefer this in good old-fashioned paper format.

Sometimes a chance visit will set off a train of thought. For example, I happened to be in a pub in Lydney, Devon. On the wall were some ancient coins. So – a bit of digging about them and I then had an article for a coin collector’s mag.

And sometimes you will be asked to research and develop an outline further than your original idea. Reflecting on my previous hobby of belly dancing, several pitches resulted in articles about dance, but also a request from a high street magazine to convert the outline into a broader ‘sexercises’ article, which they then published. I kid you not.

But please don’t ask if I had to do any other research!