Friday, November 28, 2014

My Research Process and Using Primary Resources in Your Writing

My Research Process and Using Primary Resources in Your Writing


When it comes to writing narrative nonfiction, primary sources are like gold for a writer. Primary sources, “...are defined as the direct evidence of a time and place that you are studying – any material (documents, objects, etc.) that was produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event or historical moment under investigation.”  

Last year, while exploring picture book topics for PiBoIdMo, I came across a fairly random article that mentioned that Orville Wright had flown in a C-69 Constellation in 1944.  I knew he passed away in 1948, and this got me thinking about when Orville ‘stopped’ flying.  The idea of Orville’s ‘final’ flight intrigued me.  I knew all about his first flight, but I had no idea about his last.


I started researching voraciously.  I started, like I usually do with Google.   The pitfall with Google is that you can start on one topic and several hours later be lost in a rabbit hole of information.  When I begin researching, especially when using Google,  the first thing I do is open Easybib and start a new project.  

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Then, every single web page, article or video I watch or read of merit gets added to the bibliography.  It’s much easier to remove sources than to add them later. Easybib has an app that you can use to scan the barcode of any book source. It automatically adds the book to your project’s bibliography.  Best of all, Easybib is free!


The second thing I do is print out those sources I think I may want to dig into more carefully. I have found an outstanding tool that I use in the Chrome browser that makes printing from web pages pleasant.  It is called Print Friendly.  

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It gets rid of all the advertising and navigation and even has some very handy tools that can allow you to tweak the PDF to your liking.  These print outs then get put into my research file for each and every topic I begin exploring; you never know what might evolve out of your research.


I have a file box that I keep my writing projects in.  Each project has two folders.  The first is my ‘research file.’  Here is where I keep copies of web pages, articles from magazines, newspapers, etc.  The second file is where I keep drafts, story maps, diagrams, etc.  I print out each draft (and all the comments, additions, etc) as they are created.  


Next, I broaden my search to my public library.  A lot of times I get a preview of books that might be helpful using Google Books.  This gives me a title that I can then reserve from my public library. I used to think that if a book was not available at my library, I was out of luck.  I learned that just about any book can be found on Worldcat.  If a book is available on World Cat, there’s a very good chance that your library can arrange an interlibrary loan. It often takes more than a month to get the book, but if you have time, it is a very good way to get valuable resources for free.

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Next, I explore magazines and newspapers from the time of
the event.  If you have a library card, you probably have free access to a variety of databases.  I couldn’t believe the wealth of tools I could access through my library.  

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For Orville Wright, I learned about his specific ‘final flight’ on April 26, 1944,  and then started reading the national papers to see if there was any mention.  


At some point in my research, I stumbled upon a very weird nugget of information.  I saw that there was an obscure reference to a US Army Film that had the keywords:  Wright Field, C-69 and Constellation.  I printed out the reference not realizing exactly what I had found.  When I tried to dig a little deeper, I couldn’t find out any more.  I didn’t realize it, but the film was actually housed at the National Archives in the Washington, D.C. area.  I called and shared the file number and asked a helpful person there at the archives if the film was digitized and if so could I download it somewhere.  They told me that it was not digitized, and the only way I could ‘view’ it was to come to the archives.  

A few months later was my spring break and I was D.C. bound.  One of my best friends lives out that way, so we met up and then ventured to the capitol.  It was pretty amazing to enter the archives.  I had no idea what to expect, but security and the rules there were very tight.  You couldn’t bring any notebooks, pens, etc.  All writing tools and resources were provided to you inside the research areas.  You were, however,  allowed to bring phones, cameras, etc. to make your copies of the information.

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After submitting a detailed request, we were given official researcher identification cards.  We then went up to the film desk on the fourth floor and made our request.  45 minutes later, we were ushered into a film screening room with our own editing bay.  We put on our white cotton gloves to handle the film can.  I was terrified of messing up the film so I asked the assistant to load it for me.  


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Me with my white cotton gloves on ready to view the film.


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                                               The editing bay where I got to see the film for the first time.

Soon, the editing bay screen came to life.  The silent film flickered and then there before me was a full account of the day.  Orville touring the great plane, inspecting it, climbing up the ladder, taking off and then coming in for a landing.  The whole event captured in one short film.  And as quickly as it started, it was over.  Weeks of planning and organizing my schedule and that was it.  Well, not actually.  I rewound it and watched it several more times.  The final time, I set up my tripod and made a copy of the film.  The archives staff assured me this was okay.  There were no copyrights on the film; it was public domain.  Here is that film for your viewing pleasure for the first time online.


Orville Wright's Final Flight from Todd Burleson on Vimeo.




C69 Archival Footage Small from Todd Burleson on Vimeo.

Now, because we were in D.C. we had to go to the Smithsonian.  There we viewed the extensive Wright Brothers resources including the actual Wright Flyer.


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The original Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.


On my way home, I drove to Dayton, Ohio.  While there, I visited Wright State University and was able to view and make copies of several documents that pertained to my story.  I visited Carillon Park, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and several Wright Brothers exhibits and displays.
Wright Brothers Stainless Steel Monument at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

Model of the Wright Flyer suspended from the ceiling of Wright State University.

One of the coolest and most subtle Wright Brothers monuments at Carillon Park in Dayton.

The Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop at Carillon Park.

The Wright Family Grave Plot.

 I took loads of photographs and bought way too many books, posters and models.   Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to bring all of these as resources on school visits!  

My final stop was the main Dayton Public Library.  I needed to get a copy of the original article that journaled the flight that took place on April 26, 1944.  The Dayton Daily News was not part of the database that my library had access to.  I got to use a good old fashioned microfiche machine.  The particular pages that I wanted to copy did not copy well on the microfiche, so I asked to see the original bound edition of the newspaper.  After a little grumbling by one of the assistants, they went into the bowels of the library to dig it out.  A little while later, there in front of me was the yellowed Dayton news from that very day.  It was interesting to not only read about my topic, but also the news and events from around the world that were featured in the paper.

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Let me leave you with five tips to make your research process as effective as possible.  


  1. Document EVERYTHING!  Sign up for and use Easybib or other bibliography generating tool.  
  2. Allow yourself to ‘wander’ through the fog of the internet.  I discovered the archive footage note about twenty-seven pages in on a google search; I usually give up on about page three.
  3. Don’t be afraid to go to the original source: for me that was Dayton, Ohio and the many research institutions that exist there.  These people are generally the only people in the world who are as excited about your topic as you are!
  4. Even if you live far away from the source, use your local library.  Ask your librarians to help you reserve resources using Worldcat.  It is totally free and incredibly useful!
  5. The National Archives are yours!  Go visit them!




"What is a Primary Source? - Primary Source." 2009. 27 Nov. 2014 <http://www.primarysource.org/what-is-a-primary-source>

36 comments:

  1. Todd, this takes m home, all those great places that commemorate the Wright Brothers in Dayton. This is an excellent post on the proper steps to research. Gonna play that film now. I admit I am not a methodical as you on research and I need to do the bib part 1st. Great post.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Just start with easybib. It is super simple. The best part is that when you are done you can export your sources and it automatically formats your bibliography for you.

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    2. wowza- automatically formats? want to try this one so much - appreciations!

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    1. Thank you! Happy to be able to share and hopefully help folks with this sometimes seemingly overwhelming process.

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  3. This post is a good resource on how to accurately document and regard researched info. Like Kathy, I'm not nearly as organized. However, this is a great intro on how to properly prepare. It seems you had the best time doing this Todd. What a great story you're preparing to do. Well done.

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    1. Thank you Pam! I did have a blast doing this research. To me, that was the best part! Now, to try to get this story in the hands of the "Wright" publisher!

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    2. Maybe the "Wright" publisher will be one of the institutions you found assistance from?
      My memory is that the Smithsonian itself imprint has been on some nonfiction children's books, but can't recall titles.
      And then there are the Wright museums/archives, etc. if a traditional publishers doesn't fly.
      Happy Landing Todd!

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  4. Todd: Being a reseracher is like being a detective. There are so many facts or clues to discover and uncover. Thank you for sharing your interest and passion for the Wright Brothers. The many tips and resources are appreciated. ~Suzy

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    1. Suzy, you are right. I feel like I am trying to solve a mystery when working on a project like this. It was so much fun to go to the archives. I can't recommend that experience enough. It was so cool!

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  5. Thanks for all of the information and tips, Todd. Researching tends to overwhelm me because I have trouble keeping it all organized. This will definitely help!

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    1. Like I said to Kathy, start with easybib. It takes that element of the process out of your hands and allows you to freely explore. It takes the, 'Where the heck did I read that fact about..." out of the equation. Glad to be useful!

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  6. Thank you so much Todd for posting this. I have been wanting to learn more about 'proper research' and this is a great tool to help.

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    1. Virginia, you are most welcome. I am glad that my process can help others. If you ever get a chance to go to the archives, I highly recommend it!

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  7. Wow, Todd that was amazing! Thank you for your step by step description. Good luck with your project!

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    1. Janie, thank you! As you know this project is currently in the hands of Amanda Wright Lane, the Wright family heir. She is doing what she can to help me find a publisher. Here's hoping for a Christmas miracle! I love this story so much. It was a true blast to visit all of these places and learn more about a story I've been fascinated with my entire life.

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    2. Wowza - a descendant is interested in helping you find a publisher. This is fantastic & must have you soaring. These things take time, like long-distance flights, there may be refueling & even repair of some parts. But you will go the distance & break the record - which is at the very least, the first book for young readers about this memorable flight.

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  8. I enjoyed reading about your research process for this book. Awesome!! How cool to see actual videos and newspapers from the day! I hope a publisher picks this up for you!

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    1. Tina, me too! Until I wrote this post, I don't think I realized I had a 'process.' However, in writing it I realized that this process has really helped me let go of that feeling of 'not having things documented.' Now, because I do use this process, I can feel free to explore the items on the bibliography. Plus, I can always get back to those resources through the bibliography. I highly recommend using easybib if you do not. Thanks for the kind words and I also hope that a publisher picks this up from me! Orville is ready to FLY!

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  9. I loved reading this Todd! I can 'hear' the excitement in your writer's voice!

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    1. I've never been accused of not being obsessed with my given topics! Glad you enjoyed the post.

      TB

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  10. This is a terrific post with lots of great advice and tips. Thanks for sharing all this.

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    1. You bet! Happy to have you along.
      TB

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  11. OMG! Thank you so much for sharing that! The Wright brothers' last flights are nothing I'd ever thought about nor would ever have seen if you hadn't thought of it. It was amazing watching such a small part of history unfold, and hopefully soon to be told by you. Oh, and great advice :)

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    1. It's easy to think that all the best stories are already told; if you open yourself up to wonder, there is so much yet to be 'found!' Glad you enjoyed it! Be sure to watch the videos!

      TB

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  12. Glad to share it. Glad it was helpful!

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  13. As a writer of historical fiction (WHEELS OF CHANGE - Creston Books) I enjoyed hearing about your process and where it led. I found some amazing sites while researching Washington DC during the TR administration. The National Archives are a wonderful resource. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. Darlene, honored to have you as a reader. I have not read your novel yet, guess what just got put on our Follett book order for January? The synopsis on your site sounds fantastic! Glad to have you and pleased that you enjoyed the post!

      TB

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    2. Darlene & Todd, I too feel lifted up by reading that Darlene Jacobson is reading this article of our Group Blog. WHEELS of CHANGE is on my list to read - it just recently debuted. It sounds like a winner & I know that the ALA/Amelia Bloomer folks have it in their sights. I haven't had a topic that took me out to the suburban National Archives yet, but it sounds like a researchers perch. My family & I did get goosebumps seeing the NA museum on the mall & the thrilling, original, historical docs on display.

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  14. This post is absolutely a GEM - so informative and interesting! EasyBib is now bookmarked - and this post will soon be shared by yours truly!

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    1. Joanne, glad it was useful. The best part, in my opinion about easybib is you can export it directly to Word. Then you can add it to your final draft and you earn big kuddos!

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  15. Todd, this is genius and provides non-fiction writers with a great road map to finding the information they need. Thanks!

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    1. Jane, glad it was helpful! This process has worked well for me. The two folder system is especially awesome when you get into double digit drafts, edits, etc. best wishes!

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  16. Dear Todd. You are a genius & a natural-born teacher. This article is easily going to become a lively talk you can give to national groups & not just during your classroom presentations. When I saw the Vimeo video you filmed of Orville Wright's Last Flight inside the NA, it was as if I were a WingGirl with Jim. It had a real you are there quality (you are there in the NA) because of the way you framed your footage. This entire post is A+++. Bravo! for it & for a safe landing for your manuscript. Here's a thought if the interested Wright descendant doesn't find a suitable publisher - did Orville or the Wright Family have other connections? Maybe their immigrant heritage - mabye a national group associated with that heritage would consider? Were they very religious? Maybe that faith-based group? Since they were bicycle guys, would a national bicycle history group have tips on a publisher? What about the National Park Service as publisher? One of my dear Dad's favorite museums was at Kitty Hawk, NC & I've been there not only with him, but with my Family in later years. They have books that it seems to me, the NPS published.
    Appreciations for this nourishing post.
    Happy Holidays, too to you & your Family.
    ~ j a n

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  17. You are already reaching an audience with your work on Orville. Thanks for so thoroughly documenting and explaining your process. I'm going to get busy with EasyBib.

    My dad was in the Air Force and we were at Wright-Pat AFB for 4 years. I was a bit sad as I saw the wheels of the Constellation touch down, knowing as Orville may have, that it was the last time he would take to the air. But how thrilling for him and me to know that Orville got to see the progress made with his invention. How cool that your book is going to bring all this back into the awareness of its readers! Best wishes for much success--and a major publisher!

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