March 2020 recap: Primary Source Research

Sharon CathcartTwo weeks ago, our board members recognized that we would need to provide an online option to provide continuity and connection to our members. That included the March meeting, when our scheduled speaker postponed and Sharon Cathcart stepped in on very short notice using an unfamiliar system (Zoom).

Sharon’s start in journalism and non-fiction taught her that “regardless of what genre of writer, none of us can do what we do without research. Research helps us learn what we don’t know and verify what we do.

“Even if you’re creating a fictional world of your own, you need to understand how geography, social science, anthropology, and politics operate in the real world in order to apply them to your tale.”

Primary and Secondary Research

Sharon explained the two basic types of research—primary source and secondary source—and advised starting your research on at the simplest level of secondary research—children’s books.

Primary sources sites: museums, libraries and archives, including on-line archives which many libraries now offer. Primary source documents include “all of those things in the bibliography of secondary source books,” letters, journals and diaries, maps, newspapers.

Research details

Sharon emphasized the importance of research details. Example: The difference between two Louisiana sugar plantation houses (both pictured in her slide show). While one sugar house featured a classic columned front entrance, a comparative sugar house was quite different with its identical pair of staircases rising from opposite corners of the house to the second story entrance—one staircase for women and the other for men!

She offered tips on how to carry out primary source research without stretching your wallet.

Cultural observations can help enrich your story world. Sharon, for example, noticed pineapple motifs showing up in her study of old southern culture. Pineapples signified wealth, she learned, and in an era when visitors showed up for extended periods of time, the host would offer cut up pineapple to guests. The day she offered a whole pineapple served as a “spikey reminder” to visitors that it was time to leave.

More tips for Primary Source research:

  • When traveling, take advantage of tours. “Docents will enrich your story.”
  • A number of museums are putting their collections online, allowing primary source research without travel “in these challenging days.”
  • Look for maps, diaries, newspapers.
  • Google Street View allows armchair researchers to verify locations used in their writing.

Bottom line for authors:

  • Avoid “the rabbit hole.”
  • “Don’t use research as an excuse not to write!”
  • Set a time limit for research.
  • Walk the line: “Readers don’t need to know everything you know, but the more you know, the richer your story will be.”


Jenny Carless recalled an author who would note places to go for research. He visited those places to verify his story after he’d written the book.

Ana Brazil recommended Sanborn Fire Maps, available online. The maps, used from 1866–1960, feature block by block maps of any city, and are available from the Library of Congress.

Mary Feliz on the “rabbit hole”: Blockbuster authors (e.g., PD James and her architectural features) can get away with an overabundance of detail in their stories but, for most of us, a sprinkling of accurate research is sufficient.

Roi Solberg asked, “What’s your process for keeping track of your research?” Sharon explained that she places a bulletin board above her desk that becomes “covered with ephemera,” which remain until the project is finished.