Monday 24 August 2015

Research in Creative Nonfiction Part 2 - Nola Passmore

Gathering Information

Last week, I looked at how research can add credibility and depth to your creative nonfiction piece and strike a universal chord that draws readers in.  So how do you gather the right material?

Archival Research

Archival research involves looking through documents to gain information.  These could include shipping lists; birth, death and marriage certificates; newspaper articles; letters; diary extracts; photographs or any other relevant documents.  Some of these will be harder to come by than others and there may be some things you can’t access due to confidentiality (e.g. medical records).  However, you might be surprised at what you can find.  One advantage of the digital age is that a lot of historical documents have been scanned and are now available online.  For those in Australia, the National Archives and the National Library are good places to start.  For those in other countries, a quick Google search should help you locate similar resources.  

It’s also worth noting the difference between a primary and secondary source.  As the name suggests, a primary source includes the original information.  Let’s say you wanted to write a biography about your late grandmother.  A theatre program that lists her as a tap-dancing juggler would be a primary source.  You have direct proof of her former profession.  A secondary source is one step removed (e.g. a book about the history of tap-dancing jugglers that mentions your grandmother).  It’s always good to go back to the primary source so that you can verify the information.  If that’s not possible, use secondary sources that are credible, such as those that back up what they say with evidence.  Many urban myths have been perpetuated by people circulating stories they’ve seen on the internet that have no basis in fact.

Reading documents and looking at photographs can only take you so far.  It’s not as good as being there. That’s where sites like YouTube can help.  Yes, it does have all of those funny cat videos, but you can also access documentaries and news stories on historic and current events.  For example, if you type ‘tap-dancing juggler’ into the search box on YouTube, you’ll be able to access a number of videos that show what your grandmother’s theatre act might have looked like.  Click here for an inspiring example of an actual tap-dancing Grandma (minus the juggling) and note the variety of interesting archival documents her grandson used in making his four-minute film.


If you can directly observe the phenomenon you want to write about, that’s even better.  This can range from unobtrusive observation (standing on a street corner and watching a busker who can tap-dance and juggle), participant observation (taking part in a tap-dancing juggling workshop) to full immersion (spending a year living with a circus or theatre troupe and experiencing the life of a tap-dancing juggler first-hand). However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

  • The mere fact that you’re observing people can alter their behaviour.  That busker on the street corner might notice you and trip over his own feet.
  • You may need to ask permission to observe certain types of phenomena.  For example, you can’t just go backstage in a theatre and watch performers practising their routines.
  • There may be ethical issues involved.  For example, do the people in that tap-dancing juggling workshop know that you’re observing them for a story you’re writing?  This is especially important when dealing with sensitive topics or vulnerable people.  For example, are you befriending people at a homeless shelter because you want to help them or because you think you can sell their story to a magazine?


Interviews can provide a wealth of information, whether it’s expert opinion about the difficulty of tap-dancing while juggling or the recollections of former dancers at the Theatre Royal.  However, interviewing is an art in itself.

  • Take time to establish rapport so that your interviewee is relaxed. 
  • If your interviewee is only available for a short period of time, ask the most important questions first.  You can always find out information that’s in the public domain later (e.g. the date that the Theatre Royal was built).
  • Unless you’re doing straight fact-checking, ask open questions rather than closed or leading questions.  For example, 'what was it like performing at the Theatre Royal in those days?’ would be an open question, while 'how many people worked at the Theatre Royal?' would be a closed question.
  • Try to ask original questions that take the interview in interesting directions.  This is especially important if you’re interviewing a well-known person who’s heard it all before.
  • Plan questions ahead of time, but also be prepared to follow unexpected turns.  If an old family friend mentions that Grandma once dated a Romanian Prince who came to one of her performances, you don’t want to miss the chance to find out more.
  • Don’t be surprised if people have different recollections of the same event.  In some cases, you can check the facts (e.g. When was that Romanian prince in Australia?).  However, if you’re dealing with emotional truth, different perspectives can add texture and balance to your piece.

So what are you waiting for?  Dig into the archives, observe that phenomenon, and interview those tap-dancing jugglers.  In next week’s conclusion to this series, I’ll give some tips for weaving your research into your manuscript in an engaging way.  In the meantime, what topics would you like to research for a creative nonfiction piece?

Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her writing tips blog at their website:  


  1. Great post Nola - lots of great tips there. I agree that the we need to be aware of ethical issues - especially with vulnerable subjects - and also possible legal implications. Confidentiality, anonymity, consent as well as accuracy are all important. Going back to primary sources is also vital - which may be written or oral. Written sources are often thought to be more accurate - though having heard on more than one occasion now a newspaper reported has got the facts wrong or distorted the story from people who were there (and experienced this myself) - even written sources should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. Though sometimes that may be all we have. History, I think, is often a complex weave of 'fact', interpretation and opinion - and is always told from a particular perspective. It helps to think about other people's biases - and be aware of our own :)

    1. Hi Jenny - Thanks for that. Good points. And you're right that we need to even weigh up written evidence, as it's all written through the lens of the author. You just reminded me that triangulation can be helpful - LOL sounds like you're going to strangle someone. In triangulation, you look to see whether different types of evidence line up. For example, whether a newspaper report, a court record and an oral history all show the same thing. But then again, you can still have multiple sources with the same error repeated. And there are a minefield of ethical and legal issues, as you've noted. That could be another whole series :) Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    2. Triangulation is a great approach (used by navigators and astronomers) - though, as you say, you need to work out if one source is repeating the claims of another earlier source (so in that sense are really only one source). All good fun :)

  2. Nola, great post! I've learned so much from this series :)

  3. Thanks Narelle :) Appreciate your comment.


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