Guest post: Jesi Buell on how to use research in creative writing

Image by Richard Khuptong from Pixabay

Note from Allison: For a while now, I’ve been hoping to feature guest posts from authors who are interested in talking about the role of research in their creative work. Jesi Buell has been kind enough to take the leap and be my first guest author! I’m really excited to feature her creative research tips. If you are a writer who would be interested in penning a similar guest post, I would love to hear from you.

Hello – my name is Jesi Buell and I am an instructional design and web librarian at Colgate University. I also write under the name ‘Jesi Bender’ and run a small press for experimental literature called KERNPUNKT Press. My own writing varies from poetry and flash to novels and plays (I’ve written three novels – one published in 2019 called The Book of the Last Word – and a play coming out later this year called KINDERKRANKENHAUS). I wanted to share some tips on how I use research in my writing and creative endeavors.

I usually start off my research with encyclopedias. This includes Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia, but it’s important to recognize it’s strengths and weaknesses. I also love more academic encyclopedias you can find in libraries as well as encyclopedias from the specific time period I’m researching. The way things are written about as well as what is actually written about (and what isn’t) in these older encyclopedias gives you a really good idea of the time’s ideals and mores. When reviewing these sources, I usually keep two lists; one for the facts, one for the language. For example, when researching for a poem on Georgia O’Keeffe, I found information about where she lived, important moments in her life, and different relationships but I also found beautiful words/terms unique to her life, like Ghost Ranch or Stieglitz.

After you’ve exhausted encyclopedias, you can move to books or journal articles and find helpful analysis of a person or time period. But I usually find myself going after more primary sources – things you can find in museums and archives. Sometimes, your subject has entire museums devoted to them (like with Georgia) but some subjects are more niche and you have to get creative in order to find resources. When researching lesser known subjects, I rely heavily on WorldCat, a catalog shared by institutions across the world where you can find more obscure items. I also try to find unique university holdings in their archives. This can be tricky but an easy way to do this is find an expert on your subject and see where they teach or work. Often these institutions will hold materials related to their research interests. You can also find books or journals they’ve written and check their bibliography to see where they got their resources. Another treasure trove can be newspaper databases, a place to get an idea of terminology from the time as well as the social constructs that existed then.

I’ll leave off by suggesting that writers contact their local librarians for assistance on finding resources related to their writing. Try reaching out beyond the expected (Wikipedia, Google) to see what you can find in archives, movies, newspapers, artwork, and other less traditional scholarly materials.

You can find more information on my writing here –

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