Researching Your Children's Book: Look it up

24th March 2014
8 min read
7th October 2020
Allan Boroughs

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on researching your children’s novel, I looked at the benefits of travel as a spur to creativity and then how exploring other artistic channels could add to the authenticity of your writing.  But, however much globetrotting and getting in touch with your inner child you do, there comes a point where you need to look up some honest-to-God facts.

The internet beckons.

Now I don’t want to alarm anyone but the internet is a devious animal.  Approach it incautiously and it will prove more distracting than a snake in a sleeping bag.  What may start as simple query about the depth of Lake Titicaca can rapidly spiral out of control until, before you  know it, it's 3.00am and you are peering at the screen through red-rimmed eyes learning how the British royal family are really a group of flesh eating lizards.  (Believe me I have read that article and it’s not worth staying up for).

Clearly some discipline is called for when approaching this on-line time-sucker lest you be drawn into its lair like a hapless lotus eater. Colleagues who work in full time research roles tell me of the dangers of going online with only a vague notion of what you are looking for and then being drawn into a hopeless spiral of interesting links.  This is analogous to navigating from London to Birmingham by making an entirely random choice at each junction.  The key, I am told,  is to tackle internet research with a very clear question in mind and then take a rigorous approach to answering it.  

So far, so good, but where to go for information?  Obviously this question has as many different answers as there are subjects to write about.  However, in my own research, I have found several sources that I have consistently returned to because they have provided easy access to high quality research ore and for anyone wondering where to start I would offer the following.

Firstly I find it helpful to categorise the type of query I wish to make.  I have found these generally fall under one of four separate headings:

  1. Hard facts
  2. Specialist knowledge 
  3. Writers’ tools
  4. Wacky stuff 

Alright, this is perhaps not the most stylish taxonomy but it works for me; so what do these labels actually cover?  (Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list – every writer has their own pet sources of data, these are mine.  I’d love to have included yours, but you weren’t here).

1. Hard Facts:  

Difficult to argue with, this is really about the nuts and bolts of “stuff that is true”. In a scarily short space of time, the standard jumping off point for “stuff that is true” has become Wikipedia – an online, collectively-policed encyclopaedia that provides the source of all knowledge in the hive mind.  

Except that it doesn’t.  Whilst Wikipedia is a great tool, much will depend on how rigorous you need your answers to be. Checking a simple fact can be fine but more than that can lead you into a world of fake articles, opinion and vested interest that can seriously undermine the credibility of your research.  

There is no easy answer as to where you should go for hard facts.  There are lots of online and offline encyclopaedias, public access documents, public and private organisations that can help you.  However, like any good journalist – if the fact is important enough to write down then you should get into the habit of checking it in more than one source.

2. Specialist knowledge:  

My first novel, Ironheart, was set in Siberia, in a flooded land, with roaming oil rigs, a two hundred year old shaman and a lost civilisation. Clearly I was going to need some specialist help.  

My research was heavily influenced by two excellent publications; ‘Reindeer People’ by Piers Vitebsky and the very beautiful, ‘Arctic Dreams’ by Barry Lopez.  Both were highly travelled and well read scholars in their field as well as being first class writers and their books became an invaluable source for me.   

Specialist knowledge might be taken to mean the same thing as hard fact but this is not always true.  In the case of these two writers, what I valued most was that their books were an authentic and personal account of what it was like to travel in that land.  Authenticity, emotion and poetry was the high-grade ore I needed.  Wherever you find the specialist knowledge to support your writing I would suggest that these qualities are the ones you are after.

3. Writers’ tools:

Now this one is almost too much fun.  Every writer can point you to their secret store of online guides, tutorials, bloggers’ tips, grammar specialists and reference books that light their journey.  It is a highly personal toolkit but there are some great resources out there – here are some of mine:

• A literary magic set if ever there was one.  This is an writer’s wiki where professional writers come to classify every trick of plot, characterisation and scene in the book.  Uncertain of how many basic death scenes there are (there are 8); don’t know a Macguffin from a plot coupon?  This is the site for you.

• Thesaurus and Dictionary:  Of course!  Roget’s and OED by personal preference.  I don’t need to emphasise the importance, but did you know OED has a specialised dictionary for writers and editors and that Roget’s publishes a glorious, pompously named thesaurus of ‘words for intellectuals’.  (One word of advice, don’t be seen reading it on the tube).

• Readers Digest Atlas of the World:  My favourite book, bar none.  I have never looked inside it without learning something fascinating and, if you need to get your character from London to Archangel then this is your road map.

• Writer’s guides:  Of which there are billions.  There is almost no point in trying to list them but, on the other hand I would never dream of embarking on a writing project without ‘The Writers Journey’ – Christopher Vogler; ‘Anatomy of Story’ – John Truby and, of course my trusty (and most recent edition of) Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.

4. Wacky stuff!

We’re talking about the bonkers end of the internet here; global conspiracy theorists, alien abduction sites, lost civilisation proponents and ancient astronauts.  Now this may or may not be your thing (and I’m guessing that Hilary Mantel doesn’t go here much).  But for me, a large part of my research involves trawling such sites and associated publications for inspiration.  

Regardless of whether you agree that aliens built the pyramids, conspiracy theory is big business and a ripe source of entertainment material.  As a children’s writer, they provide the raw fuel for fantasy; they are the modern day fairy tales that make us shiver and horripilate around the fire because they just might be true. 

In this series I have explored the value of travel and first-hand experience in the research process.  I have looked at ways to explore other creative channels to learn new things about your subject and I have shared some of my own personal sources of data.  None of this is definitive, nor is it a recipe book that I expect others to follow; they are simply my own ideas.   

But, whatever techniques you deploy, the various processes of research are about the search for authenticity in story making.  They provides us with the building materials to create worlds a reader breathe in and walk around and this is never more true or more critical than when writing fantasy for demanding young minds.

Research well and do great things.     


IRONHEART by Allan Boroughs


More in this series:

Part One: Researching Your Children's Book

Part Two: Researching Your Children's Book: Make and Do

IRONHEART is set in Siberia and was published in January 2014 by Macmillan

THE SUN MACHINE is set in Antarctica and was published in June 2015.

Find out more about Allan on his website and follow him on Twitter @AllanBoroughs.

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