Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, or poetry books, research is a skill you need to master if your work is to reach its full potential. In this #AskALLi Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast packed with book research tips, Orna Ross and Joanna Penn explain why research is so important, how much you need, and how to know when to stop.
From research of the memory and imagination at the beginning to writing appropriate credits and attributions at the end, they cover everything an indie author needs to know about book research.
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About the Hosts
Joanna Penn writes nonfiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.
Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com
Read the Transcripts on Book Research
Joanna Penn: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Advanced Self-Publishing Salon, with me, Joanna Penn and Orna Ross.
Orna Ross: Hi Joanna, hello everyone.
Joanna Penn: Here we are again. Can you believe it, it’s May, which means a third of the year has gone. It’s crazy.
Orna Ross: Crazy, absolutely.
Joanna Penn: It is really mad. I did this challenge on my podcast, so I’ll challenge everyone here which is, that’s a third of the year, are you a third of the way through your creative goals for the year?
And my answer to myself is no, it’s not. I think the thing is, because of course we had a very difficult year last year, and then it feels like this year is also quite difficult, but you don’t also at the same time want to write off this year too. So, I don’t know, that’s how I’m feeling which is, it’s a third of the year, got to get a grip.
Orna Ross: I do think everything will be easier when life returns to something closer to normality, which here in the UK is pretty soon. So, I’m counting on that anyway.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, but anyway, just wanted to encourage everyone.
Today’s theme is how to research your book and we’ll be looking at fiction and nonfiction, because we both do a lot of research. But before we get into that, we’re going to do our news. So, Orna, what’s happening with ALLi?
Orna Ross: ALLi’s member magazine is out, so I’d like to encourage everyone to log in. You should have had an email from us today, this morning, saying that it is there for you in your inboxes, and if you haven’t had such an email, please do let us know, because we do rely on email for our member communications. So if you’ve changed your address or we don’t have your most up-to-date address, we’d really like to know that. So yeah, that is there, and you do need to log in to see it. You need to log into see most of our benefits. So, if you’re not logging in, you’re missing out.
So, I usually use this opportunity of our quarterly communication, our quarterly member magazine, to encourage people to visit the members zone more often, because we’re always updating and always adding services and things.
There are lots of really good features in the magazine, including one on launching a book, and a hundred top tools for authors, which were recommended by our members, and lots of other things too, including the #Audiblegate campaign, and what’s happening there and the latest on that.
And the other thing, we’ve had some nice wins on the Open up to Indie Author campaigns of late, and particularly wanted to mention that we can now upload books, you know the British library and the six libraries of record, we can now upload eBooks and don’t have to send print books anymore.
So again, we would encourage, it was difficult to encourage our members when it meant sending off hardbacks and paperbacks and things, but now that it is in eBook format, I think it would be really great to get all these good self-published books up there and into the record.
And the Arvon Foundation, which is a fantastic foundation here in the UK, educational around writing and bits of publishing and marketing and stuff, have all sorts of courses and all sorts of other good things, have now finally recognized the self-published contingent, and I’d like to do a shout-out to member, Melissa Addy, who worked on that particular one.
So, what have you been up to?
Joanna Penn: Last month, I was in launch, this week the creative cycle turns again, and I’m back in research and the creative mode for my next non-fiction book, what I’m calling The Shadow Book, which is a (inaudible) nonfiction book and also, Day of the Martyr, which will be my next Arkane thriller.
It’s funny, I was actually emailing with Kevin Tomlinson from Draft2Digital, who’s also a thriller writer, he and I write in the same niche and we were saying, how do you write a thriller when the whole world seems to be a thriller right now? It’s like every time you have an idea, you think, Oh, that’s not fiction, that is happening. So, it is an interesting time to write certain genres, but I trust the creative process, and I know we’ve talked about this before, but that the whole trusting emergence, and we’ll talk about that when we come to research.
I’m also in training for my next ultra-marathon, terribly type a of me. I can’t just go for a walk. I have to go for a really long walk with someone with a timer. But I’m getting out and about. I say the weather’s getting warmer, there’s actually a storm right here where I am in Bath, but I’ve been getting out a lot more. I feel like the winter lockdown was pretty awful for many, many reasons, and I now need to get out more and prioritizing healthy writer type activities. If there’s a choice between sitting at my desk and doing some admin, and going outside, that’s what I’m doing after a winter shut in. What about you, Orna, on a personal level?
Orna Ross: Yeah, talking about the cycle, sometimes there are really big cycles that pass, and I feel like I’m in the middle of a really, quite intense, creative change. Next year it will be 10 years of ALLi, and it’s moving into a new phase where it needs more people, and so I’m really doing lots of shifting around of my own creative process, of the process within ALLi and the team and everything, essentially looking at the next 10 years, not just year. I know when we started, I didn’t think in 10-year cycles, I didn’t think in quarters, I didn’t plan. It was very, sort of, just take it as it happens, kind of thing, but the growth that self-publishing saw, and that the Alliance has seen forced me to become somebody who had to really engage with planning and stuff. So, yeah, I just want to make sure that the next 10 years has plenty of room for writing and publishing personally. So, doing a lot of background work to make that happen. I just would like to say that Creative Self-Publishing is available in eBook form, also in the members zone for members, and available for sale on the selfpublishingadvice.org shop as well.
Joanna Penn: Also, you did a podcast, I think, with Sacha Black talking about the topics?
Orna Ross: Yes. Sacha insisted on interviewing me.
Joanna Penn: She gazumped me, that’s normally my job, but she did it. So, for people listening on the podcast feed, you can find that interview with Orna, just a couple of clicks down the list from this topic today. So, definitely go listen to that, because I think it’s so important. I mean, you and I, we’re great friends and yet we’re quite different in the way we approach self-publishing, let alone how broad the church is in general.
So, I created a number of things from your book in my last book, How to Make a Living With Your Writing, because it has a completely different angle. So, brilliant book, go get it everyone.
Orna Ross: Aw, shucks. Thank you.
Why is research so important for authors?
Joanna Penn: Okay. So, let’s get into it the topic for today, which is how to research your book, but we’re going to start with why research is so important anyway, because I feel like there’s a bit of a, Oh, but you should create from your brain, like that’s all you need is your brain and here comes a book off the page. But Orna, why don’t you start, why do you think research is so important?
Orna Ross: I have a quote there that I really like from Robert McKee who’s, I think you’ve done his courses?
Joanna Penn: Famous in screenwriting circles, really.
Orna Ross: For his screenwriting advice, exactly. And he has a brilliant book called Story, which I found really useful. And I often find screenwriting books are really good on story. He has a great quote about research, Do research, he says. Two words. It’s an order. Feed your talent is the number one reason, and research not only wins the war on cliche, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression. I think that kind of sums up the whole thing if I was research for me, but essentially without going outside ourselves, we don’t know where we fall in our own tradition. We don’t know what’s been done before, whether we’re repeating something, and maybe less well than somebody’s already done it.
It’s also really important, I feel personally, for filling the creative well. The idea that you would not research either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry sometimes. I mean, sometimes poetry is the exception, and it does just come, kind of, fully formed from the brain, but generally from other reading or something else, you know, there’s no such thing as an original thought, and I think that’s the very reason why research is so important.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and for me, I think a lot of people say, Oh, I’ve got writer’s block, whereas actually a lot of the time it’s because they don’t know enough detail, or they don’t know enough about a situation. So for example, Day of the Martyr, I have a book title and I know it will be about the relics of Thomas Beckett, but I don’t know enough about Thomas Beckett and the medieval relics in the church, and where they might be now. So, I might have an idea, but then I have to go find out the detail. If I try and write that book from my own head, yeah, I might be able to write a bit, but could I write a whole novel? No, I couldn’t.
Certainly for non-fiction, I must read between 20 and 40 books per non-fiction title, sometimes many more. And for fiction, I probably read 10 to 20, about half, and they’re usually history books and religious books, and stuff like that.
To me, I just cannot even imagine writing a book without researching. Even things like fantasy, so I know people are like, Oh, but I’m writing about a magical kingdom. But as we know, one of the most famous fantasy series is, I guess George R.R. Martin, with what became the Game of Thrones TV show is based on history. And a lot of fantasy is taken from history. Tolkien was inspired by the Icelandic sagas and the Norse sagas and things like that.
So, don’t be afraid to research, I think that’s important.
But Orna, what do you say to people who are worried about research in case they plagiarize or steal ideas, all of this?
Orna Ross: Yeah, I just think it’s a false fear. It can really lead to cliche, because you think you’re having an original thought, and then if you haven’t researched it, you don’t realize. The other thing that happens, I think, is the specific sort of details that make something ring true, you need to research to get that.
I write historical fiction, so not researching is simply not an option. You absolutely have to, and if anything, the problem is, something we’ll talk about a little bit later in the show, which is about when to stop and not getting overloaded.
But the other thing you hear writers talking about a lot is the moment when it seems like the book got up and started to write itself. Ironically, that’s what happens when the research is good enough, when you’ve filled in enough of the details through research, and working, and thinking, because research isn’t just, and again we’ll talk about this in a minute, it isn’t just what you do in the library, it’s also actively researching your imagination and your memory as well.
So, without that act, you know, whenever you hear somebody talk about not wanting to research and wanting to just have this pure experience from the top of the brain, generally you’re talking to somebody who hasn’t finished a book or is writing the same book over and over.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I mean, how can you sustain it? I’m up to 34 or something, how do you sustain it?
The other thing is, to me, people say, Oh, write what you know, and I don’t even know where I heard it, but it’s not write what you know, it’s write what you’re interested in, which is why a lot of my thrillers come back to religious relics, because I just can’t find them interesting enough. So, I’m always reading about religious relics and going to, like there’s an exhibition at the British museum coming up on Beckett. So, for me, that write what you’re interested in, that’s what drives me to a book.
Orna Ross: Write what you want to know!
How can indie authors research their book?
Joanna Penn: Yes! Write what you want to know and what gives you an excuse to research.
So, I think that moves us on into the next section, which is how to research. So, why don’t you start, how do you research?
Orna Ross: So, of research as being divided in three in my mind. So, there is research of other books, if you like, what we typically think of as research in the old days, what you’d go off to the library to do, and now you go onto the internet to do as well. You have a quote here, books are made out of books, by Cormac McCarthy, and I really love that, that’s absolutely right. So, there’s that, and for me, that’s all about good notes, just taking good notes. At the beginning, not knowing where you’re going with it necessarily, watching for that tug of interest that sometimes is mysterious, and at the same time, actually looking up stuff that you know you need to know.
And then there is the research of the memory, which for me, I activate through free writing. I sit down and actively ask myself the question, how does this book connect to something that’s happened in my memory? Because generally, if we want to write a book, there is something in there from way back when that interests us.
And again, looking for that tug of energy that tells you there’s something going on there, but free writing very often generates a lot of material. So, I’ll just keep writing as fast as I can, not necessarily knowing what’s going to come out of the memories.
And then I also do what I think of as, and they’re not all together, these are all on different days, research of the imagination. Again, using a free writing technique where I’ll actively go in and think my way into the character’s actual sensory experience. So, go through a day in their life, or a scene that I already know is going to be in the book. Some of these details do make their way into the book. Not all do, and you have to, I think, not worry too much about waste at the beginning, and just get whatever you get. And then there is a logical sorting process that happens in the writing.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I don’t do that at all. This is what’s so great. But I do agree with this, I think this tug of interest or curiosity, I think that is so key and I feel like it’s something we lose touch with. I certainly felt that I wasn’t creative when I had a day job, back in the day, in IT and I didn’t know what I was curious about. I knew I like reading thrillers to, sort of, drown my day job at lunchtime and on the train, but I didn’t know what might interest me about things to write about.
Tapping into that curiosity is a muscle. You have to learn it and trust it over time, and when you feel it, you have to go with it, because there will be something there. It might take years, like this shadow book, for example, I’ve been thinking about this since I first studied Carl Yung, back when I was 19. So, this is a long time coming.
Sorry, back to research, you mentioned the books there, you and I met in the London library.
Orna Ross: Yes.
Joanna Penn: Do you remember? In 2012, we actually met on Twitter, everyone. We are a classic friendship, started on Twitter, and continued in the London library when we just bumped into each other. I used to go to the London library and get books from the stack, and now I tend to order a lot of them. I order physical books a lot of the time that just tug at me, and then I have them on my shelves. A lot of them are very visual books, for example, I’ll buy books from museums with lots of images in, and that really sparks things. I’m quite a visual writer, but certainly, obviously online libraries, and things like that.
Or even using things that are in other books, like Frankenstein, you know, Mary Shelley, a lot of people riff-off that. I’m just reading a feminist version of Beowulf at the moment, have you seen this? It’s just come out. So, they’ve taken Beowulf, obviously, which is way out of copyright, like a thousand years out of copyright, and riffing off that. So, that’s another way of using a book. I wrote A Thousand Fiendish Angels off Dante’s Inferno. So, it’s actually taking a book and mining a book for ideas, but again, those are all out of copyright, and we’re going to come to citations, and things like that. But what about a non-fiction, Orna, what do you do for nonfiction?
Orna Ross: Well, obviously that does tend to happen much more in number one, which is the researching other the books, kind of thing. I think it’s important, as well as thinking of books, there are lots of other ways that you can get the kinds of details that you’re looking for. So, documentary, TV, podcasts. There are lots and lots of ways of finding what you need to know.
I generally begin a non-fiction book with some intensive Google research, just search engine research, see what comes up. Blog posts are really useful as well. Back to fiction, again, one of my main sources, as a historical novelist, is local newspapers, and they really good for getting the tone, the voice, the sound of the period, as well as the strange, weird, and wonderful things that happened, that are slightly different from our time, that really bring a period alive.
So, research for me is not a hugely organized process. I really do follow it pretty organically, especially at the beginning. I have to completely tame myself, I’ll talk about that in a few minutes, but I use Evernote, because Evernote has such a good search function. I can find what I need to find. That just changed my life, because before that, I used to drown in notebooks and was forever flicking forwards and backwards trying to find things.
I think that’s the main thing to say, is that it’s organic. I follow the feeling, and then as the book gets more advanced, then you’re into filling the gaps, which is very specifically going to look for a particular factor figure or something.
Joanna Penn: Okay. Well, some of the other things I do, certainly documentaries, films, YouTube videos. For example, End of Days, I watched loads of Appalachian snake handling church videos, and I wrote a whole scene, but literally I will just type out what I hear, what people say, and I’ll use the way they speak as dialogue and description. Like, I just described the church on the screen in front of me, which I think is fascinating. And then news, I read a lot of news, I just can’t seem to break the addiction. I read a lot of different newspapers, and Map of the Impossible came from the discovery of a map on the wall of an Egyptian tomb. And it was laid out like an adventure, like an actual map. There were these certain, you know, big bat things, and then there was a snake thing, and then there was this, and they had to get through. I was like, that’s the plot of a, sort of, a journey through the underworld. So, I nicked that. You can definitely nick plot from the walls of Egyptian tombs there is nothing wrong with that.
Also travel, this is the reason I’m writing a book about Beckett, because the only place I’ve been in the last year is Canterbury, which is where he was martyred, but most of my fiction is based on my travel. So, my last novel, Tree of Life, we went to Amsterdam, and this is what I do, I go looking for a story. So, we went to Amsterdam and I knew I would find an idea somewhere, and I thought it would be in this esoteric library, that Dan Brown had been to, and I was like, Oh, I’m bound to find an idea there. But no, after that, we went to this synagogue, the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, and I was like, what is this? How is there a Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam? That question, why, why is this? And they had a book there called, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, and I was like, this is the story, like seriously. And so, I bought the book and then, apologies to them, I had to burn it down in my book.
But definitely, I would say 90% of my fiction is based on places I’ve actually been, my whole Map Walker series is based on walking past a map shop here in Bath, and then going from there.
So, that is really important to me. Now, I realize that’s not for everyone, because I’m very lucky and I’m able to travel, but I feel like watching documentaries, YouTube, books, Google maps, can actually help you in other ways to see details, for example.
Orna Ross: I think back to that point of everybody being so different, when you mentioned news media there, for me, that just leaves me completely cold. It has to be yesterday’s news before my imagination is activated. I don’t know why that is, but that just is the way it is. My imagination wouldn’t be activated by a modern news story or modern news media. Even though I would see a story, like a little thing that happened in a courtroom or something, and I would say, that’s a really great novel plot, but it would never go anywhere. Something about the past needs to happen.
The other thing that I find really good, and I think you said you don’t like to do, is interviewing people. So, I will actually, and almost everybody-
Joanna Penn: Talk to anyone?
Orna Ross: Yes, I like talking to people. So, pretty much everybody will give you an interview if you want to talk to them about their favorite topic, is my experience. They just love doing that, and it nearly always yields something that you wouldn’t get yourself any other way, I feel. Also, I think what happens for me in conversations is the things that people don’t want to talk about, the gaps, or the secrets, or the things that are too painful to discuss, maybe. Then I’m off. So, I think the point is, you have to do whatever activates your imagination. It’s not as simple as just get the facts, something else has to be going on for it to be something that’s going to have the energy to take you through the writing of it, turning it from just an experience or an interesting thing into something that’s going to fuel a whole book.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and just one more thing. So, like talking to people, but I do surveys. So, I did a survey for The Healthy Writer, and a lot of quotes went into the book. I did a survey for How to Make a Living With Your Writing, and again, quotes into the book, and it inspires other chapters. And, of course, I get permissions and everything and I quote people when I put them in the acknowledgements and all of that. So, you can definitely do surveys. If you have an audience that you’re writing for, like I do, and I’m going to do this with the shadow book once I know what I’m doing, I will do another survey to get more ideas, because people often have ideas that you don’t have, and they’re very happy to share.
So, I think that’s another way to do it if you’re an introvert like me, and don’t want to actually talk to anyone.
Orna Ross: Definitely don’t neglect your own community. Sometimes we can forget what a rich source it is. Certainly, the ALLi books would be nothing without ALLi members. I mean, they’re just absolutely packed with member testimony. So, it’s important to remember that.
Joanna Penn: Okay. So, briefly you mentioned that you use Evernote, and I tried Evernote. In fact, I still pay for it, I think, and I just can’t use it, but I use notebooks and I also use Scrivener. I’ve got about 20 different Scrivener files right now of projects that I’m not actively working on, but ideas. And then I might just, for example, I watched a documentary a few weeks ago and I wrote notes and I stuck them in Scrivener, because I may or may not write that book and those notes are there, so I might come back to it. But for me, it is Scrivener. I put it in the research folder and then what I do with every book I write, if it’s Kindle I highlight things and export the PDF and put that in Scrivener. If it’s paper, I underline things and then I type up my notes, and we’ll come to crediting in a minute, but I’m very careful with making sure I keep track of all my sources. And then I know if it’s in quotation marks, then it is a quote. And if it’s not in quotation marks, it’s my thoughts about whatever it was.
Converting research into words written
Joanna Penn: So, you talked a bit about it. Is there anything else you want to talk about in terms of turning the research into words?
Orna Ross: I think, again, just in terms of the research of memory and imagination, to have a capturing device, be it a notebook, be it Evernote, or Scrivener, or whatever, or both, because yes, I also use notebooks, but whatever you use to capture your research, keep it by your bed, because I always get my best ideas when I wake up in the morning.
So, I need to keep it close, and somebody gave me that tip years ago, but it’s one of the best tips I ever got. So, if it is a notebook, just have the notebook and pen by your bed, or if it’s your phone, you can put it into Scrivener, put it into Evernote, whatever it is,
But to remember that sometimes, again, when it comes to the active research of the imagination, activating the imagination, activating the memory, that is research also.
Joanna Penn: And I don’t do that either. But just to say to people, it comes for me when I sit down to do my work at my desk, rather than in the middle of the night or anything. So again, there aren’t any rules about this, we’re just sharing our experiences.
How much research should you do, and when should you stop?
Joanna Penn: So, big question. How much research do you need and when do you stop?
Over to you, what’s your thoughts?
Orna Ross: Oh, well now. Don’t do what I do! I have to now be so strict with myself because, I mean, one of my past jobs was actually as a historian. So, I love research, in other words. Of course research is easier, isn’t it?
It’s much easier to just enjoy going around reading other people’s stuff and imagining this and that and the rest and make notes, which don’t have to be actually knocked into structured chapters and things. So, I actually now have to have some sorts of first draft in place before I let myself do the research, and I think though that this is not something I could have done at the beginning, but it’s something that I’m trying to train myself into doing now, because I just go too widely, and I forget what I’m there for, and I need to be put back in.
So now I just have some sort of first draft in place, not trying to go for tone, texture, or anything like that, just trying to get plots and ideas, and knowing what’s happening in the book. And then, and only then, turning to actually doing the research. Obviously talking about the ideas established, I know what I’m doing, you can’t be completely black and white about these things. It’s very organic, but the point being, you’re somebody who has to make themselves research, in which case stopping won’t be a problem for you, being too thin is your problem. I’m the opposite. Therefore I have to limit what I do.
I think it’s easier to know, for me, speaking personally, it’s much easier to know in poetry or in nonfiction, when enough is enough. I feel it, I know it, it starts to feel like no, okay, that’s enough of that. But with fiction, I can get totally lost.
Joanna Penn: Oh, that’s interesting. I feel with nonfiction, but like I said, I know I’ve done enough when I know exactly what they’re saying, so the amount of underlining or the amount of highlighting will reduce with every book I write. So, with the shadow book, I’ve now read about 15 books on the Jungian shadow, and now I’m like, yeah, I know what this is. So, now I’m looking at their references, and finding other aspects from other books, but I feel like I’m getting into a point where I need to start writing more and then I can maybe do some more research. But with fiction, I basically don’t stop. I’m a discovery writer mainly, so like with Day of the Martyr, Thomas Beckett, I don’t know what it is yet. It’s not a historical novel about the murder of Beckett, it’s a modern-day thriller that is somehow based around a Relic. So, I’ve written a lot of Relic thrillers before, so I need something new, but I know that by researching it and going into research in some way, I’m going to find an idea, but I will stop that kind of research once I actually get the story idea.
Once I get it and I get a couple of key settings, physical settings, then I’ll write some scenes and then I’ll do more detailed research. So, for example, with Tree of Life, I had to research somebody running through the middle of downtown Rio de Janeiro and figure out how they would get up to that big Jesus, you know, Jesus, the Redeemer, Christ, the Redeemer on the hill. So, I had to go into Google maps and figure out all of the physical movements, and I didn’t need to do that until I was writing that scene, and then I needed to do that.
So for me, I feel like the research is on several levels. One is the big theme or the big story, and then at the bottom level it’s figuring out those little details as you actually write the chapters.
Orna Ross: Yeah, I think that’s very fair to say, and the more clarity you can get around which of those you’re working on, the better, to avoid the confusion factor.
So yeah, in one you’re looking to activate/stimulate imagination, and in the other you’re looking to get in and out as quickly as possible with some information, just to fill a gap or to give you a sense of some sort of sensory detail or whatever.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and in terms of just when to stop, I would say, if you don’t know when to stop, a word count may have something to do it. If you’re looking to write a 70,000-word novel and you’ve got 70,000 words of research notes, I’d say you’re probably on the wrong side of the balance.
Orna Ross: I’d have 140,000.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. We’ve talked about starting energy, I feel like research is part of starting energy. It can be really great, and then the pushing through energy is stop researching and do the writing.
Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely, and go from there.
Joanna Penn: We agree.
Orna Ross: Yes, we absolutely agree on that part.
How to credit and attribute your research?
Joanna Penn: Okay. So, let’s talk about crediting and attributing. So, for nonfiction, for me, I never do anything academicy or footnotey, because I feel like that just doesn’t work for eBooks, and it definitely doesn’t work for audio books. And I feel like people who, at the moment, are a little bit obsessed about footnotes and doing that kind of thing, have not thought about the various ways that people read. Even print books, I had a friend and his whole story had footnotes on every page, it was part of the device, and the thing is, you know how small people print traditionally published books or even indie books, if you print the font too small, your footnotes are even tinier, and it was just impossible for any person with normal vision to read. So, for me, I don’t do footnotes or indexing, what I do is in the appendix, I will have a list by chapter. In the eBook, I will hyperlink to a particular thing, and in the appendix I will list the references by chapter. And then in the audiobook, I say, you can get the appendices in a downloadable file if you go to this page, they don’t have to put their email or anything, but it means that they can get that. And I also obviously put, you can get all these other things as well. So, I think to me, that’s the best way of doing it, but I realize that you’re more au fait with more academic type of books. What do you think with non-fiction?
Orna Ross: Obviously, if you’re talking about a scholarly academic text, then your references are really key to the publication, because that’s just how academic publishing works. So, you have to have extremely careful footnotes and then notes about, not just the author name and the book title, but the year of publication, which edition it was, where it was published, all that kind of stuff goes into your end notes. But for everybody else now, the great thing about having the internet is you can have very minimal kinds of references, if they are completely necessary. Only in, I would say on average how-to nonfiction, and so on. So, obviously if you’re quoting somebody, then you need to let people know that you have quoted them, and where they could find more from that quote, but you can make that really simple.
I do my formatting, as I know you do also, with Vellum, and Vellum has an end note facility. So, you can just get your end notes at the end of the chapter, which I think is a much more friendly way to do it. You just have a few end notes on each, instead of a lengthy attribution with everything at the end of the actual quote itself, just a discreet number, and then if you want to follow it through, then you can.
And I think what you’re aiming to do is just two things, to credit the person whose words you have used, and if the reader wants to know more, just making it easy for them to do that. So, obviously in eBooks hyperlinks, great. The tricky thing then is getting your print references, which will have to be different in the print edition to work as a print references, but keeping it really simple, and recognizing that in the old days, you had to give a whole load of information because you wanted to make sure that people found the right book, the right edition of the book, and all that kind of stuff. But these days with, the internet, it’s all much easier. So, keep it simple, I would say.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I’d also say that you can credit ideas without having to have a direct quote. For example, I might say, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross, talks about free writing as part of her creative process. And I haven’t directly quoted you in that way, but I am referencing you as the person with, and I know that’s not your original idea either, but it’s where I heard it from. And I think that’s important too. I feel like people obsess about individual quotes, but it should also be the ideas that you might have heard from other people.
And the other thing is this, there’s nothing wrong with this. I feel like there’s a resistance to that, but again, there’s nothing new under the sun. We are taking ideas from around us and putting our own spin on them, and what I like about the indie author community, always have, is the generosity and we quote each other, we list each other’s books in our back matter, and in fact, I will email people and say, I want to quote you in my book, what have you got?
I got an early version of your Creative Self-Publishing, because I was like, Orna, I need to quote you in my book, give me your latest book so I can quote you, because this is also part of our ecosystem. Because what happens is someone finds my book and then they say, Oh look, Joanna put this book was useful and they go and buy that book. And as we’ve said, we’re a self-sustaining industry. People never just buy one book; they’re going to buy loads of books. So, what you want to do is help other people through quoting them and referencing their work.
So, in terms of fiction, I always do an author’s note, and I include the books I’ve read, the places I went to, the exhibitions I’ve been to, and I may occasionally, Morgan Sierra might say, Carl Jung said, in a kind of pithy way, but normally there won’t be any attribution within the text. It will be in the author’s note. What do you do about fiction?
Orna Ross: Yeah, acknowledgements, I think, but again it is a tricky thing, and it very much depends on the length of the book, the amount of references, the amount of research you’ve done, and also sometimes you don’t know where your ideas came from. Sometimes you do, but sometimes you’re carrying something, and it’s come to you and it wasn’t an official note, it’s something you picked up somewhere along the way in other reading or whatever. I think the main thing is, if anybody has had a significant impact on your book, they do deserve that acknowledgement. Then the second thing is to keep in mind that the reader benefits. I think some writers sometimes think they have to, that it’s almost like a sign of weakness, like they have to have all the ideas themselves, or it’s not a good book, and that’s not true. It’s actually, the confident author has no problem giving credit where it’s due, saying where they came across an idea. It might be a term. There are all sorts of ways in which we are nurtured and fed by other authors, and to acknowledge that as much as it is possible. Also, readers love these background details, and you can also, if there isn’t room in the book and you don’t want to have pages and pages at the back of your book, you can have a page on your website where you go into considerable detail. I’ve seen lots of authors who really go into a lot of detail about their research on their own website. If your reader likes that sort of thing, they really like it, so it can be a good way to do it too.
Joanna Penn: Well, it’s kind of why I’ve started my books and travel podcast, in order to bring that. I did a whole show on Oxford. I went to Oxford and Morgan Sierra has an office in Oxford, and I feel like I’m bringing out my research more and more in writing stuff around my research, and I will probably be doing some non-fiction books around aspects of research.
We’ve seen, for example, Neil Gaiman wrote a book on Norse myths. Val McDermid, who’s a crime writer here in the UK has a book on forensics. So, you can turn your research into other products, I think that’s actually important too. There are actually ways you can monetize it.
How to use quotes within the fair usage policy?
One more question, we’re almost out of time, which is, some people might be worried about using a quote from a book. Obviously, fair use is when you can take a, for example, I might use one line quote from the Bible, even the NIV version and say, okay, that’s fine, because it’s one line in millions. Whereas I won’t use one line from the lyric of a pop song, because it’s a very short thing and I’ll get into trouble. So, what do you think about that? How do we use quotes?
Orna Ross: Yeah, it’s laid out very clearly for us in copyright law. So, both here in the UK and in the US, it’s called fair use in one place and fair dealing in another, I can never remember which is which, but it’s made very clear to us what is allowable and what is not in terms of fair use. Essentially, you don’t rip the heart and soul out of a work. As you said, if you were to take two or three lines out of a song, then that’s just probably not on, or a short poem, but if it’s a longer piece of work, that’s absolutely fine.
So, there’s a bit of common sense here. And again, I think, if you’re keeping your two things up, credit where credit is due, and facilitating the reader, if you keep those two things in mind, then I think you won’t go too far wrong.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, definitely, and I think just generally it’s beware of poetry and lyrics, and you’re probably fine with anything that’s a full-length book.
Orna Ross: Yeah, I think that’s probably a good rule of thumb. There is a movement now with showing more research, and what you’re talking about there in terms of showing more as you’re going along, so am I and so are authors, and I think this is part of the creator being the publisher and the creator wanting to tip the hat at other creators.
So, in the same way that we, as publishers, are much more forthright in crediting the other creation professionals that helped to make the book, like the designers and the editors and so on, being more public about our research is part of that movement too, I think.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, good stuff. So any, anything else on research? I think that’s probably it.
Orna Ross: Yeah, just know when to start and know when to stop.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and the book is the point. The research is super fun, but the book is the point.
So, next month we are in June, can you believe it? We’re going to do top 10 myths about indie authors and self-publishing. The myths that authors have about going indie, and also what traditionally published authors and the people outside our little niche think about us. I guess it’s a kind of mindset thing, and after both of us, what am I on, my 13th year now of self-publishing, a decade full-time, and we both have a lot of experience of these myths.
So, anything else, Orna, for the next month?
Orna Ross: No, just to say, if anybody has something that they’re hearing that should be done or has to be done, or is way to do self-publishing, and you have a question about that, please send it through to us at [email protected]authors.org, and we’ll include it in our list of myths and misunderstandings.
There are a lot of people saying you have to do things, and generally speaking, you don’t, and that’s the pleasure of being indie, so that’s what we’re going to be looking at next time.
We won’t include them all, and we’ll be focusing on the main ones obviously, but yeah, do let us know what you’re hearing and what you’re worried about.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I’ve just been hearing some stuff lately and I’m like, I do not want this to be what we’re known for. So, looking forward to that next month. We’ll be live on the first Monday in June, and then it will go out on the various streams.
So, happy writing,
Orna Ross: and happy publishing. Have a great month. Bye, bye.