- I am a self-employed freelance researcher, fact-checker, writer, editor, and consultant.
- I teach classes and speak about creative research for writers, fact-checking, and information literacy, most recently for Clarion West Writers Workshop, Richard Hugo House, and the Northwest Independent Editors Guild.
- I am a rare book expert with over twenty-five years of experience. I worked for Bauman Rare Books in Philadelphia from 1988 until 2000. Since then, I’ve continued to do freelance research and writing for the company. I also manage BRB’s Twitter account and write posts and essays for BRB’s blog (see links to my posts in the sidebar to the right).
- I graduated from Cornell University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Chemistry.
- I’ve been a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild since 2005.
- I live in Seattle with my husband, novelist Matt Ruff.
May 2010 Hugo House interview about my Research for Writers class:
Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?
Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.
If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example. I’ve also put together an annotated list of selected references and resources to help students with their own research.
KL: How does research lead to better writing?
LG: Creative research can help writers with inspiration, world-building, storytelling and character development. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about real people or fictional characters, or about living in the past, present, future or an imaginary world—the more you know (or decide) about their day-to-day lives, their worldview and their world, the more real and understandable they will be to you and your readers. John Crowley wrote that these “small details of common life… give actuality, aliveness and thickness” to a story. The point of doing research is to help you tell a great story and breathe life into your characters, not to show off all the cool stuff you’ve found. Kelley Eskridge told me that she tries to “learn enough in research to create a culture in the story that feels real to people who know it, and is accessible to people who don’t… Every ‘research detail’ that makes it into the final story needs to serve a dual purpose—to establish/ground the world of the story and to either serve as an emotional backdrop or reveal an aspect of character.”
KL: What’s the most common hurdle people encounter when doing research for their writing? What’s the best/easiest way to overcome it?
LG: I think the most common mistakes people make are using research as an excuse not to write and not knowing when to stop. You shouldn’t wait until you finish your research to begin writing, and you don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Writing and research are interconnected, and each should fuel the other. Don’t let anything stop the writing—if you are missing details, mark the spot with a quick note of what you need, keep writing and fill in the blanks later. Knowing when to stop researching is harder, but you should think carefully and make conscious decisions about what you actually need to know and what you can just make up.
KL: What’s the most creative method you’ve used to find information?
LG: I’m a strong believer in browsing and serendipity, which can lead to amazing discoveries. I spend a lot of time browsing bookstores and the Web, and I like to feed my curiosity and see where it leads. Whenever I’m looking for something in a bookstore or library, I always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found books much better than the one I was looking for or spotted something that I didn’t need at the time but later proved indispensable. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you stumble across it. Talking to people is another great way to uncover information—chances are you know someone or have a family member with unusual interests or expertise or who has done extraordinary things or lived through important historical events or periods.
KL: What kind of research do you do?
LG: I do whatever kind of research my clients need. Because I work with writers of fiction and nonfiction, I’ve researched a really wide range of subjects—life in Victorian London, the rich and their servants in 1930s New York City, cultural and historical trends throughout 20th-century America, American Revolutionary pamphlets and broadsides, as well as an odd miscellany of subjects for my husband (Matt Ruff), to name a few. I like working on unusual creative projects, such as when I encrypted messages into John Wilkins’ 17th-century “Real Character” symbolic language for the promotional campaign for Neal Stephenson’s historical novel “Quicksilver.” My own research is also eclectic, as I have a lot of interests and like to learn stuff, and some of it ends up in my blog.
What writers are saying about my blog:
Cory Doctorow blogged at BoingBoing:
Fantastic research blog
Lisa Gold, an extraordinary researcher with deep ties to science fiction (she conducted research for Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy and is married to the wonderful comedic sf/f writer Matt Ruff, author of the newly paperback-published Bad Monkeys) has launched a public blog where she’s keeping track of her research notes. I have a love-hate relationship with book research, so it’s amazing to see someone really good at it at work.
Kelley Eskridge blogged:
On Lisa Gold’s new research blog, you’ll learn that Samuel Johnson didn’t actually say “The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.” Although he should have, it’s a lot more pity than what he did actually say… which you can read for yourself in Lisa’s post.
If you’re a writer, or a research junkie, check out the blog and get in on the ground floor — there is already a pile of useful information, with the promise of much more to come. Lisa is a research specialist with years of experience and a lot of good pointers for finding those needles in the great big haystack of the internet. Next time I don’t know where to find something, I’m betting that she will.
Justine Larbalestier blogged:
A really cool resource for online research is research maven Lisa Gold’s blog. Go read, enjoy!
Carlos Hernandez blogged:
Here is a link to a fabulous freelance researcher and writer: Lisa Gold… And personally, already her site has paid off in research gold for me, thanks to her links to links to Jim Martindale’s miscellany of science and technology links, and Deb’s historical research page, both of which are filled to bursting with the kind of information writers might take months to uncover on their own. Lisa (can I call you Lisa?) also has some just plain good advice for writers. I’ve half a mind to print off her post on how to use research in writing to give to my creative writing students this fall. The other half wants to make them read every post on her site. Which I recommend.
Sarah Brandel from the Apex Book Company blogged:
If you need to go about researching a subject on your own, however, you might want to check out the blog of Lisa Gold, who is a professional researcher, writer, and editor… Her blog contains a wealth of information on research resources, as well as her own methodology for tackling a subject. Check it out.