So you know your topic – the person or event you want to research. Assuming it is not yourself or someone you know – where can you start to find information?
To start with, make sure you have some sort of cross referencing system ready to go. You never know what little gem of information you come across that might have significance and meaning later on. This used to be a card file of names, dates, places and subjects. Now it is more likely to be computer based. And yes, there are tools out there that you can buy that will help you. In addition to those that are specifically for biography, you can use Endnote, a really powerful research and reference tool. Ancestry tools might also be useful. Either way, it is much easier to enter the data straight away than decide later on the you need it and have to enter the data all over again.
If your subject / event is famous or infamous, they might have mentions in books. Research for you biogrpahy should certainly include finding out what has already been written. A keyword search in Amazon will turn up not only books about the topic, but also mentions of your topic in books on other subjects. And so many of the Happy Valley residents are mentioned in general books about kenya, colonialism, the Briitish in Africa etc. Also in fictional works – be careful to note what is purporting to be fact and what is fiction.
The next easiest place to look for information is in newspaper archives. As noted before, many of these are now online and also available by keyword search. Others can be located using online databases and library catalogues – libraries may be happy to send their microfiche to your local library to read on site, for a small cost.
Another really interesting and relatively easy source of infromation is travel documents / immigration papers. Ellis Island has their infromation all online now, making tracking travel into and out of the United States easy. Infromation such as who your subject was travelling with, what they listed as their occupation, where they listed their regualr address or the address where they would be staying – all useful information. Be aware that this information is not always accurate though – some of the dates of birth seem to be approximate! And tracking women is often difficult as they may be listed as “Mrs Smith” ratehr than their full name.
So what should you be noting? Obviously that depends on your topic, but generally:
• names – friends, relatives, acquaintances, bystanders, contemporaries. All of these develop a background picture of the environment your subject was living in. And should this person turn out to have some significance, you need to know where to go back to find more information.
• places – again, names of local places, common or colloquial names can all be followed up separately. Make sure that you keep some detail of the context – who was there and what date – again, so if you need more research on a particular place you can quickly ascertain which references to go back to.
• dates – if, as Alice and her friends did, your subject/s move arund a lot, a timeline of dates and places is vital. Alice travelled extensivley between Europe, Africa and America – it was ometimes difficult to ascertain where she was when other events were occurring
When you start your research off, you don’t really know where your story might lead you. It is so much easier to do the referencing thoroughly the first time than to have to keep rereading sources to try to remember where that piece of information that is suddenly relevant, might have come from.