Lincoln’s Watch, Spielberg's Movie: How Much Research Is Enough for Your Memoir?

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln
I sat next to a romance novelist at a library book signing.

“How do you go about researching your books?” I asked.

“Research? I don’t do research. That’s why I write fiction.”

That is a no-no. Whether you write genre fiction or memoir, you have to know a lot more about your story than what you think you have stored in your brain. Your story set in New York City will not have the same flavor as one you set in Parsons, Kansas and the facts surrounding your characters will be totally different.

Credible writing
Traditional Western fiction in books, movies, and television usually is set in the latter half of the 19th century; some publishers have more restrictive time lines. To write credibly about the period you must know a lot more than the basics of good storytelling which include beginning, middle, ending, conflict, action, suspense, and characterization. You also must know about clothing, locales (in which state or territory and where in the state or territory), animal handling, weapons, law enforcement, politics, news of the day (for authentically sprinkling real stuff throughout), weather, social mores, and dialect (where did your Westerners come from: Ohio, Virginia, England? Are they black, white, or oriental?).

Steve Wiegenstein’s novel Slant of Light is about a group of Missouri Ozarkers trying to establish a utopian society while staying neutral in the buildup to the Civil War. “I had to set aside my built-in prejudices and assumptions and research what was really going on at that time in our history,” the Missouri native told a writers' group.

Mary Karr’s comic memoir The Liars' Club, about growing up poor in Texas oil country, contrasts sharply with the southern Iowa farm region of Ira Wagler’s serious memoir, Growing Up Amish.

Research looks like this
My first job in the small central Missouri town where I grew up in the forties and fifties was as a carhop in a drive-in restaurant when I was fourteen. My second job the next year was detasseling corn in the Missouri River bottoms. If I wrote about my experiences I would research drive-in restaurants, corn detasseling, and great-looking cars of the fifties.

The television series Happy Days was set in the fifties. You win if you bet the writers researched what life was like back then in small-town USA. Movie makers often go to great expense and trouble to bring authenticity to even the smallest detail. Researchers for Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln located Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch and used its ticking sound in a scene. Side note: I looked that up on the web as well as the spelling of Spielberg’s name and that Daniel Day-Lewis hyphenates his name. I also checked Chicago Manual of Style to confirm whether titles of movies and television shows are italicized or placed in quotation marks, and whether to italicize The New York Times below and to include The in the title.

My research for this post also revealed: Both Ozarkers and Ozarkians are correct, spell check may be one word or two, time line is two words, it's a toss up whether utopian is capitalized (from Sir Thomas More's fictional Utopia published in 1516), detasseling always comes up as misspelled (tell that to the thousands of teenagers who detassel corn every summer), and summer is not capitalized unless it's part of a title. (Poet and novelist E. E. Cummings was called eccentric and immature for his lack of capitalization and punctuation in some of his works. Yeah, I looked that up, too.)

How much research is too much?
All of the above are standard research techniques for writers; you can do this for your memoir, and you must if you want to be taken seriously and claim your place as a writer.

On the other hand, you can become so engrossed in research you prefer it to writing. Novelist Sean Pidgeon, vice president and publisher at John Wiley & Sons, researched a malady some call “research rapture”. He wrote in the The New York Times online, “The true challenge, as I discovered in due course, was this: how to leave most of it out?"

Photo courtesy DreamWorks.

What is the biggest challenge you face in doing research for your memoir?


  1. Excellent article, Wayne, full of important stuff! Your examples are treasures, too. I'll share this with others!


    1. Thanks for spreading the word, Linda. Sometimes it takes only a smidgen of fact, maybe a short sentence, to make a story sparkle. I think of the Johnny Cash song, "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town". The song's opening line, "Harry Truman was our president," puts the entire song into perspective.

  2. Thanks, Wayne. As a romance novelist, I have to say that I do research, for many of the reasons you just described. I also like to create my own towns, though, so I can determine where the stores will be located and which way the streets run.

    I'm going to share with the local writing group. I talked on Thursday and the topic of research came up during the discussion. The biggest challenge I mentioned was knowing when to stop. . . and not getting so caught up in researching a subject that we forget to get back to the writing!

    1. Good to know, Tessa. Creating your own towns sounds like fun.

  3. Wayne, I loved this post! I've just written a short piece about my mom's role as Rosie the Riveter in an aircraft plant during WWII. Mom died in 2001, so I was banking on memories to help me write this story. However, I needed to research more about the aircraft plant, what it manufactured, what time period, the jobs women held, locate photos of the plant, etc. I enjoyed the research as much, or maybe more, than the writing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  4. Where was your short piece about your mother published?