The Field Researcher’s Backpack

Do you like to use real places in your work, either as they are or as inspiration for fictional sites? Do you ever plan to visit one of these places? If so, you’ll want to be sure you have what you need, which requires a little planning ahead. After madly scribbling notes on the back of a receipt while the Master Archer of Warwick Castle gave his demonstration and then, having run out of blank paper, desperately trying to retain the torrent of information my question to a castle docent elicited, I sat down and figured out what I should have on research trips.

I recommend a small backpack rather than a purse. Backpacks leave both hands free and never slide off your shoulder and down your arm just in time to jiggle the camera while you’re taking a picture. They also have room for any guidebooks you might acquire along the way. A cross-body messenger bag would also work. Into it go the following:

1)A spiral notebook (spiral because the pages can’t fall out) small enough to support on the palm of one hand. Historic home staffs generally don’t like visitors using their historic tables, and writing surfaces are scarce outdoors.The size called a “reporter’s notebook” works for obvious reasons, but there are various sizes available. Pick the one that works for you. If the size you like doesn’t have a lot of pages, toss in another to be sure you don’t run out of paper.

Most people don’t even notice, let alone care, if you’re taking notes in a group, though it’s courteous to ask the guide if you get the chance. If you’re talking to a location staffer one-on-one, you really should ask that person if it’s okay for you to take notes. It almost always is. While most people are fine with someone scribbling away, tape recorders almost always cause them to choke. This, and the nuisance transcription poses,are why I don’t recommend tape recorders. Besides, if you take a recorder, you also need to carry a lot of blank tape and label the cartridges. Digital recorders hold limited amounts of information, which then requires transcription to preserve it while you record something else.

A blank, bound book could work, but it’s hard to lay flat on one hand for writing purposes. Such books make great journals, especially if you’re on a long trip. Recording impressions at the end of a day may summon memories or thoughts that didn’t make it into the notebook.

2) Three or more ballpoint pens, because pens never need sharpening. Three in case you lose one and one runs abruptly dry. In this instance, “more is better”.

3) A camera, preferably one that takes wide-angle shots. If you’re happy taking a shot, shifting your camera slightly to the side, taking another, and so on until you capture a panorama, more power to you. I prefer the quicker, one-shot-gets-it convenience disposables offer. They don’t work well in poor light, and a flash is useless on a landscape, of course, but disposables offer a convenient supplement to a regular camera. Most people today seem to have entered the digital age, but if you’re still wedded to film, consider investing in a point-and-shoot, disposable digital camera so you can post pictures to the web more easily.

When taking your onsite photos, don’t overlook the informational plaques. It’s faster and easier to photograph them than to copy the content into a notebook.

Many historic homes ban either restrict or ban photography, so be sure you know the rules before you lift aim the lens.

Don’t forget to photograph interesting plants. You can always identify them, and, if necessary, determine whether you want to use them (or, for historical fiction, whether they’re historically appropriate), later.

4)Money for guidebooks. A good guidebook is stuffed with information you may not get from the plaques in different rooms or at different sites, or even from a tour guide. It also may contain lots of pictures, a factor that becomes critical if you’re in a place that limits or bans photography. Their pictures are usually taken by professionals with expensive equipment, so they may offer a quality you can’t replicate. Of course, they may not contain the particular angle or view you like, so you’ll still want your own camera.

If you get the chance, skim the guidebook before you head home. It may suggest questions you’ll want to ask on-site.

5) A friendly, interested manner. This doesn’t actually go in the backpack, of course, but you’ll want to project it wherever you go. Many staffers (though not all), whether they’re park rangers, docents, or guides, are more than happy, after days of visitors plodding through and glancing around with minimal actual interest, to share all they’ve learned about the location with someone who actually cares. Of course, guards never want questions, which interfere with their jobs, so choose your staffers wisely.

If the first staffer you ask isn’t helpful, try someone else. You might even ask that first person if there’s someone there who could answer your question. There’s never any guarantee of success, but polite, friendly persistence frequently pays off.
If you’ve ever toured a historic site, you’ve probably noticed the differences in your fellow visitors. Some trudge along, glancing dully around them, moving inexorably toward the moment when they can say they G¦úsawG¦Ñ the Museum of Natural History or Monticello or Warwick Castle or Westminster Abbey or the Grand Canyon or wherever. Others look around, stop to read information signs, pause in front of objects as if pondering them, and ask questions or do hurried sketches. The latter are the ones who, on a group tour, are always having to hurry to catch up with the group.

It’s okay to say you’re writing a book, even if you’ve never sold one. Admitting to writer status isn’t usually necessary, though. While most historic site staffers are eager to have their locations or subject matter portrayed correctly, they’re often just as happy to share what they’ve learned. Many of them work in these particular jobs because they care, and meeting a kindred spirit is always a pleasure.

So pack your writer tools, wear your best smile, and dive in. There’s no telling how much useful information you might glean.