Research Is a Monster Vintage VD

If you get a kick out of playing detective, like to probe the not-known, are imaginative and persevering, then your chances of successfully researching offbeat subjects are excellent. And it is the offbeat that sells. For if a subject has been published in depth, and written about at some length, it is hardly likely an editor is going to give the topic more than passing attention. But let an odd theme come along, one that has not been overcome to passed away, and it is an immediate attention grabber.


However, a great gulf exists between having the insight to select an offbeat subject and possessing the know-how to research it into being. Suggesting an untrammeled topic is merely the formation of a skeleton. Hanging flesh and muscle on the bare bones takes exhaustive research, limitless imagination and patience. To give that skeleton human warmth and personality requires digging, digging and still more digging. To be specific, let us say we are going to do a lengthy magazine piece, a historical book or novel on the life of a GI in Caesar’s Roman Army. Here we have the bare skeleton of what could be an intriguing topic. However, telling in detail how the individual was recruited, paid, given basic training, fed, assigned to a unit and the harassment he suffered at the hands of superiors are things needed to give the story individuality. Unfortunately, such information does not come easy. It would have to be hunted, stalked, trapped, cajoled and deduced into being.

Obviously, a subject of this magnitude projects itself into countless areas of study. In addition to the more conspicuous facets of research, such as Romans and soldiery, there are the studies of ancient money, diets, constitution, senate, laws, courts, private lives, character, religions, calendar, industry, shipping and literature, plus many other aspects. Only by a thorough scrutiny of these angles can we begin to see the greatness and temperament of the Roman soldier.

How then, do you go about tackling such a gigantic research project for this or any topic of your choice? Let us take a look at a practical example. Recently I wrote and sold to Crown Publishers a 10×12-inch book entitles, A Pictorial History Of Sea Monsters and Other perilous Marine Life. This was no thing volume, sparcely illustrated and hastily-thrown together. It consisted of 1500,000 words, 350 photographs and required two years of meticulous research. Before the material was ready for writing, the research necessitated a careful study of 82 journals published by learned societies, 243 newsletters printed by various nautical organizations, 74 commercially-published journals released by universities, the government and industrial firms, many hundreds of trade journals, innumerable house organs and thousands of newspapers. Additionally, this research necessitated the screening of many scientific motion pictures, the writing of almost 1,000 letters of inquiry, visits to 12 large aquariums, 54 museums, 76 libraries, 4 zoological parks and trips to 8 foreign countries. Furthermore, over 150 fisherman, sailors, sea captains and yachtsmen were interviewed with a tape recorder and generally at some length. Throughout all of this, a camera was taken along and a sketchpad carried. When it was not feasible to take photographs, hasty black and white sketches were made and developed into completed drawings at a after date.

How was all of this accomplished in a two-year period? Did I simply rush into a library and, helter-skelter, start pulling books off the shelf in order to write letters and run around the world interviewing whomever I found with a fishing pole in his hands? Far from it. The first step was to draw up what has long become known in my lexicon as a “action plan.” This is simply a very concise, carefully thought-out plan of strike. Let me take you through a formula step by step.

First, I took a large serviceable loose-leaf notebook, labeled it, “Monster Research” and commenced a careful outline of each proposed angle of strike. And here is where a writer’s imagination comes into fruition. It requires a good deal of dreaming to exhaust every possible angle of research.

The second step was to go to a public library and take down a volume of Dewey Decimal Classification published by First Press. In this I looked up every conceivable topic in which any maritime-related subject could be listed. My total listings from all sources came to 217 subjects, each of which was duly listed in my Monster Research book. Some examples of these were: sea monsters, sea serpents, sea witches, sea devils, sirens, sorceresses, enchantresses, devils, Beelzebub, etc., etc.

Another integral step was to research numerous volumes of Reader’s Guide to Periodicals, plus parallel publications such as microfilm catalogues, and carefully write down the name of every magazine, paperback, pamphlet, clipping, filmstrip, motion picture, tape recording, copy of art and scientific drawing that had any relationship to marine life, nautical matters, hydrography and/or undersea life. It was a long and impressive list and as I now count back, I find no less than 622 names.


This was only the beginning. My next step was to compile a list of every known maritime museum, library and public aquarium anywhere in the world. In one respect this was relatively easy, while in another aspect it was almost impossible. For instance, a fine book by Brandt Aymar, entitled Pictorial Treasury of the Marine Museums of the World, was of great help and served as an excellent source of listings. Also, finding the names of libraries was no trouble, for I simply looked in a volume called, American Library Directory, compiled by Helaine MacKeigan. However, when I came to discovering the names and addresses of aquariums, I was surprised to find that no such catalogue had ever been compiled. As a result of this, I was forced to list the capital of each state and write letters asking for the names and addresses of any municipally-operated aquariums in that area. Some of the replies, from such landlocked states as Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas were downright amusing. The implication being that they were so far from the sea no one was sure just what constituted an aquarium. On the other hand, responses from Hawaii, Florida, Connecticut and California were extremely enlightening.

At this stage of the research my most wearisome undertaking commenced. A letter was composed explaining my interest in the history of sea monsters, with stress being laid on the fact that this was to be a serious study. As a conclusion to the letter, I asked if pictures were available and, if so, what was their cost. Since I personally loathe receiving mimeographed, or other multi-produced letters of query, each communication was individually typed and signed. In all, there were about 800 letters that had to be sent over the world, including cities within Russia, Hungary, Red China and other communist countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *