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How I research and develop my stories

Updated on March 25, 2015
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My approach to research is, in many ways, a personal approach. Another hubber suggested that I write about how I research my fictional stories. In this hub I will try to give you a peek into my mindset, since what I do is both what others do and something of a developed intuition. To a large extent I use on-line sources and searches with Google and other search engines. Wikipedia is a good general source but I like to find other sources to compare. Also, I often research and write related non-fiction hubs prior to writing fictional stories. The research information itself often suggests story ideas. I also have several books related to American Western History which aids in research and ideas. A non-fiction series of mine is “History of town names...” It is based on the premise that all or at least most towns have some sort of story about how the town was established. The research involved often provides story material for fictional stories...

Murder in Wisconsin

Occasionally I will write about several towns that have ties to each other in one article. An example of this is one about Bluff country which includes the history of both some Wisconsin and Minnesota towns with the Mississippi River running between the two states in the areas. While I was learning about the history of La Crosse, Wisconsin I ran across an event which included murder. The event had the feel of a frontier situation and I decided to use it in a short story.

Folklore and Folksong

Folklore, folk songs, legends and such are a great source of story ideas. In my first year of college in the 1950’s I found some folk music recordings in a “bargain bin” at one of the college bookstores. One song was about the English highwayman Dick Turpin, entitled Dick Turpin and the Lawyer. I rewrote the story with an American Western setting and American characters. I added a dude ranch storyteller and made it a story within a story. I published it on hubpages but had to take it off because I had published part of it elsewhere.


Genealogy can be a good source of story material, both fiction and non-fiction. Many libraries have genealogy departments and on line sources. I made use of research done by my sister into our family history. She found a series of letters written by our grandfather’s sister, named Marie. I was fascinated by her story of leaving Sweden, traveling alone to Norway to take passage on a ship and to Minnesota. I thought women did not travel alone in those days—late 19th Century. I wrote a series of hubs mixing fiction with non-fiction to tell her story. I did take a mini-course about Swedish History at a local college to get background. Later, some of this research was useful in a series of stories about a fictional girl named Andrea.

Town Name Hubs

One of my first series of hubs was about the ‘History of town names. Often one of these hubs might result from reading something interesting about a town somewhere, travel brochure, magazine or on line. Wikipedia is a good source as they usually cover the history of the town in their articles. In addition, I will usually take a look at the town’s website. Research itself often leads to other ideas.

Carbons Creek Stories

The first fiction series of stories I wrote on hubpages I called The Carbons Creek stories. Carbons Creek is a fictional town that I made up. The primary character is a young woman named Sarah who comes from Chicago because her uncle, a newspaper publisher, left her the paper and his house and other belongings. I did not specify the location of the town but I used the landscape somewhere between the Mississippi River town of Oquawka and Monmouth, Illinois as its location. Incidentally, Monmouth is the birthplace of Wyatt Earp.

The book Wicked River, the Mississippi by Lee Sandlin was a great source for information about the undeveloped river country. I also wrote a review of this book and posted it on hubpages.

Galvanized Yankee

I did a western series on hubpages called the Galvanized Yankee about a confederate soldier who was a prisoner of war at Rock Island, Illinois. I knew there was a prison at Rock Island because I worked at Arsenal Island in Rock Island. There is also a Confederate cemetery there where prisoners of war are buried. Most of them, I believe, died of smallpox. Among the books I own is The Galvanized Yankees by Dee Brown in which he tells of Rock Island prison but several others where confederates were held. Some prisoners were paroled in order to join the Union Army and fight on the western frontier. That way they would avoid having to fight other southerners. This book provided much information. I also used on-line sources for individual sources.

Duluth, Minnesota and the Mesabi Iron Range

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and when I was young the Mesabi Iron Range was represented a major industry for the state. It was fairly common to see cars covered with a red dust. We knew that the owner had been up to the Iron Range. The red dust was from the iron that was mined up north. When we visited the iron range we found the water often had a reddish tint from the iron. People, such as some of my aunts and uncles, had filtering or settling devices to reduce the amount of iron in the water. Actually, a reasonable amount of iron made the water taste pretty good.

In the 1960’s the iron played out and the Taconite Industry got its start. Taconite is really low grade ore and takes more effort and technology to process. Problems arose when it was found that the Taconite tailings might be polluting Lake Superior.

I decided to write some hubs about the Iron Range towns, including Duluth. I mostly used some travel material, Wikipedia, town websites and my own memory as source materials. I followed these non-fiction hubs with a series of short short stories with a heroine named “Andrea,” who is a young Swedish immigrant and modeled after my great, Aunt Marie who is the main focus of some hubs from my family genealogy. Marie worked as a maid in hotels and had worked in Duluth. She was an immigrant from Sweden and so is Andrea. Duluth also has a strong Scandinavian population.. At that time timber was also a major industry. When my wife and I spent a weekend in Duluth in the 1970’s we visited a replica of a lumber camp in the area. It was modeled after a Danish one on the site.

One of the first stories in the series was centered on a lynching in Duluth. It was based on a historical incident lynching incident in the process of getting facts about Duluth. As I recall it was in Wikipedia. Other stories were about a lumber camp, a dance and a robbery.

Since the real life Marie traveled by train to Duluth, and other places at least as far as Montana I decided that maybe Andrea and her friends should also travel. I was familiar with Rock Island, Illinois and the Rock Island Arsenal where I worked. When I was living there we frequently visited Blackhawk State Park which was in the city limits of the City of Rock Island. It is named after an Indian Chief who is known from the Blackhawk War, of which I have written on hubpages. While visiting the park we saw the museum which had a film presentation of the history of the city. In this was the fact that at one time the park was an amusement park with roller coaster etc. The park was built by the trolley company which, in turn, brought people to the park. The park ended when a fire destroyed it. I did further research on this and found an article about the park. Needless to say Andréa’s friends spent some time there.

Quantrill and Lawrence, Kansas

I first became aware of Quantrill from a folk song about him and his raiders, “…he came to burn Lawrence, just over the line.” On the border between Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas during the American Civil War there were guerrilla raids on both sides against the other. Lawrence, Kansas was established by anti-slavery people. I wrote some historical hubs about Lawrence, then wrote some fictional hubs about the raids on Lawrence. Included in Quantrill’s raiders were the James brothers and the Younger brothers. The Lawrence website and Wikipedia supplied much of the detail.

Trading Post

Years ago I planned a novel about a priest traveling through the frontier to report to the Bishop about the religious conditions. I had meant to investigate the contrasts between the Catholic Bishop, John Carroll who was the first American Bishop and the Methodist leaders Bishop Asbury. I never developed a real plot but have used some of the characters and research I did for fiction stories I call the Trading Post stories.


My research does not have what one might call a method. I combine standard methods with my own intuitive sense of useful information. Much comes from reading historical books and non-fiction can also trigger ideas. There is a serendipity element of finding great ideas while looking for something else. If I were to give any advice it is to develop a mindset of letting your subconscious be constantly looking for material pertinent of your projects.

Copyright 2013 Don Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      FatBoyThin, Thanks for reading my hub and commenting. I do believe that research and writing are intertwined. I suspect most writers have their own approach to it.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Research can lead you into all sorts of interesting situations, though it's also good to expand and exaggerate what we find. Sounds like you've got the mix just about right. Great Hub.

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      That's a fantastic and detailed insight into your research process. I'm intrigued and impressed by the wide range of sources you draw on and the way that you find the seeds of a story in the real historical events.

      I also agree that you need to check wikipedia's references to be sure it's accurate!

      Absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for this really enjoyable and enlightening read. :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      QudsiaP1, Thank you.Glad you found it interesting.

    • QudsiaP1 profile image

      QudsiaP1 4 years ago

      This was such an excellent in depth view of the way you write. :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Personally I don't really care for movies about Wild West characters so I seldom see them. I much prefer the frictional ones like High Noon and Shane. I happened to be looking through a book I have at home by Readers Digest called "Story of the Great American West" and found this tidbit: '..Jesse rode with one of Quantrill's Lieutenants...Frank was riding with Quantrill himself."

      For whatever reasons, Hollywood creates its own legends such as Wyatt Earp who I read was virtually unknown in his own day.

      Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I've read over this article for a second time. One thing that gets me is that Quantrill is often mentioned in American movies as a separate issue from Jesse James. It is as if film makers don't want to go there. They want viewers to sympathize with Jesse hence they don't even want to mention any connection between him and Quantrill during the American Civil War. I thought only Jesse was tied up with Quantrill. I thought Jesse's older brother was a regular southern soldier during the war.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      When another writer wanted to know about my writing style and methods, I was stumped. I decided that I would try to explain what I did in the writing process. This was the result. It might have given me some self understanding as well. I appreciate your reading and your positive comments.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      So very interesting how you do your research to compile your stories. I think you will have a long career in writing because you write about things you like and the research becomes interesting. Thanks for sharing your mindset and keep doing what you are doing. It is always wonderful to read your stories.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy, I took a short storie writng course back in college. The teacher was a "literary writer" who mentioned know Robert Penn Warren. It seemed to me he was a bit out of touch with the culture the students knew. One students story started with talking about bringing in the Sunday paper, spreading it all over the floor, getting down and reading it. The Professor criticized the scene as being unbelievable because no parent would allow that. However, I and other students could identify with the writers experience and observation. The point, I guess, is to follow our own instinct and not that of authority. I'm not sure writing can really be taught.

      Thanks for the votes and the share.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Don,

      It is fun to draw upon personal family experiences; locations of where one has lived or traveled; research from various sources such as you do and one's memory of what was learned in school. I also think that a love of learning is an integral part of being a good writer because of all the research involved. It is obvious that you have that in spades! UUI votes and sharing!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      KoffeeKlatch Gals, nice to see you here.I basically tried to describe how I write and gather information. If it is of interest to other writers, that is good. I think we all have our own approach to writing often conditioned by our work experience. It takes about a day or two on any publication, I think, to scrap a lot of what was taught in school.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I am fascinated with your process. Definitely up, interesting, and useful.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      hobbywriter, I am glad if my hub gives you some useful tips on writing and research. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • hobbywriter profile image

      hobbywriter 5 years ago from California

      Great tips! I am new to writing and will definitely follow your advise!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      xstatic, I'm glad you found it of interest. Thanks for commenting.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Thanks for giving us some insight into your methods of writing. This was very interesting to read.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Rod, thanks for reading the hub and leaving a comment.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      drbj, Thank you for reading and commenting. I guess a little self analysis is useful once in a while.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I'll throw in an interesting.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Thank you, Don, for taking the time and effort to present your thoughts on writing. I would agree that reading and research can prompt many ideas and paths for a writer to follow.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Larry, although I don't think fiction has to meet the standards of non-fiction for historical accuracy, I think it is good to have it consistent with reality. Thanks for commenting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Will, you sum it up pretty well. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 5 years ago


      Your approach to research is refreshing in that unlike many people, you may have a preconceived idea as to how the story will unfold, but you appear open minded enough to allow for change with the facts on which your story is based point in a different direction.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Write what you know, and if you don't know enough, research it. Great points, Don!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      aj, you suggested the idea for this hub. It took me awhile to come up with an approach for this presentation. I am not sure, however, that it tells the whole story. You refer to my style as clear and concise. My high school English teacher was a journalist and pounded the journalistic rules into our heads, like "clear, concise, correct." I am glad you like the result. Thanks for the complimentary comments. And thanks for the share.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Bravo, dahoglund! Very interesting to read about the journey you have taken in your writing. It's fascinating how our environment, experiences and choices influence our writing. Your clear, concise style shows through your non-fiction writing, too. very enjoyable! I even watched the video which I found interesting and helpful. Thanks so much! Shared!


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