Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Best Researchers Make the Best Writers

by Craig von Buseck @CraigvonBuseck

In journalism school, my writing mentor, Bob Slosser, repeatedly admonished his students: “The best reporters make the best writers.” Bob had been a reporter and editor for the New York Times, so when he said ‘reporters’ he meant ‘researchers.’

The more background information you gather, the deeper and richer will be the writing. I’m speaking from my experience in nonfiction and biographical writing, but these tools will work for fiction and other genres. There are some research methods that may seem obvious, but perhaps there are other methods you’ve overlooked that can reap rich results for your writing project.

Live in the Time

If you are researching a particular historical era, it’s helpful to place yourself into that time as often and as deeply as you can. It is helpful to read books not only about your subject or protagonist, but also those related to the era. These books will help you to better understand the context of your story, which in turn will help with the description of your setting. This type of research can also fill in gaps in your story and possibly solve problems in your book.

In doing research for my book, Nobody Knows: The Harry T. Burleigh Story, there were gaps in Burleigh’s history. Despite my best efforts at the time, I could not find certain information that was vital for a complete story. Then one day I stumbled across a book in the library called I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land. This true story didn’t exactly answer my questions about Burleigh’s background, but it gave me information that happened in the general vicinity and at the general time to fill in the gap to tell the story. For this reason, Nobody Knows straddles the fence between narrative non-fiction and historical fiction—but I tried to tell the true story as much as I could.

Another way to place yourself into the time is to watch movies or listen to music from the era or on the subject. As I worked on the Burleigh project, I primarily watched movies or TV shows with an African-American theme—like Glory, Roots, or 12 Years a Slave. I also found a collection of African-American folk music that included the spirituals, plantation songs, the blues, and jazz. I surrounded myself with this music wherever I went, day and night.

I even hung posters of great African-American performers from the early 20th Century in my writing room to stay in the vibe. Harry Burleigh and his era became so much a part of our world at that time that my then 5-year-old son asked me one day, “Daddy, how long will Harry T. Burleigh be living with us?”

Travel to do Research

In my opinion, a writer cannot adequately know their subject by doing research only on the Internet or through reading books—you must also travel to key locations to see and feel the vibe for yourself. In the midst of doing research for my new book, Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant, I traveled to more than 50 historical sites associated with Grant—including his homes, key battlefields, cemeteries, museums, and historical societies.

If you are not able to go to these places, do your best to view them online if possible.

It’s also important to travel to key libraries and historical societies. When I wrote my book, I Am Cyrus: Harry S. Truman and the Rebirth of Israel, I started the 4-year process by spending 3 days doing research at the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. That research set me on a course to find the key books and information I needed to write my biography. 

This research paid off, as I Am Cyrus was nominated for the prestigious Truman award by his presidential library.

Interview Experts or Those Who Knew Your Subject

It is wise to interview experts on your subject—and if possible, people who knew your main character. These interviews will also help you to better understand the context of your era; fill in gaps in the story; and possibly solve problems in your book.

In doing my research for Nobody Knows, I was able to interview two women who knew Harry Burleigh in their youth. One of these women was Josephine Herald Love, a protégé of Burleigh and a graduate of Juilliard. She was in her 80s when I traveled to meet her at the African-American museum she founded in Detroit. She was not only helpful in giving me wonderful stories for the book, she also read the manuscript when it was completed and gave me her feedback.

As I’ve often told my writing students, the key to effective writing is:
  1. Pre-writing
  2. Writing
  3. Re-writing
  4. Re-writing again and again until it is finished.
One of the most important parts of the ‘pre-writing’ process is diligent and in-depth research. Be a great reporter (researcher) and make my writing mentor proud! In the process you will likely end up with an excellent book.

I tell the story of Grant’s final years in detail in my new book, Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant. Order your copy at


Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and the Managing Editor for Learn more at


  1. Thank you for sharing these specific examples of how the research worked and helped your books. :)

  2. Some great points here. Amen & thanks.
    Jay in SC

  3. Your books reflect the hours of research you dig into. The non-fiction books come to life as the reader is transported to the era and life of the subject of the story. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  4. As a former journalist and historical novelist, I wholeheartedly agree! 😊