Research and Writing a Book

This article was first penned well over a decade ago at the end of the era of traditional book publishing as the principal option for publication, and when digitized information and resources were still in their infancy. I am pleased to advise that Thomas Blampied, a currently published author and photographer and specializing in Rail Transportation, has agreed to provide his insights to keep this page up-to-date and relevant. 


Research, especially that leading towards publication, is an exacting, exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, wit-, memory- and observation-challenging, but enormously satisfying endeavour. It is both an art and a science. It is similar to detective work in that it is 99 per cent patient and dogged pursuit, punctuated by moments of total frustration, but also, most rewardingly, heart-stopping excitement. 

Doing research for its own sake is a hobby unto itself. Since bodies of knowledge and its repositories have become so vast, most researchers limit their subject, just as most stamp collectors no longer collect "the whole world". And research, after all, is a form of collecting. In its usually understood form, this collecting is gathering information, but this comes from three principal sources - the printed or written word - photographs, drawings or paintings - and the spoken or recorded word. 

While the collection of the material is what is usually thought of as "doing the research", it is the interpretation that requires careful observation, a long memory, sceptical analysis, and meticulous cross-checking, to avoid the pitfalls of painful error. 

Doing research for a book is all of that, together with a defined focus or object. The research becomes attuned to relevant subjects, particular topics and time frames.

The Research

First of all, one has to define the purpose and focus of the research. 

How deep? How detailed? What information? What prospective audience?


The potential sources are almost infinite: 

  • Archives: national, railway, provincial, regional, municipal, community, individual
  • Museums: national, regional, local, private
  • Reference Libraries and Library Special Collections
  • Government and other offices, e.g. Land Registry Offices, Harbour Commissions
  • Historical Societies
  • Books, Periodicals and Newspapers
  • Internet web and digitized information and resources
  • Photography collections
  • Postcard collections -see also  Post Cards - Stations, Railway Scenes and Wrecks - a primary research source - by Ralph Beaumont

  • Oral recollections (taped and viva voce)

A Perspective on Digitized Information and Resources
- by Thomas Blampied

Coming from inside academic history in 2014, available internet sources have grown exponentially and continue to do so. 

For instance, many newspapers have now been digitized and are fully searchable. This makes traditional sampling methods for print copies and microfilm increasingly obsolete. By using keyword searches, it is possible to bring up every occurrence of a specific term within your search parameters, allowing for years of newspapers to be consulted in only a few hours. Many of these digitized newspaper collections reside behind pay-walls, but can often be accessed through local or university libraries. An excellent list of digitized Canadian newspapers can be found here:
Many older books have also been digitized. Good sources to begin with include: ( which also includes several years of Canadian Railway and Marine World from the early 20th century; Project Gutenberg (; and Google Books (
Many archives are also digitizing their collections and making them available online. In the UK, the National Railway Museum ( and Network Rail ( both have extensive online collections. In Canada, Library and Archives Canada ( is slowly making some material available online, including railway images and documents. Generally speaking, Canada is lagging behind both the UK and the US when it comes to digitizing content.
The advent of keyword searching has created its own problems, most notably in the choice of the best keyword. In this case, some basic knowledge of the subject is needed to better understand how the specific concept you are researching was talked about at the time.
A caution about primary sources in our digitized world: At least at an academic level of research scrutiny, primary sources should not be considered as fact and should be viewed with the same level of healthy scepticism as secondary material. This has already been alluded to, but needless to say, in today's world; media, technology and motivation have become far more complex and subtle. A simple example is photoshopped images.
Verifying Accuracy

It is generally accepted that information sources are either "primary" or "secondary".

Basically, a primary source is an established-as-reliable original document or photograph, a contemporary newspaper report of an event that has occurred, or a trustworthy eye-witness account.

Secondary sources are after-the-fact (i.e., subsequently researched) books and periodicals, or other accounts. These publications or reports may provide original sources, and where they do, that particular piece of information may be treated as primary, as long as that source was indeed primary, such as a contemporary document or newspaper account. Contemporary diaries, and so forth, may be treated as a primary source, but with the reservation that the diarist could have been mistaken about a certain fact or date, especially if the diary is recorded in retrospect and not on a day-by-day basis. They may of course also reflect the diarist's biases or interests.

In any case, do not hesitate to seek out experts in a particular subject or area, and to ask for their input and advice.

Dates are a particular hazard, especially where they concern railway events such as openings and closings, since these usually take place in stages. For instance, in the case of the opening of a railway, this could be taken to be the sod-turning, or when the first construction train passes over the line, or the directors' inspection trip, or the passing of the first revenue train or the date of the official opening with the band, speeches and hoopla. Another hazard with dates is the dating of images. Unless one can be very sure of a particular date, it may be best to go with a "circa".

The main difficulty with photographs is that the photographer, the exact date taken, and the subject (such as a railway accident) may not be at all identifiable, or only approximately identifiable with careful observation. This has implications, not only for the identity of the photograph itself , but also for the determination of copyright.

The general rule for verifying accuracy is that a true (not just a quoted) primary source may be usually be accepted as fact, but that while secondary source information may be quite accurate, it should for assurance's sake be cross-verified with at least one other independent piece of information, before being accepted as factual. Obviously even with this precaution, there are no guarantees. One of the problems here is that the various secondary sources may be/may have been copying from each other, which would nullify them as independent secondary sources. 

As a postscript, in considering one's primary sources, it is also wise to consider the political leaning or motivation of the writer, especially for example with respect to the point of view of a particular bygone newspaper report, where supposedly factual reports were not necessarily divorced from editorial bias.

My  Books

Edited by me:

Books for which I have had the privilege of being a proofreader:

The Portage Railway  - An Illustrated History of the Huntsville & Lake of Bays Railway by Jeff Young and Peter Foley

Copyright and Credits

I am not a lawyer. If a serious question of copyright arises, get the appropriate legal advice. 


Most, if not all books, include a specific copyright declaration, and most articles show the © symbol. Even if they do not, author's copyright exists. However, since books and articles are written in part for the benefit of setting down information for other researchers, it follows that quotations, short excerpts or the use of information are expected. Nevertheless, as an acknowledgment to the author and a sign post to the researcher, the use of quotations and excerpts should be identified as such in the text or as a footnote or endnote. As well, inclusion in a bibliography is not only additional credit, but also a handy compendium of what publications were consulted in the course of the research. 


For publication, there are two required sets of permission. 

One is from the owner/custodian of the image for permission to publish it. 

The other one is from the owner of the copyright. The copyright owner is usually the photographer/artist, unless the image-maker's copyright was also transferred to the owner/custodian of the image.

Unless any particular institution owns the copyright and can therefore provide copyright permission, any institution providing a photograph for a prospective publication will caution the author that it is his/her responsibility to verify copyright ownership, and to obtain permission. The difficulty is that in the case of the vast majority of images, the maker of the image is not identified. This problem is compounded as collections are sold by estates and pass into the hands of institutions or professional photograph distributors. If the maker of the image still has copyright, (assuming the maker can be identified at all), tracing him/her may be difficult, impractical or impossible.

As far as the owner/custodian of the image's permission to publish is concerned, institutions usually provide permission in writing, but oral agreements at the time of the transaction are common-place. Informal contributors of pictures are usually happy to think their picture may be published, but it is as well to make clear at the time of the contact that the intent is for publication.

For a better understanding of copyright, it's best to read the applicable Copyright Act, and if necessary, obtain legal advice. In general, the Canada Copyright Act  provides that copyright endures for 50 years after the image maker's death (Section 6). Where the identity of the image maker is unknown, copyright endures for 75 years following the year of the creation of the image. (Section 6, 1b.) 

The institution or individual owner (if other than the photographer) of the image should always be credited (in the case of an institution, together with an accession or other catalogue number, if available), as part of the caption or elsewhere in the publication.

Writing and Publishing the Book

Four preliminary questions:

1.) Does one write the book and then seek a publisher, or the other way round?
First of all, the various publishing options (for examples, consult my What's New in Publications page):

  • a traditional commercial publishing house, or a specialty publisher. Assuming your manuscript is accepted, publication will usually involve a contract, a predetermined "run", and a royalty payment agreement. 
  • on-line publishing - please see "A Perspective on On-Line Publishing" below. This option is best researched on the selected website for the offered services.
  • Self-publishing. This option involves designing the book oneself, taking it to a printer of one's choice, and paying up-front for its production. The challenge is handling the book's marketing, sales and distribution.

As to the answer to the question, if one is a prospective first-time author, one is well-advised to do some research as to the potential market, and to obtain some evaluation advice.  

2.) Does one hope to recover one's research costs?
Depending on the topic, one can first of all try to find a sponsor, or source a grant from somewhere such as an arts council. A prospective publisher may be willing to cover some expenses up-front. If you self-publish or receive a royalty, you should be able to write off reasonable expenses once you start receiving an income from the sale of the book. By all means consult a tax accountant on that point.

3.) Traditional "run" print of x number of copies, or print on demand? The answer to this is somewhat tied into 1.) and 2.) above. The primary considerations are relative costs, distribution considerations and sanguine expectations of reader interest and hence sales. Consult with your publisher and any sponsor, or if self-publishing, with some reputable printing houses.

4.) Should one hold off on publishing a book because further information may come along later, and/or for the fear of leaving out vital areas because of lack of reliable information?
There is always some information that surfaces just after a book has been published (usually because the book has been published), so the general answer is "no, one shouldn't". BUT - one should have some realistic idea of how big the holes in the vital areas are, and then decide if more work is necessary. A book that turns out to be substantially incomplete or is just superficial will not likely have a lot of market appeal, and will work against the author's credibility for the next publication. Worst of all, it will not be a very satisfying experience for the author.

There is no reason why the research and the writing cannot occur simultaneously, especially as the process of writing often begets new research questions that should usefully be resolved.

A Perspective on On-line Publishing
- by Thomas Blampied

On-line Publishing is provided by two basic models - DIY, such as those referred to below, and those where essentially packages are offered that do much of the work for one, such as iUniverse.

In terms of online self-publishing, the market has expanded and there are now three main contenders: Blurb (, Lulu (, and CreateSpace ( 

The main advantages of the DIY model are: complete creative control over content; very low (or non-existent) overheads and financial risk; and a ready-made global online distribution system. 

Because I have dealt exclusively with Blurb since 2009, I will explain their system. You can either use their own book-making software or Adobe InDesign (I have found their software more than adequate for my needs). When you are happy with the book you have put together, you upload it to their website and purchase a single copy.

This allows you to sell your book on their website and you can set your own level of profit should you so choose. When someone orders your book, the electronic file is sent to one of Blurb's printers (to my knowledge, they have them in the US, Canada and Europe - probably elsewhere too) and the requested number of copies are printed and shipped directly to the buyer. With this model, there is very little risk to the author and there is no need to try and shift thousands of copies clogging up your basement.

Similarly, because Blurb deals with the orders, the author doesn't need to worry about stock, shipping or payments. If you want to sell in a traditional brick-and-mortar store, you can order copies for yourself at cost and then sell them on to individuals stores or a distributor (however, this must be on your own initiative).

The drawback to this model is the bureaucracy of registering the book with Library and Archives Canada for legal deposit is up to the author (see as is getting an ISBN if you so choose (see Thankfully, getting an ISBN is free in Canada.

Another drawback to this model is that all marketing must be done by the author.

Overall design

As a starting point, it is essential to prepare an outline (prospective table of contents), and determine the approximate length of the intended publication, bearing in mind that each page has a cost attached to it. The author also has to determine the purpose and focus of the book. Then some specific questions have to be answered: Who is the intended readership? What information? How detailed? How many images? Which images? How large? Colour and/or black and white? At this point the author will likely be co-operating with a prospective publisher. The publisher will have ideas, concerns and suggestions.

Since virtually all book publishing and design is now "desk top", one has a choice of:

  • writing and designing the book oneself on a computer program acceptable to the publisher/printer, or on that provided by an on-line publisher
  • turning the selection of fonts, placement of the text and general design of the book over to a professional designer for a fee,
  • letting the publisher's printer do the design as a "pre-press production" cost, in consultation with the author and the publisher.

Whatever the option, basic decisions have to be made about design, format and layout of the publication:

1.) Hardcover or softcover?
Hardcover is prestigious and in the hands of the reader, more durable if constantly to be used as a reference work. On the other hand, hardcover can almost double the ultimate retail price.

1 a.) If the book is to be softcover - perfect-bound or spiral-bound (wire-0)? Spiral bound is easier to lay flat, but makes the book look more like a notebook. Consult your printer.

2.) Dust jacket? Consult with your book designer and printer. Designs vary, but the inside flaps usually display a summary of what the book is about, and some words about the author. The design of the dust cover is most important for market appeal and visibility.

3.) Overall length.
Yes, every page costs money. Is this to be a seminal, "definitive" work (answer that question very objectively!)? How much are readers likely to want to know about the subject? How many images are to be included?

4.) Book content: You need to  

a.) decide what you want or need at the front: 
Frontispiece page; Copyright, cataloguing and publication data (your publisher or printer will usually obtain the ISBN number) and the captions for the dust jacket and the frontispiece images; Table of Contents; Acknowledgments; Foreword or Preface; Introduction. 

b.) give careful thought to the number, definition and content of your chapters, so that the subject matter flows smoothly as to chronology, geography and logic from beginning to end, and the reader is not "jumping around". Decide whether to intersperse the images in among the chapter pages, or to have separate sections or chapters for the images. (Or both.) There is also a cost factor here, so consult with your book designer and your printer, especially if some colour photography is involved.
c.) decide on what to include at the end: Epilogue; Chronology of Events; Endnotes; Bibliography; Index.
NB: Footnotes vs Endnotes: Footnotes appear at the bottom [foot] of each page, whereas Endnotes appear at the end of the book, arranged numerically and sequentially by chapter. Footnotes usually elaborate on the reference in the text, whereas Endnotes are almost invariably a citation of the source of a particular statement or quotation. Citations follow a preferred format. Consult a copy editor or books that you have found helpful in your research. 

Endnotes, Footnotes - or at least in situ citations (less preferred because they interrupt the reader's "flow"), a bibliography and an index are de rigueur for all serious research works.

Your readers will be grateful for some maps that illustrate the text, and for a summary chronology of events.

5.) "Portrait" or "landscape" layout? 
The more usual "portrait" (vertical) format is easier to handle and read. A "landscape" (horizontal) layout may however be preferable if the projected content requires large maps, multiple columns and/or will include a preponderant number of  large (e.g., 8 by 10") "landscape" format  images. 

6.) Format
Today, the majority of "portrait"-designed books (other than paperbacks) are "quarto" (around 12" by 9")  or "octavo" (around 9" by 6") format. Consult with a book designer and your printer/publisher.

Book Design

Book design is the specific process of laying out the pages of the book, with all of the page numbers, footnotes, images and captions in place, as the book is literally "ready to go to print". This involves laying out the chapters - text and images, with the captions in place, page numbers, footnotes, everything as the reader will see the book when it is in their hands.  After the last proofreading, the work is "locked up", is ready to go the printer, and no more changes are possible. (The printer may provide "galleys" or "signatures" for a final review just to fix any images or to lighten or darken the colour of the ink, but no text changes.) 

It is the book designer's responsibility to ready the images for printing with any necessary, cropping, enhancing or "bleeding". The book designer will specify the required minimum digital acceptability of the images. The inclusion of otherwise substandard images needs to be justified on account of historical or other importance to preserve the credibility of the work.

Is it possible to do one's own book design? Yes it is, and there are software programs for do-it-yourselfers. See above for "A Perspective on On-line Publishing - by Thomas Blampied". As he points out, there are drawbacks. If in doubt, it may be wise to invest in the service of a book designer who has and is familiar with the professionally-preferred software programs such as Adobe Indesign or QarkXpress. And a book designer is well placed to resolve any technical issues with the printer.

Depending on the type of binding selected, the printer may also bind the book; but more usually will send it out to a bindery.

Copy Editing and Proof Reading

This is very important: Do not rely on your own eyes or knowledge to edit or proof your book, even if this is not your first book, or you have edited past books. The reason is that you have become so familiar with your current project that you no longer have the perspective of an onlooker who sees the copy for the first time.

Writing a book, needless to say, is far more than simply stringing words together. To be credible, the text has to have a fluent, clear style, devoid of repetition and grammatical error – and to be spelling-error free goes without saying.

Like other human endeavour, writing is also subject to “conventions” – standards of good usage and grammar, use of abbreviations, type faces, titles, numerals, punctuation, other languages, layout of indexes, bibliographies, paragraphs, sub-paragraphs – an almost endless list of accepted writing conventions.  These are in the domain of a copy editor. A copy editor works with dictionaries (Oxford English, Webster-Merriam), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press) and above all with The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press). Also very useful to the lay writer is The Elements of Style,by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Published by Longman.

There is a broad distinction between a copy editor and a proof-reader:

A copy editor is a person who is familiar with the above and who is competent to review/rewrite copy, check for terminology, consistency, and writing/publishing conventions, such as an appropriate layout for a bibliography, index, endnotes and footnotes.  A copy editor is familiar with text conventions and looks for design features and consistency, as well as correcting grammatical and spelling errors. It is possible for the duties of a copy editor and a proofreader to be combined, but it may be more usual or desirable for one or more proofreaders to report to the copy editor.

A proof reader looks for grammatical and spelling errors, for inaccuracy or contradiction of the facts in the text (also, as between the text of a chapter and that of a caption or a previous chapter). The proofreader may or may not have familiarity with the general subject of the book, and if not, an additional  proofreader who is familiar with the subject matter also ought to be sought out.

A professional copy editor of course works for a fee, and that may not be justified for a personal project. It’s an excellent investment if you can afford it - especially if putting a book together is a new experience.

If you cannot, here is some advice:

First of all, if you are not sure of your writing capabilities:

  • pick up a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Paperback. Published by Longman.
  • think about taking an evening basic writing or journalism course at your local community college, and/or perhaps joining a local writers’ group.
  • google "how to write" and pick something that feels close to your situation and follow that lead.
  • get a friend to help you with the writing, sort of a coach or mentor, as it were.

When it comes to the copy edit and proofing functions:

  • invest in a copy of a recent The Chicago Manual of Style which will give you detailed advice on text convention specifics.
  • ask anyone you know who reads a lot if they would like to proofread your MS.
  • if your project is railway-related, be sure to ask a third pair of eyes who is familiar with railway operations and history to proofread as well.
  • if you are writing a period piece, e.g., located in the 19th century, read some period works - Canadian examples are a Gentlewoman in Upper Canada by Anne Langton or Susanna Moodie’s  Roughing it in the Bush. For railway authenticity, you would need old timetables and examples of contemporary fares.

Remember that the overriding rules are: clarity, accuracy and consistency.

Once the writing process begins, it is very important to exercise very close control between text and images, which will involve detailed and constant communication with the designer to ensure that images are placed appropriately, and that they stay connected to their intended captions.

Once the manuscript (MS) and images are assembled, and the captions have been written, proofing the MS will take considerable time. Today's text computer programs, such as Adobe Indesign™ or QuarkXpress™ , can do a lot in the way of checking spelling and flushing out inconsistencies, but these things cannot be left entirely to computer programs. No one, for instance, would rely solely on a spellchecker program to identify spelling errors. These bookwriting computer programs do however also have search and index features that simplify enormously the process of making sure all corrections are caught and are able to create an automatic index - the index is any serious author's nightmare.

Anyone who expects to put out a credible presentable book will be proofing the MS many, many times. It may be a good idea to proof for one thing at a time, e.g., proof for spellings, then for headings, then for captions, then for changes, dates, layout positions, references, footnotes, endnotes and so on and so forth, all independently. One item that is a headache for all proofreaders is whether something is "one word or two words". Use a good dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style to determine the preferred usage. In some cases it is a legitimate matter of choice, e.g., time table or timetable - or rollingstock or rolling stock - but whatever the choice, be sure that it is applied consistently throughout the manuscript. (This is where the software "search" feature comes to the rescue.) Finally, there is one last proofing before the book goes to print. (One tip - watch the pictures and captions, in my experience they are the ones that will cause 90 per cent of the grief. The usual culprits are an inverted picture, or the wrong picture with the caption [or vice versa] or a caption not consistent with the text ... )


In the end the book will be printed - your heart stops when you get your production copy, then you start to breathe again, and now you are the proud producer of something that will have added value to our storehouse of history and knowledge. And get ready to console yourself: there will be an error here or there that was not caught. And get ready to hear about that fantastic picture that would have made such an addition - that always surfaces two weeks after publication, probably because of your publication. That's just Murphy's Law, and it is inevitable.

Copyright © 2014 Railway Pages and Charles Cooper. All Rights Reserved.