Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources
Adding details to your fictional scenes can take time to research, but it can be well worth your efforts. Curious about what your characters would pay for lunch at a restaurant in the 1940s? A search online finds a 1943 Harvey House menu listing Roast Long Island Duckling, Special Dressing, Spiced Crab Apple with sides of Candied Yam, Vegetable, Salad, Rolls, and Sherbet for . . . $1.25. (Wow!) Four years later, your characters might board a train in San Francisco at 7:00 Sunday evening headed for Washington, D.C.—but don’t make them in too much of a hurry, because they won’t arrive in Washington until 7:30 a.m. Thursday morning according to the 1947 Through Coast to Coast Pullman Service schedule. And if your character is in orbit, how will she brush her teeth in the morning? NASA’s A Day in the Life Aboard the International Space Station would have that information—and a video to go with it.
Sprinkling your fiction with fact can make your story come alive for the reader, and there is no better place to find the facts than in primary sources. But just what is meant by a “primary” source?
Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Documents . . . and Accuracy
In my days as a librarian, I helped a lot of students find primary documents for their research, but they are really not as scary as they may sound to the uninitiated, particularly now that we have the Internet. A document is a primary source if it is written and/or published by the person who was there at the time the content was created. For example, I found the menu and price above online off the scanned image of a 1943 Harvey House menu. I also found online the original Pullman timetable from 1947, which would have been the actual timetable used by travelers in 1947. Diaries, journals, menus, timetables, maps; videos of interviews with a veteran, a doctor, or an astronaut—all these would be viewed as primary sources, because your source was there, at that time, doing whatever it is you want your character to do when you want them to do it. The use of primary sources allows you to know exactly what it was like, what happened, as told by a witness to an event or action.
Secondary sources are written by writers who have done research using the primary documents. Secondary sources can be easier to get, they can have the added benefit of additional commentary to help clarify the information, and generally they will be easier to read. A “tertiary” document is a piece written using secondary documents for information sources, rather than digging into the primary sources.
For example, an actual scientific psychological study published in a scholarly journal would be a primary document. It will also be challenging for a layperson to read and understand. But an article from a professional, subject-specific journal, such as Psychology Today, will both make the information comprehensible to the average reader and add a plain-language “translation” of the scientific data. The writer of this secondary article used the primary source—the study presented in the scholarly journal—as the foundation for his article, lending it credibility. For a popular article on the same subject—such as found in a newspaper or general-reader magazine—a writer will usually go to the secondary source, because the “translation” of the data will have already been done, making the writing of the popular article much easier. Less useful to us would be an article or paper for which the writer depended entirely on the tertiary source, and so on.
The problem for us as storytellers is that with each level of separation from the primary source comes more commentary and bias to muddy up the facts, and if we are not familiar with the topic, we could get something wrong simply because we relied on the writer of a tertiary source for our information. (See my October 9th comment on depending on Hollywood for our information.) Will this be a problem for our story? It depends entirely upon our readers’ knowledge base, but since we can’t know who is reading our stories, I think it is important to get our facts as close to the truth—the primary source—as possible, because that “suspension of disbelief” we fiction writers depend upon requires it.
Video Sources—The Ultimate Primary Sources for “Show, Don’t Tell”
Today’s storytellers are so lucky when it comes to digital resources. Forty years ago, a character in one of our stories might have been present for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, or perhaps she’s standing in the crowd as Hitler admonished his people to go to war, and we would have needed to find a film library with a copy of the film in order to describe it accurately. Today, we can simply go to the Internet and search for videos, so we can hear these speeches for ourselves, see the crowds, witness their reactions to the speeches.
And videos are the ultimate resource for that “show, don’t tell” admonition for our fiction. Say you have an elderly man who wants to connect with his young grandson by building something together. You have only to search the Internet for videos on building a tree house, or a bird house, or maybe a soapbox derby car to learn how it’s done. Watch multiple videos, and write what you see. Add in your own characters and fictional scene details and voila! The scene will practically write itself!
The next time, we’ll look at types of online resources, when you might want to use them, and how to use them effectively.