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Productive Research for Writers

Writer looking at research pinned on wall

As you may well know, just because you’re writing fiction, it doesn’t mean you make up absolutely everything.

Successful fiction usually comes from the art of weaving reality with imagination. A good writer lures readers in with imaginative details, but makes them stay with believable plots and people – and a single content or contextual slip-up can be so jarring to a reader that it calls into question the integrity of your entire piece.

So how do you preserve that integrity, and write a story that offers enough realistic detail that your creative license gains the freedom to spread its wings?

The answer is research!

 

Research – why bother?

The mere thought of a research workload can fill even the most devoted creative writer with dread – but unless you want readers to put your book down with a dejected sigh because you pushed the envelope just a bit too far on a certain topic, then effective research is an essential part of your preparation.

No matter your genre, whether it’s historical fiction or science fiction, research is a vital starting point for an excellent novel. Writing a romance novel set in Paris? You need a virtual trip to France by reading as much as you can about its capital city. Better yet, get those plane tickets booked and see it all for yourself.

Writing historical fiction set in medieval Europe? Well, a direct trip might be out of the question, but it’s still time to learn everything you can about that period.

Writing a crime novel? Now you’re in for it: you’ll need to research weapons, forensics, the laws of your setting, police procedures, criminal cases, and more.

Naturally, some stories are going to need more research than others – but no matter the type, you need to use your time well. Far too often, research becomes synonymous with procrastination – and before you know it, you’re excusing yourself to the library for the millionth time to pore over useless minutiae instead of writing.

To make sure that doesn’t happen, here are a few tips will help you get the most from your research time.

 

  1. Get organized

Before you begin your research, get yourself organized. There’s no point collecting hundreds of snippets of information, only to create a mess where you can’t find anything later on. You could try:

  • A binder, divided into labeled sections such as setting, characters, weapons, etc., to store sheets of researched information.
  • A digital folder on your computer divided into sub-folders, much like your physical binder. Be sure to back your files up regularly to avoid losing data.
  • A notebook full of handwritten notes, clippings and pictures.

Whichever method of storage you choose, ensure it’s easy to use, accessible, and well-organized. The whole point of researching is so you can easily find information when you need it. You don’t want the flow of your writing to be totally destroyed by 20 minutes of searching when you need to clarify a couple of details.

Okay, so now that you’re organized, how do you conduct your research like a pro?

 

  1. Read

As a writer, you’re already an avid reader (and if not, research shows why you should try your best to change that). All reading helps to improve your writing skills, but when you’re researching, your reading needs to step up a gear.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of reading you’ll need to do in preparation for writing your book:

 

The library

Get a membership at your local library. It’s free to become a member, and most libraries will have hundreds of books on every imaginable subject – from stock trading to medieval castles, to the perfect golf swing, and modern computer indexing makes hours of thumbing through index cards to find what you’re looking for a thing of the past.

There may be a limit to how many books you can check out at one time, but if you have the day to spare it can be amazingly beneficial to sit down and it spend it inside the library. This gives you a quiet, focused environment where you can flick through as many books as you like, taking down notes as you go.

 

The internet

Given it’s usually the first point of reference for everyone under the age of 40, it’s easy to forget that not everything on the internet is useful, or even accurate.

Yes, online encyclopedias, blogs, and digital publications can be helpful in your research process – but you do need to be extra careful about their validity. The internet can, unfortunately, be the source of some downright false or misleading information, so it’s a must to cross-check any data you’re given and ensure you’re obtaining it from reliable sources.

Published books (most of the time) go through a lot of editing and fact-checking to make sure they’re accurate, while Wikipedia, for example, can be edited by anyone with internet access and a few minutes to spare.

This isn’t to say that the internet is dangerous for research, or worthless as a resource. Quite the opposite: it’s an incredible wealth of knowledge at your fingertips – but be sure to validate what you find.

 

Other novels in the same sub-genre

Research doesn’t have to be limited to non-fiction texts. Reading other novels can be just as useful.

Begin by reading novels that deal with a similar subject matter to your own. Often, you’ll discover extra information, and see how that subject has been covered before and how you might approach it differently.

 

  1. Other forms of media

Books, newspaper articles, and online resources aren’t the only sources of information that will help you with your research – and while reading will indeed be your main method, other forms of media can be useful as well.

Three places to get started are

  • Netflix/YouTube – see if there are short videos, or whole documentaries, available that focus on aspects of your research.
  • Images – pictures can paint a thousand words, they say. Careful examination of photos, drawings, and paintings that link to your research will help your descriptions.
  • Pinterest – whatever you’re writing about, you can be sure that someone already has a Pinterest board on it. Have a look at what they’ve collected, and use Pinterest as both a research tool and a way to organize images that you feel will help you write your story.

 

  1. Immerse yourself in the real world

If possible, it’s a good idea to visit the places you’re writing about. Take time to stroll through the location, taking in not only the sights but the sounds, smells, and atmosphere. Using your senses and noting what you see and feel will help you create a far more realistic setting in your book.

Even If you’re writing about a completely fictional setting, you can visit a location that you imagine to be similar in flavor and tone. For example, if your novel is set in an intergalactic space port, visit a few busy transport terminals – a train station, airport lounge or ferry port. Allow details from each to inform your unique setting – tying together those strands of the real and the fantastic.

 

  1. Don’t forget to write

The importance of this point can’t be overstated. Once you start researching, it can be hard to know when to stop. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer – only you will know when you have enough material to begin writing.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of using never-ending research as a means to avoid the actual writing. If you think this is happening to you, don’t worry. Writing an entire book can be overwhelming, and naturally, you will want to feel as prepared as possible before writing chapter one.

Always keep in mind, though, that there is no such thing as ‘totally prepared’ to write a novel. At some point, you’re going to have to take the leap and hit the keyboard. A good way to avoid the never-ending research trap is to set yourself a deadline. A week, a month – whatever works for you.

Once that deadline arrives, it’s time to write. You’ll be amazed how much your research has inspired your subconscious – the finer details you didn’t even think you’d remember will percolate the prose, generating detailed settings and characters that react to them authentically.

A note of warning: not everything you discover during research needs to end up in the novel. This is a classic error writers make – the ‘info-dump.’

Remember that readers don’t need (or want) to know every piece of minor information. After all, they’re not reading a research report – they’re reading a novel. It only has to feel grounded enough to make sense, and get the stated facts right when it comes to certain topics (the layout of a specific car interior, for example). Incorporate details into your story with a light touch, and allow your research to subtly inform your writing, rather than becoming the foundational basis of it.

This is a good thing to keep in mind if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with detail — something that commonly happens when you’re trying to put together a work of historical fiction. The research is for you, not necessarily the book. It’s great to know every little in and out, but not all of them have to make it to the page.

Stick to these simple tips, and your research time should be more than well spent.

How do you research your stories? What have you found to be the biggest research hurdles you’ve overcome? Do you have any tips or traps for your fellow AutoCrit readers? Share it all in the comments below!

 

Join the Discussion on “Productive Research for Writers”

  1. Chris says:

    I write series crime novels, so research is vital, but often it only takes a phone call to the appropriate authority or an expert to check up on details. It’s worth keeping numbers of those you know who have inside knowledge… and liaise with other authors who may have their own ‘experts’ on hand, or have had to find out the same thing. We can all help each other with this. My own editor is also a writer, and can usually point me in the right direction. If not, my publisher can connect me with other authors who may be able to help. He’ll point people toward me too, if they need assistance. Writing should be a mutual benefit thing.

    Most people, whether at companies, or even inside officialdom, will be only too pleased to help if you tell them you’re a novelist checking facts/details. I’ve called government buildings, police, security companies, factories, etc. to check my facts, or to find out about facilities (like prisoner holding cells in specific police stations… Which kinds of vehicles are used by whom, and where, by various police or government agencies. In one case, I asked the location of the nearest gents’ toilet to the meeting room in a government building… a murder was carried out in there in my novel, and I needed to know the escape possibilities for my killer.).

    I’ve been given guided tours of places from car workshops to brothels after a simple phone call. Likewise, I’ve been given details of the night time ‘down times’ of the Channel tunnel on particular dates, for maintenance trains to pass through and routine work to be carried out, all to aid the timings of a plot.

    Get the facts right, and the reader will believe the fiction.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Brilliant info, Chris! Keeping a strong personal network is hugely beneficial. It’s good to hear you’ve had such great experiences when approaching companies and officials. Hopefully that offers a bit of encouragement for some of the more introverted who may read this. 🙂

  2. Chris says:

    PS: There’s nothing puts off readers more than reading mistakes in a story.

    If you’re character is getting into a classic car, don’t assume he’ll turn the key to start it… many have either a button, or a pull knob on the dashboard.

    If your terrorist is waving a machine pistol around, remember that most hold only 20 rounds or fewer, and will empty the magazine in less than two seconds of continuous fire.

    If your nineteen forties femme fatale is asking for a drink in a smoky sleazy night club, it doesn’t look too good if the drink she orders wasn’t around until the nineteen sixties. (Or if your smoky nightclub is set in, or close to, the present day, make sure that smoking is allowed in the place your scene is taking place. In many countries, smoking is banned in clubs and bars.)

  3. William Ablan says:

    I don’t like making mistakes in my story. I’ll even pull up maps and study the terrain where something is supposed to happen. In my second novel, Family Secrets, I have my characters studying a topographical map looking at how to approach and infiltrate an area.

    I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, so I studied the maps, and then my wife and I went to look at the area. I wanted to see it as my characters might see it, and to see if the map recon would work. I also hunted for a sniper perch. In the story, they have two snipers that provide cover for them. I saw that my characters would reach a point where the snipers could no longer provide support.

    I used that to add more tension to the story. Having someone with a rifle to watch over you is a great big security blanket. And when you don’t have it, there’s a definite shift in how my characters think and move.

    In another part, I had them having to shut down the engine on an airplane. I found a pilot who flew that kind of aircraft and asked. He was happy to tell me how to do it.

    I want my characters situations to be real. Whatever they do has to reflect that realism.

  4. Helen Towgood says:

    I write historical fiction set 2500 years ago. Thanks to a global community of researchers, archaeologists and academics, a huge body of historical data is just a click away on academia.edu. I have found experts (as Chris mentioned) more than willing to share their knowledge, and continue to be in contact with all manner of fascinating people around the world. Out of respect, I keep print copies of all sources I use, and intend to acknowledge such on a website in the future … regardless of whether my work is published or not. History is alive and well. Knowledge continues to evolve because people around the world care about the past, and have hope for the future. As writers, investing in research need not be arduous when so much information, from all manner of sources and perspectives, is at our fingertips.

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