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Why you should do research
You’ve got your idea developed through Brainstorming.
You’ve got your characters fleshed out through Character Development.
You’ve worked out the details of your setting through Worldbuilding.
What’s next? Research of course!
Writers should write about what they know, but authors should write about what they don’t know.
When I wrote my first two manuscripts I included a lot of elements involving electricity, magnetism, and seismic activity. When I started these novels, I was in no way an expert on these subjects.
Electricity? It turns the lights on, cool.
Magnetism? Keeps my kiddo’s artwork pinned to the fridge.
And seismology? Other than the word “earthquake” I couldn’t add two cents to that bank of information.
After a few days of research, however, even my science-nerd husband was impressed with my knowledge.
Taking the time to really understand these elements, not only made my first novel so much better, but it also ended up inspiring a large portion of my second.
So how, and when, should you research?
Before you start drafting:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Too much planning could lead to the death of your novel.
You will probably save yourself a ton of rewriting if you put the work into researching the major stuff beforehand.
Start by making a list of things you may need to research. If you are writing about a different country or time period, you’ll be better off researching common names, occupations, and customs beforehand.
While you are writing:
I try to keep my writing time sacred and do my research and planning during a separately dedicated time.
You may find yourself in the middle of a scene and realize you have no idea what kind of education your dentist M.C. had to get before landing their job.
This is an easy Google search, but watch out! The internet and social media are a black hole for writing time. If you’re not careful, your “quick search” can easily turn into hours perusing Facebook or scrolling through YouTube videos.
This is why I try to avoid the internet altogether during writing time.
This is the best research method for me.
Since I usually stick to a crude outline while “following my characters” I find they sometimes lead me down a road I don’t know.
This is when I make a note in my Story Notebook and get back to writing.
There are several benefits of waiting until you’ve finished writing for the day. If you happen to stumble upon inspiration while researching, (which you might) you won’t risk getting distracted or bumbling your manuscript by dumping all of your freshly-learned information into your current scene.
The pure fact that you know the information will come across to your readers, even if you don’t spell out every detail in your writing.
Think of any doctor show you’ve ever watched. The subliminal details such as hospital procedures, machinery, and equipment are what make you feel like the characters are really there so that you can focus on the drama. But, a real-life doctor watching at home will pick up on every misused scalpel and over-prescribed medication that comes across the screen.
In the same way, a potential reader may be scared off by your obvious lack of research if it happens to be in their field.
Yes, imagination is valuable in fiction, but the trick to writing a successful novel is making your readers believe that fiction is fact, so that they too can get lost in your story.
So, how do you research a novel?
The days of hanging out in a library for hours digging through dusty (and probably outdated) medical books have passed.
The internet is, of course, your best available resource. Just remember, it’s up to you to fact-check.
Make sure your information is accurate and up-to-date. Even if it’s not, outdated information can be valuable in dialogue or narration if you want to reference how things have changed.
That’s a rarity, however, and if you are unsure about something it’s worth taking a few minutes to verify. How embarrassing would it be if a potential Publisher or Agent had to be the one to point out that Ford does not, in fact, make the Silverado.
A few slips in the name of creativity may be alright, but all it takes is one wrong slip will make you look like an amateur fast.
Other books: reading stories in similar genres is a great way to find inspiration, and also see what’s already been played out.
Google/ Search Engines: make sure you are visiting reliable sites, and if something seems too crazy to be true, definitely check elsewhere.
Pinterest: this is an awesome, under-utilized resource for a lot of writers. There are tons of lists and tips here. You can find ideas for names, occupations, expressions… I could go on and on, but if you’re not already using Pinterest, you should be. Using Pinterest for Writing.
The Library: Okay, I guess the time hasn’t passed. Not only can you find tons of manuals at the Library, but it’s also a great place to peruse for inspiration or to fight writer’s block. You’ll probably find resources you didn’t even know existed.
Library of Congress: an online library resource. Check it out here.
Interviews/ Visits: Find someone more knowledgeable than you, or visit a locale featured in your story. Museums, airports/ stations, and historical buildings are great places to visit. When interviewing or visiting, keep a few rules in mind:
Be respectful, be prepared, be patient.
These are people and businesses who have lives outside of your novel. Don’t waste their time, know beforehand what questions you want to be answered, and be aware they just may not have time for you right now. If not, try again.
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What resources do you use while researching your novel?
More in the How To Write A Novel series: