Research. I go on and on about it on this blog because it’s essential to our stories.
Most people think, “Oh, it’s all made up in the writer’s head.” But it isn’t. Every book we’ve read from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to The Silver Linings Playbook has some root in reality. And that life-like aspect comes from research.
Think about it: readers expect to be transported into a believable and engrossing world, and research is key to creating an immersive environment. Do it wrong, and you may get a bad review on Amazon.
So how do you research a novel effectively?
The 2 Most Important Rules
All of the tips I’m going to give you today are important, but these two rules are things that you need to keep in mind through the process of writing, editing, and gathering ideas for your next project.
The first rule is that you need to be doing research regularly. It doesn’t have to be novel-specific, but you need to know who your audience is, what they like about specific books in your genre, and what others are publishing.
Why do you need to do this? Readers expect certain things from a specific genre, and no genre is the same, despite some cross over. If you have no idea what your prospective readers want, then read books in that genre and check out forums for fans of your genre, fan blogs, reader groups on Facebook, relevant hashtags, etc.
The second rule is that you need to leave some of your research out. Readers don’t like info dumps. Most of them will skip over it. As the author, your job is to give the reader enough to fill in the blanks on their own. If you give too much, you’ll lose their attention. Too little and your reader will be confused and lose patience with your book.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t conduct an extensive research session. You definitely should! But still leave things to your reader’s imagination.
Keeping Your Research Organized
Everyone has a different system for keeping track of their research notes. Some people like to use novel-writing software, others like the old pen and notebook method.
I like to print maps and family tress off of the internet. My bookmarked browser pages on my computer are insanely long at times. That’s how I keep track of articles and information. If I need to keep something safe, I copy and paste or transcribe things into a Google Doc. I also like to use a whiteboard to visually see all the information I’ve printed off the computer.
Here are some other tips you can implement:
- Use a program like Evernote. Evernote can help you keep everything organized and in one place. Don’t forget to back up your files!
- Grab a notebook or binder. You can divide everything into characters, plot points, settings, etc. and store hard-copy sheets of research and information.
- Use a research folder on your computer that can be divided into sub-folders for each section of your research. Make sure to back up your files regularly to avoid losing data.
- A notebook full of handwritten notes, clippings and snippets of information.
Research and the Internet
It’s going to come as no surprise that the internet will be your new best friend when it comes to research. The internet provides us with tons of information. Unfortunately, not all of that information is going to good or useful.
What is Useful, Trustworthy Information?
A lot of this information is going to come down to your college or university level fact-checking. You want to make sure you’re using websites that have done their research too.
Of course, there are some easy places to go to like Wikipedia to find vast amounts of information, and it’s a great place to start your hunt. However, anyone can edit Wikipedia, and there is no way for you to know if the information in the article is current and well-researched.
So here are some tips to help you find reliable sources:
- Start with sites you know. We read the New York Times because they have been around for a long time and have built trust among its readership for providing accurate information. That unheard of newspaper is probably something you should skip.
- Check the date. If there are dead links or out-of-date studies cited, when there is newer information out there, you might want to skip it. It’s not up to date nor maintained by the website owner.
- Check credentials. A hobbyist doesn’t know as much as an expert. You want someone who knows what they’re talking about.
- Cross-reference your findings. One website may tell you something and another something completely different. That’s not bad, but it’s good to get a full picture of what’s going on surrounding your topic of interest. And if possible, read a physical book.
If you want to learn more about credible sources, check out this article by Who is Hosting This? and the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has a lot of great resources for you to use. The University of Georgia has a great article as well.
Websites to Use
As I mentioned, Wikipedia or Reddit is a great place to start your research. It helps give you ideas and expand on your topic. From there, you’ll want to cross-reference your information and start looking for more credible sources.
Here are some places to check out:
- Wolfram Alpha can quickly and accurately answer almost any question.
- Google Scholar offers high-quality academic information. It’s excellent if you want to ensure the depth and accuracy of your data.
- Internet Archive allows you yo see how a website used to look.
- Library of Congress is a rich source of American history. You can view photos as well as other media.
Research Through Travel
If you want to set your novel in New Orleans, you should try to get to New Orleans or somewhere similar. Like people, cities and countries have personalities, and you won’t be able to display that until you go there.
I know this may not fit everyone’s budget, but prices tend to drop if you go there during the offseason. And if you can’t get to your novel’s home, then there are some other options out there, which may mean you need to step out of your comfort zone.
How to Travel Without Leaving Your Couch
Thanks again to the worldwide web, we have a fountain of travel information out there to help us provide life to our settings. Here are some ideas:
- TripAdvisor allows you to see what real people thought about the attractions, restaurants, and accommodation of cities worldwide.
- Travel Blogs produce high-quality posts that can inform and inspire your writing. Many also contain brilliant photos that will help when writing your descriptive passages.
- Travel Forums allow you to ask about a particular place from a wide range of people who’ve been there. It’s a great option if you can’t find a specific detail anywhere else.
- Google Maps let’s you walk around your chosen location in the street view, which can help lend credibility to your writing.
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Research and Real Life
Margaret Mitchell spent years researching the characters and places for her epic novel Gone With The Wind and it shows. […] it is historically accurate enough to be used as a lesson in the history of the turbulent times during the American Civil War. […] Mitchell grew up hearing Civil War and Reconstruction stories from elderly relatives who had lived through those times. Her research began with those childhood memories.HuffPost
Nothing beats real-life experience because it involves all five of our senses. It’s what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste that gives our stories life (which is why it’s great to travel to your story’s location).
If you don’t have access to this information, you’re going to need to find someone who does, which means you’re going to want to recruit the help of friends, family, and strangers to fill in those missing details. Everyone you meet will have some sort of story about someplace or experience that they had.
Many people want to tell those stories because they’re one of the many things that make us human. We love stories and passing our knowledge along to others. Whoever you speak to, you’re likely to gain valuable first-hand information and insight that you can’t get through a book or the internet.
When to Stop Researching
When done right, research can be a lot of fun. However, there comes a point where you need to stop looking up information and put on your writing cap.
If you don’t, you’re wading into the realm of procrastination.
How do we stop diving headlong into procrastination? Well, there are two ways you can do that. The first is only to do research as you write.
For example, I like to research as I write. So if I get to a new place or need to know what tools ancient Egyptians used to mummify human remains, like a canopic jar, I look that up in the moment. Once I have what I need, I go back to writing.
A word of warning, though. This approach can go wrong if you end up going down a rabbit hole.
The second thing you can do is set a time limit. This makes you get all of your ducks in a row before writing, and it can also keep you from getting distracted.
As your writing and doing your research, please keep this one thing in mind. Even a completely made-up fantasy world has some basis in reality.
So do the research. Ask people questions. Go to the internet or library and read as much fiction and nonfiction as you can.
Your readers will thank you at the end of the day with reviews. Plus, you’ll make new connections within your community if you talk to others, which builds your network and provides you with more opportunities.
And if you’re like me, you’ll start to love all the weird little details that you know. Research and reading open up your world to write those amazing characters that we all love and like.
Do you love the research process? What information have you dug up that surprised you? Do you have any tips or questions?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time!