After the first initial shot of inspiration from a muse, and the flush of excitement at starting a new story, there is often a step that gets gleefully shoved aside by writers in the a hurry to get their stories written. The next appropriate step after jotting down some quick notes and outline of your idea, is RESEARCH. Unfortunately, this very necessary and important step has a bad reputation and avoided like a drunk uncle at family functions. Flashback to those days in high school and college when you were expected to write essays and hundred page long research papers WITH references, and you can understand why most authors shudder at the thought of long hours worth of research. Unfortunately, good research is often the step that can take a book from mediocre to spectacular. Investing the time and yes, stress in research, is one of the best things a writer can do to make their stories shine.
What is Research?
Gone are the days when research was limited to hours at the library and shuffling index cards. Thankfully, the internet is not just for porn (although you may need to find some for your research). With the power on the internet, the beauty of e-books, and international libraries providing electronic viewing of their archives, research is easier than ever. Need to interview someone but are nervous or shy of meeting in person? There are cell phones, and video chatting. Simply stated…there are NO EXCUSES! That’s a major bummer. I get it. Research can be tedious. But guess what? It is totally worth it.
The level and amount of research needed is dependent on the genre of story you plan on writing and your personal level of experience and knowledge with the following elements of your book:
- -Story Genre
- -Character vocations
- -Character backgrounds
- -Locations visited in the story
- -Time period of your story
Take the time to think about the points listed above. Will your story benefit from gaining a little more insight via research? The answer is ALWAYS yes.
If you’re writing a contemporary story that takes place in the town where you currently live and know very well, and the characters have the same background and vocation as you, your level of research will be pretty minimal. However, that is rarely the case. I wrote a paranormal serial last year that took place in British Columbia, Canada (a place I’ve never visited). In this instance Google Maps and Earth became my first points of reference. I needed to understand how my characters would get around town, where would my werewolf pack live, and did that region even have wolves.
I also had to research what the weather was like during certain seasons, expected styles of dress, road structures, topography, and a slew of other things that impacted some plot points in my story. At one point I have characters fly from the Caribbean to Vancouver. So guess what? I had to determine how much time that flight would take. Would the time be the same on a private jet versus a public flight. This was important because several scenes took place on that plane and I needed to get my timing right. If my characters left the Caribbean in the morning, should it be evening or afternoon when they arrived in Vancouver? It’s surprising how much research can go into even minor plot decision for your stories. However, it is all worth it. Trust me.
Don’t Forget Your Craft!
In my opinion research and craft go hand in hand. I never start writing a story until referencing some of my favorite books on writing. Specifically those focusing on character and viewpoint. It helps me not only begin writing in a good state of mind, but they also remind me to focus on characters and plot movements. Doing this has helped me tremendously throughout my writing journey. I think writers should always be students of their craft. There is always something to learn and always a new perspective to consider. Writing one book or one hundred never makes you an expert. One makes you brave, one hundred makes you prolific, neither provides an excuse to stop practicing and honing your skills.
Investing all of that time in conducting proper research can be wasted if you don’t take the time to incorporate that knowledge wisely. It is very easy to get excited about all the information you found while researching your main character’s vocation, but writing a page long description on it within your book may not be the way to go. Reminding yourself that too much description can actually be bad and lead to “data dumping” and boredom for the reader, is important. Reminding yourself that some information is better given to the reader via blocks of dialogue and character interaction, instead of blocks of text can take your story from meh to wow.
Some Recommended Reads
Below I’ve listed some books I reference frequently. The type of research needed for stories is varied. The books I’ve listed below are just basic go-to’s for craft and genre pointers.
Writing the Paranormal Novel: Techniques and Exercises for Weaving Supernatural Elements Into Your Story by
Vampires, werewolves, and zombies, oh my!
Writing a paranormal novel takes more than casting an alluring vampire or arming your hero with a magic wand. It takes an original idea, believable characters, a compelling plot, and surprising twists, not to mention great writing.
This helpful guide gives you everything you need to successfully introduce supernatural elements into any story without shattering the believability of your fictional world or falling victim to common cliches.
Medieval Lives by Terry Jones
Was medieval England full of knights on horseback rescuing fainting damsels in distress? Were the Middle Ages mired in superstition and ignorance? Why does nobody ever mention King Louis the First and Last? And, of course, those key questions: which monks were forbidden the delights of donning underpants… and did outlaws never wear trousers?
Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths by Susanne Alleyn
This is not a book on how to write historical fiction. It is a book on how not to write historical fiction.
If you love history and you’re hard at work writing your first historical novel, but you’re wondering if your medieval Irishmen would live on potatoes, if your 17th-century pirate would use a revolver, or if your hero would be able to offer Marie-Antoinette a box of chocolate bonbons . . .
(The answer to all these is “Absolutely not!”)
. . . then Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders is the book for you.
Medieval Underpants will guide you through the factual mistakes that writers of historical fiction—both beginners and seasoned professionals—often make, and show you how to avoid them. From fictional characters crossing streets that wouldn’t exist for another sixty (or two thousand) years, to 1990s slang in the mouths of 1940s characters, to South American foods on ancient Roman plates, acclaimed historical novelist Susanne Alleyn exposes the often hilarious, always painful goofs that turn up most frequently in fiction set in the past.
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K.M. Weilandn
Why do some stories work and others don’t? The answer is structure. In this IPPY and NIEA Award-winning guide from the author of the bestselling Outlining Your Novel, you will learn the universal underpinnings that guarantee powerful plot and character arcs. An understanding of proper story and scene structure will show you how to perfectly time your story’s major events and will provide you with an unerring standard against which to evaluate your novel’s pacing and progression.
Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint: by Orson Scott Card
Vivid and memorable characters aren’t born: they have to be made
This book is a set of tools: literary crowbars, chisels, mallets, pliers and tongs. Use them to pry, chip, yank and sift good characters out of the place where they live in your imagination.
Award-winning author Orson Scott Card explains in depth the techniques of inventing, developing and presenting characters, plus handling viewpoint in novels and short stories. With specific examples, he spells out your narrative options—the choices you’ll make in creating fictional people so “real” that readers will feel they know them like members of their own families.
Share some of your favorite websites and books for research in the comments below.
Laurel Cremant is an opinionated author and reader of romance with a wicked sense of humor. RNIC was smart (or crazy) to bring her on as a blogger. Come back on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month to get her romance industry news…with a colorful twist.