When I first started getting out in the world of writing, I ran into a lot of writers who treated research as if they were being graded. I was told things like:
- You have to research everything before you write the novel. It doesn’t matter if you only use 10 percent of it.
- You have to research every single detail to please the 1 percent of the readers who would know that detail.
These seem terribly inefficient for the Minimalist Writer. These also made me despise research. Fortunately, it’s not the only approach. Read on if you hate research.
1. RESEARCH FOR A NOVEL IS NOT THE SAME AS A TERM PAPER
I think writers fall into this trap because their experience base is what they did in school. College papers have very different requirements than fiction. A teacher is going to mark you down if you get an obscure fact on the subject wrong. A reader might not even know.
Will some readers spot a mistake? Sure. But do you really want to be researching what the weather was like on a specific day in 1947?
Also, sometimes the facts don’t always cooperate with what the story wants.
2. START WITH YOUR EXPERTISE
Everyone likes to read about something, whether it’s World War II, art, or medieval knights. It might not feel like it, but you have a lot of knowledge you can use for a story without doing as much research. How about that?!
I grew up reading about Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. I know how makeup was applied in Planet of the Apes (and the name of the person who did it). I know how some special effects are done. I’ve even written about 50 scripts for TV and film.
That’s how Golden Lies became a story. If you start with something you already enjoy reading about, you might only need to do spot research.
Of course, if you do have to look something up, don’t fall in the rabbit hole!
3. DON’T LET THE IDEA DICTATE THE RESEARCH
Some writers get an idea and it’s immediately locked in stone that this THE direction the story must go. So a mystery set in a hospital requires a non-medical writer to understand how a hospital works and even how to perform surgery. One writers actually watched an operation for research. That’s hardcore.
But if you treat the idea as only the starting place for the story, think on how to adjust the direction to be better suited to what you already know. Instead of taking that mystery set in a hospital, maybe it’s a family member of the victim.
In Crying Planet, I used my military background combined with a trip on a cruise to create life on board a spaceship.
4. LITTLE THINGS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
One of the biggest lessons I got on research is from the TV series NCIS. The show is shot in Los Angeles but it’s set in Washington, DC, where I live.
One day a co-worker and I were talking about the show. We both laughed because the show gets the distances wrong. There is absolutely no way that the team could go from DC to Norfolk in 30 minutes. Not even with Ziva driving. (It’s a four-hour drive if the traffic isn’t fussy.)
Then it hit me that if I didn’t live in DC, I probably won’t know those details are wrong. They have enough details on that show that are right. They use the names of real places like Annandale and Norfolk. Our transit system is referred to by its correct name, Metro, and they did get some footage of the inside, rather than using the Los Angeles subway. Every location they mention is in the right place.
Whereas on the TV show Covert Affairs, the subway was just called the subway. Langley was in downtown DC (it’s in Virginia, near McLean). Bones was also set in Washington DC, but palm trees were visible in the shots of the Jeffersonian. We have no palm trees here.
5. BE CURIOUS
Part of having all this knowledge available for your creativity to latch onto is going out and absorbing it all. Just go to places, see things, and absorb. You don’t even need to take notes.
I went down to the Alexandria Waterfront yesterday to go to the farmer’s market. After I picked up my vegetables, I walked down to the waterfront. I’ve been in dire need of new input for weeks, so I was on the hunting for historical signage.
Along King Street, I found street signs with a map on one side and historical fact on the other. Did you know:
- That ferries were powered by horses? The horses were aboard the ferry and they walked in a circle, powering the ferry.
- We have a street called Rolling Road. Since most streets are named after people, I thought that was the case here. No…the origin is something quite different. Merchants rolled hogshead barrels down the road to the waterfront.
It’s not important to store this someplace where it will turn into a black hole and be forgotten. I think the act of recording means that it’s been stored away and can be forgotten. Whereas taking it in leaves it ready for your subconscious to use it in a story.
Research for fiction doesn’t have to be like a term paper. What’s the worst piece of research advice you’ve been told?
Be as careful as you can. i got the critters confused that live in the Arctic and Antarctic; fortunately my editor caught it. I would have been humiliated. I suspect most people know where penguins and polar bears live. (I need to look it up again!)
There’s always dumb stuff. That’s why you always need a second pair of eyes.
Definitely the worst piece of researching advice is, “research before you start to write.”
Now, true, you may need some general background if you’re dead set on writing something you know little about. In that case, I’d say read three general books on the topic. (If, say, you want to write something set in the Tudor era, you might read Ruth Goodman’s HOW TO BE A TUDOR, Stephen Porter’s EVERYDAY LIFE IN TUDOR LONDON, and a general history of the Tudor monarchs.) Then start writing.
Then, research only what you need, when you need it, in whatever manner won’t corrupt your story. (Some people leave notes in the manuscript; some people pause the writing long enough to do a very quick Google; whatever works for you works for you.)
I second that one. I tried that once on a story (Rogue God), thinking I was going to have a painting and an auction. I read books on auctions, got some auction catalogs from the library sale…and when I redrafted the story, it was out. All that research…have not used it anywhere else.
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