Doing research while writing is hard enough, but the tabby cat doesn't want the writer to write on his keyboard
A man works at a laptop with a cat while drinking coffee. Flat lay.

Image by Viacheslav Partola

This question is easy to ask when you think of research as being homework.  As soon as you left school, you were probably pretty glad to never do homework again. 

Homework’s not fun (well, for most of us), and fiction is fun.  If you’re just making up stuff, then why does it matter?

Well, there are two reasons.

1.      Because it’ll Feed the Idea Factory

The idea is often treated as the end-all thing.  That you must have the perfect idea to launch with the story.  That just the right idea will magically transform the story into a best seller.  And that good ideas are so hard to get.  None of it is true, but many writers still find it a challenging area.

Our ability to get ideas atrophies as we head into adulthood.  Stories are magical fun when we’re kids and we can go off and have wild adventures.  Underpants can be evil.  Aliens can have three heads and googly eyes.  Or a girl detective can solve mysteries.

The adults cringe and don’t say anything about how uncomfortable this makes them while their disapproval filters in any way.  People like conformity and creativity is anything but conformity.

We pick up on that disapproval or maybe we’re even told it directly.  By the time we become adults, the creativity goes into hiding in favor of being like everyone else. Even in today’s economy, coming up with ideas is big business, judging from the number of business books on the topic.  But even there, the conformity slips in.  You can be creative, but don’t color too far outside one line.

As I write this, I’m part of the Great Challenge, which is writing a short story a week for an entire year.  I’ve done thirty so far.  Thirty!  It’s taught me a lot about not only coming up with ideas to start a story but how to twist them into my own.

That’s where research comes in.  Research is a very personal thing.  If you’re doing it right, you’re checking out topics that you enjoy learning more about.  I like reading about Hollywood in the 1940s-1970s, but Hollywood in the 2000s?  Phht!  Not at all.  Though I knew a lot about Hollywood just from reading when I was growing up, I never thought I could do anything with it because I disliked modern Hollywood so much.

Those kinds of things are a big influence on where you get your ideas. Even if you forget the book you read, there’s going to be one piece in it that will swim around in your back brain and pop up in the right story at the right time.

But that’s not going to happen if you’re not feeding your brain with new material.

2.      So the Story Feels Right to Reader

Have you ever read a story that felt vaguely unsatisfying, though you couldn’t pin down why?  It just felt like it was missing something.  Or maybe it just never quite grabbed you.

The story has to feel right to the reader.

If it doesn’t, they could put the book down in the first few pages. as I did while critiquing a chapter from a young writer.  Her character visited a hospital emergency room and I immediately got knocked out of the story by a suspension in disbelief issue.  The writer had never been to the emergency room, so she described it like it was a doctor’s office.  The result was that it didn’t feel right to me.

Most readers probably won’t think about why as much as we writers do.  They’ll disengage from the book and never pick it up again.

But if your story feels right to the reader…

They might read the whole book in one sitting, get to the end, and have to buy the next one.

Pretty big deal.

It starts with the telling details and how much a few details can have a huge impact.  You get some of that from personal experience, but the rest of it comes from research.

But let’s see it in actual practice.

Imagine that your character has to go into a mine.  Okay, what kind of mine is it?  Is it a gold mine?  How big is it?  Is it old and abandoned?  Is it active?  How deep does it go?  What does it smell like?  What does air inside feel like?

All these pesky little telling details show what your character’s opinions of the mine are.  He might think the entrance reminds him of a mausoleum, which gets the reader squirming with excitement and turning pages because something is going to happen.

Research gives you opportunities to make your characters complex through their view of the setting.

But as you research, you find a few interesting ideas that fires up your muse.  You discover that with so little light in the mine, it’s easy to get disoriented.  The meandering tunnels make this worse.  So now your imagination is thinking the character was bitten by a rattlesnake hiding inside the mine and now he can’t find his way out.

This was just a minute to look up these.  I used “dangers of mining” for my search.  It created possibilities of complications for the character and story.  That’s what good research helps you with.

Where the fiction comes in might be taking a story about an abandoned mine from overseas and plopping it in your location, then making changes to fit the story.  If you want to see how this is done, watch the TV series Law and Order.  They took headlines from the news and added their embellishments and character motivations.

Research can be pretty important in helping you write your story!

Actions

  1. Identify some potential things in your current story that you might want to dig a little more on.  You don’t have to do anything other than make a list.  Key is that it’s a topic that interests you.
  2. Can you identify the one thing I did wrong at the beginning with the research for the Hawaii story?  It’s not going to be what you think.
  3. Download a note-taking software like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote.  If you’re not familiar with the tool, play with it.  Read some blogs or books to learn how to use the features. 

    Is there one better for writing fiction?  In my opinion, it’s Evernote.  It was designed to curate information.  Microsoft OneNote was designed more for students to take notes while in class.  But either will work.  Key is to make sure you pick a program user friendly to you.

Pro Writing Tip

Never leave your reader to imagine something.  You’re giving up control of your story to the reader instead of being in control.