White kitten with black and orange spots on an open book. Little playful kitten on a wooden background. Image © serkucher at Deposit Photos

I’ve been doing long-term thinking about a book on research for fiction writers. While I can address some techniques about how to do it that don’t include the standard tips, I want to do more. It’s a topic where a lot of writers make assumptions, ranging from “This is the only way to do it,” to “I luv research. You’ll luv it too.”

I enjoy it now, though I’m not one to dive into dusty books for a year. I have two strengths with very short attention spans (heck, one’s a two-year-old and the other’s a Border Collie. For anyone familiar with the Clifton Strengths, it’s Ideation and Adaptability).

Previously, I loathed research. I’d listen to the writers on message boards bragging about how they researched the weather on a particular day in history so that the one percent of the readers who knew that obscure their fact wouldn’t call them out.

It turned research from a supporting player in a story and the characterization into….homework.

Most writers fall back on their school experience to do research. Perhaps it’s an advantage, perhaps it’s a disadvantage, but I don’t have a B.A., a B.S., or any of the usual acronym suspects. I struggled with figuring out my major and ended up never settling on it. I wrote term papers but never did a thesis.

So when I look at most of the recommendations about research, I scratch my head and think, “But I’m not writing a term paper. It’s a novel.”

The methods people talked about just didn’t fit.

Yet, everyone is so sure of the prescribed way that it makes us question if we know what we’re doing.

So much so that writers regularly popped up on message boards and asked, “Do I need to add footnotes in my novel?”


Similarly, pantsers are directed to outline so they can do the research before writing the novel. Somehow, all roads lead back outlining, doesn’t it?

That leads to another question that shows up, and one I asked: Do you need to do research?

Of course, me loathing everything I heard—the absolutes, the mind-numbing inane details, the lecturing about using three-ring binders, gleeful bragging about how many years the writer researched…yeah, it was easy for me to say “No.”

Even though that wasn’t true.

Writers get so focused on the “correct” way to do things that they shut other writers out who can’t do it like that. Or maybe don’t need that same level.

One of the striking things is that the reason for the lectures on the “correct” way is fear. Once you look for it, you can see it between the lines: “The reader will call you out on this.”

Like the reader is a teacher grading us.

Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.

Yes, you want to be reasonably right. Especially with anything everyone knows. I ran into a younger writer who described a hospital emergency room as a doctor’s office. Getting something wrong like that is instantly going to make the reader put down the story.

Do you need to be insanely right? For that one percent of readers? Nope. The rest of the readers won’t care, and there are better things to do (like writing) than spending hours or days on an obscure fact. This is also the kind of thing that can turn into years of research, as well as procrastination.

The depends is anything that will help your creativity, be something fun, and help you develop characters further. That includes setting (betcha didn’t know that. Describing setting is a piece of characterization).

So, some examples of this:

  • Try a new food at a restaurant so you can have your character eat it. Much fun was made of escargot during the 1980s when hapless characters on TV ordered it at a French restaurant and discovered it was snails.
  • Walking barefoot on a sandy shore so you can write about your character doing the same thing. I grew up visiting Southern California beaches but had forgotten about what that was like until I did it on a strip of beach on the Anna River in Virginia.
  • Attending a two-hour walk so you can describe bird songs. It snowed when I attended a winter wonderland bird walk. And I can now add a titmouse’s “cheerily, cheerily,” to my setting repertoire.
  • Taking an online webinar on any topic that interests you.
  • Visit a historical site and take the tour. You can get a lot of information from the tour guide. Historical sites work well for fantasy novels and seeing how people might have lived. But sometimes you’ll pick up a detail you can use in a science fiction story.
  • Explore a museum. But look up the museum online first to make sure there’s an exhibit you’ll have fun seeing.
  • Nature tri-folds. You can get these online or from nature centers and park gift shops. Much easier to use them for birds, animals, trees, and plants than searching online. If you hit online, you’ll spend a lot of time digging through the rare birds, not the common ones.
  • Day trips. Pretty much anywhere. I drove to Fredericksburg and rode in a carriage around the town. I’m debating flying in a biplane (it’s about $100 for five minutes).
  • TV Documentaries: Channels like Smithsonian and Science can lead you down interesting paths. This morning, I watched one show about a cat mummy that didn’t have a cat inside. They speculated that there might be a price tier for mummy offerings to gods.

None of this involves three-ring binders or diving into dusty tomes for years at a time.

Research is what you make of it. What’s your pet peeve about what other writers have told you about research? Hit reply and tell me.