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.
Definitely go flying in a biplane! I went flying in a small plane (not a biplane, I don’t think), and it was seriously cool. Well worth the money, IMO, even if I never use it in a story.
As to research – IMO, it depends on the story you’re telling (or that is being told through you; I’m not entirely sure where I fall on that spectrum yet).
If you’re telling a story of intrigue and drama in the Tudor court, you should probably have a good understanding of the Tudor period (and specifically the appropriate sub-period). Getting the characters’ clothing and the physical setting fairly close is also a good idea. Dialogue – well, everyone’s got a different perspective on that, but probably avoid certain anachronisms (“are you okay?” and references to science inconsistent with the knowledge of the time) at the least.
Then again, anyone who’s read the Bridgerton books knows that Ms. Quinn is far more lax than that guideline, and it hasn’t hurt her at all. Because, of course, *tone* matters as well as the period.
All of that is a long way of getting to, maybe a standard should be, “Would this throw *me* out of the story, if I were reading it? And if so, would it be enough to make me stop reading the story?” (For the record, some of Quinn’s choices did throw me out, but I kept reading.)
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True enough on something like the Tudor Court. What most writers don’t talk about though is that with such an immersive topic like that, it should be something you’re already familiar with–essentially you’re an “expert” in it because you enjoy a lot of books about it. Then the research becomes on the spot for things you don’t know, rather than starting from scratch on a topic you know zip about.
i do research because I like to get the little things right. And I find it annoying that people say Over and Out as if they meant the same thing. (It’s Over to you and Out means I’m outta here.)
“Over and out” probably comes from the movies. There’s a lot of information that we assume is true because of movies. Like pirate talk (movies), vampire behavior (movies).
But the majority of readers don’t care as much about having a high level of accuracy. They’re reading for story and characters and entertainment.
I am also annoyed when misinformation is perpetuated. And stop giving those cats milk!
Always going to be misinformation. Sometimes it gets published in a credible source, making it appear like fact. Sometimes it hangs around because it’s a good story, even if it’s not a true story.
I first read about this in USA Today: https://www.martinlewis.com/hoax.html
And an actor friend tried to debunk a stuttering story that was reported everywhere after being published in a fan magazine to appeal to the girls. People liked the fake story than the truth.
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Pranksters and movies …
Hi Linda, I too write speculative fiction and I find that I’m constantly doing research. I just completed a 90,000 word first draft space opera that required quite a bit of research. I find myself researching, even when I’m not writing. It often generates fodder for my next story. Congratulations on your books. Your cover art is wonderful!
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Yeah, it was eye opening for me to see how much research I needed on the little things–most of which I couldn’t anticipate until I actually wrote the story. What surprised me though was visiting a historical site and discovering it had something I needed in a futuristic story.
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