One of the most delightful and fun, but frustrating, activities related to writing is researching. While there are general guidelines, everything depends on the topic, the accessibility of material, how accurate the author believes is necessary, and what the author already knows about the setting and the topic. It’s up to the author, so each project will be different.
Assess your story
In writing this, I’m assuming the author already has an idea what the novel is about and the genre, time, location, and a sense of how much research may be necessary. If you are writing about a topic and location you already know well, your research may be minimal. You might begin your manuscript in whatever way suits you as a writer, and only research for details as you need them. If the novel is your first historical set in a location you’ve never been visited or studied, you are going to need more. Take some time to think about it.
Organize a System for your Research Materials
Most authors addressing this topic suggest the writer set up the system for organizing and storing the research materials before starting to collect data. Some writers resist doing anything in advance, but organizing beforehand pays off. You want to be able to find easily the information and references you’ve collected. Different authors have their own preferences – some manual and hardcopy, some digital, some both -- and there are a number of excellent computer programs available for the purpose listed at the end.
Author Joanna Penn says, “I used to take all my notes in Scrivener because it’s then within easy reach when I write, but I have also started to supplement this with Evernote as it makes things easier to organize for the longer term, whereas Scrivener is for each specific project.”
Use Research To Inform Your Story
Penn also writes that she often goes “into the research phase with no concrete agenda” and emerges “with a clear idea of how the story will unfold.” With only a general idea to start with, research can suggest plots, actions, and settings for the novel which the author hasn’t thought -- or even knows -- about and helps to create an accurate world for the fiction to take place.
My advice, based on personal experience, is to develop at least a rough outline of the story with tentative plot points, setting, and main characters generally identified before you start. Then, armed with a good dose of flexibility, adjust as new ideas evolve from the research. That allows the author to pin down where to look and for what in greater detail.
That’s for the author to decide. The important thing is not to assume you’ll remember everything or that the information will take care of itself. It doesn’t.
The question of what takes us back to genre, topics (both internal, such as dealing with a mental disorder, and external, such as what takes place during an autopsy), when and where the story takes place, and so on.
My advice: Limit your initial efforts to those things which are critical to your storyline. For example, describing the clothing style, unless it affects the storyline, can be left for filling in later. Look at it this way: while it’s difficult to know how much research is necessary to uncover those important things, the reverse is it’s fairly simple to determine what things only enhance the settling and atmosphere of the novel.
Where To Look
● Public Library
● University Library/archives
● Book Stores
● Movies and documentaries
● Newspaper Archives
● TV series, movies, documentaries, etc.
● Visual images including Pinterest
● Take a class or two
● Talk to people who know about the subject/topic/location.
▪ There are wonderful websites and Yahoo groups on the internet which provide access to experts in various fields who will answer writers’ questions.
▪ Catia Shattuck, copywriter, suggests just calling people [even at random].
▪ Call professional organizations or whatever kind of body represents people in the field you’re interested in, and ask them to recommend or find someone to talk to you.
▪ For location information, call the Chamber of Commerce or equivalent, or local realtors.
Nothing beats knowing the physical environment of your setting. If at all possible, go there, wander the streets, eat at the restaurants, smell the smells and experience the weather. Most of all, watch the people. Being there gives a different perspective on the “feel” of the location. If you can’t go, that’s when talking to someone and/or travel guides are useful.
Be careful. No one should get hurt during this process. Don’t blow up your garage learning how to make a bomb for your factious terrorist in a spy novel.
What To Look At
● Books in general and best sellers as related to topic(s) – fiction and non-fiction
● Novels addressing the same topic or take place in the same time period and general location
● Text books and how-to manuals [as appropriate]
● Travel Guide Books
● Primary Materials [Old letters, old photographs, diaries, journals, etc.]
● Visual images including Pinterest
● People Watch – See how people similar to your characters act and react
● Internet Articles
Regarding this last one, which is an important resource, when there are few references listed and you want more, take some aspect related to your topic or location and go to Google Images. When you find a related photo, click on it for an enlargement. To the right of the enlarged photo will be something about the picture and four small boxes. Click on “visit” and it will take you to original article. I usually find many articles that won't come up in an ordinary Google search.
Again, how depends on the project, but there are guidelines and suggestions most authors agree on. The unfortunate part is that the decisions of how to apply the rules of thumb still fall to the author. Hey, it’s your project!
__ Benjamin Dull, Quora 01-08-2014.0
My own experience is that you don’t want to miss some fact which makes your storyline, or key factors in the story, either impossible or highly improbable. A chicken-egg situation [Although there is an answer to that age-old question.]
The internet is one of the most important tools writers have for researching. The availability of such a tool has had dramatic effect on how to conduct research. Information about almost any topic is available at the strike of a few keys. It creates opportunities for author researching today – e.g. we no longer have to travel to Paris to find the street intersections we need -- but it also has some downside.
▪ Perhaps no one kept the type of records you are interested in [or any records at all];
▪ The only “sources” are the writings of one or two individuals;|
▪ The accounts of the event were written many years after the fact, or the information has been handed down, generation to generation, by word of mouth until it falls into the category of legend.
▪ Even with more advanced recordkeeping, mistakes and omissions may have been made;
▪ Natural and/or man-made disasters may have destroyed some of records:
▪ Multiple sources have recorded events differently. For example, a family bible may show a certain date for a birth, but the county records show two days later. Did it take that time to get to the courthouse to record the birth?
▪ Different accounts record and omit certain facts;
▪ The spelling of names get changed, or letters of the alphabet get transposed.
Names of people and places are written in different languages, which also can be mistranslated. How many immigrants to the United States had their surnames changed by the immigration official handling the paperwork?
People make mistakes, no matter what century they live in.
So, after this long-winded explanation, what does a writer do about it. First, does it really matter how accurate the information is? Second, can you use a range of dates rather than a specific date? In non-fiction, it is easy enough to point out there are differences between references. When this happens in researching for fiction, either use different facts; be specific about location when addressing styles, customs, food; find another way to say what you want to say without using those inconsistent facts.
Finally, you can take a W.A.G. and hope no one recognizes it for what it is – a wild-assed guess. After all, can you tell when Michael Crichton, who I believe wrote the best-researched novels of all time, moved from the cutting edge of real science into the realm of fiction?
This takes us full circle to the author making informed decisions based on what kind of book is being written. No one else can make that determination except, perhaps, an editor who is looking for something else. There are three major “…ilities” to keep in mind: Credibility of the author, Sustainability of reader interest; and Believability of the material.
Credibility of the Author
Modern communication technology has altered the level and kind of information easily accessible to nearly everyone on the planet. Today the reading public has available, and is exposed to, high levels of detail about people, places, technologies, customs … anything you might write about. This ups the ante on accuracy. The reader expects more of the author.
After all, if you can research it, so can your readers, and some of them might even be expects already. The reader has to know through some 6th sense that the author knows what they are talking about to make it worthwhile reading the book. If the reader spots inaccuracies, even minor and irrelevant details, the person may no longer trust the author to be accurate about anything, including the important things.
The best example I’ve encountered occurred at an RWA National Conference. For a workshop with editors, the participants could submit, in advance, the first page of a novel to be critiqued publically during the workshop (no names, of course). At the workshop, one of the editors read the beginning of a novel dealing with a love story set in Colombia and related to drug trafficking and drug cartels. The page had a good hook and I was intrigued, but at the end the editor told us he would throw this manuscript into the wastebasket at the end of the first page … and he asked the audience why. Of course, none of us got it even though we had a hard copy of the page. The editor explained that because the author spelled Colombia twice with a “u” (Columbia) and cartel as cartle, he doubted the writer’s ability to handle a topic like drug trafficking with any accuracy or credibility.
Sustainability of Reader Interest
By this I mean that too much detail and too much information, or not enough, can pull the reader out of the story because either: 1) something doesn’t seem right and causes the reader to think about that; 2) something seems to pop in out of the blue without any preparation or foreshadowing; or 3) the context is boring or bogged down with too much detail or description, and the reader wants to get on to the action or something else – like put down the book and go to bed. You want the reader to keep reading at a steady pace [fast, medium, or slow depending on what is happening in the story].
Credibility of the Material
As sophisticated as our readers have become as a group, no one knows everything. Sometimes particular details, descriptions, dialogue, just don’t sound right and distract the reader -- Did they have clocks in the 1700s? Did people use that turn of phrase in the 1800s? -- anything that draws attention away from the story.
Suspension of disbelief -- such as readers believing Superman can fly, but not that other people in his fictitious world won't recognize him when he’s wearing glasses -- is another whole discussion. We aren’t going there today.
My friend Sharan Newman writes 12th century mysteries, among many other fiction and non-fiction books. She has a doctorate in 12th century history and does much of her research traveling to Europe to read historical diaries from that era in their original languages. When we were in the same critique group, sometimes she would use an expression or some other detail that sounded, to the rest of us, too modern for the 12th century. When we pointed those things out, she would explain why we were wrong, but usually changed the detail to something else.
Why? Because a phrase, description, or detail may be completely accurate, but if it sounds unbelievable [i.e. the reader doesn't accept it as accurate], it will disrupt the smooth flow of the story. That's bad enough, but if the reader loses confidence in the author's credibility, then it's over. Chances are, the reader won't finish the book or buy another book by that author.