Have you ever started a story, gotten halfway through, and realized you don't know key facts about your story's world? Have you ever wondered how to find out the size of spoons in Medieval England for your fantasy adventure story? Is that even relevant to your plot, or could you skip that fact? Here's how to research your novel.
As fiction writers, our job is to sit at a keyboard and make stuff up for fun and profit. We conjure most of our material from our imagination, creativity, and mental supply of facts and trivia, but sometimes we need that little bit of extra verisimilitude that research can bring to a project.
When it comes to research, there are key strategies to keep in mind to help you make the most of your time and effort.
9 Strategies to Research a Novel
Readers who’ve posted reviews for my thriller, Nocturne In Ashes, often comment about how well-researched it is. While that can be a positive sentiment, that’s not really what you want readers to notice about your book. The best research shouldn’t call attention to itself or detract readers from the story so I’m always relieved to hear those same reviewers go on to rave about the thrills and suspense.
When you're writing, you want to get the facts right and create a believable world. Doing research for your novel is the way to do that. But you also don't want to get sucked into a research hole, so distracted by the local cuisine of a small town in 1930s France that you never actually write. And you want to hook your readers with a page-turning story, not a dissertation on some obscure topic.
Here are nine key research strategies I’ve learned to write an effective (and exciting!) story.
1. Write first, research later
Research can be a dangerous enterprise because it’s seductive and time spent in research is time taken away from actual writing of the creative process. Getting words on the page is job one, so it’s important to meet your daily writing goal before engaging in research.
So if the piece you’re working on requires research, your first order of the day should be to write something else that doesn’t need research, something you can draw purely from imagination and your own mental well. Fill your word quota, practice your skills, meet your production goals, and THEN move on to research, so you don't derail your writing process with it.
I always have multiple works in progress. I’m writing project A while researching project B and thinking about and planning projects C through M.
2. Research is secondary; telling a good story comes first
After all the precious time boosting your knowledge of historical events or the feel for a subject, this point might hurt: only use a tiny fraction of your research in the story.
Don’t give in to the temptation to dump everything you've learned into the story. Sure, it’s fascinating stuff but you risk burying the story in scientific or historical detail.
A little bit of researched material goes a long way. Only use info related to the issues your character would know about and be concerned with. Leave out the captivating but irrelevant details.
Your research should enhance the story, not dominate it.
3. Write for your fans
Your story should be targeted to the readers who love what you write—your fans. Stop worrying about the five people out there who might read your story and nitpick that your character used the wrong fork or wore the wrong kind of corset.
A lot of writers fake it or write only from the knowledge they do have. They don’t let their lack of esoteric knowledge get in the way of the story. They do research for their novels, grab a few details for the sake of authenticity, and wing the rest.
With the exception of 11/22/63, Stephen King does very little research, but there are few who can write a more riveting story.
4. Don’t obsess over accuracy
Frankly, there are instances and reasons where you don’t really want to be accurate. For example, if you write historical romance, research might show that people of that time period rarely bathed and lost most of their teeth and hair at a young age. That’s probably not how you want to portray your heroine and the man of her dreams.
Sometimes, including a historically or scientifically accurate detail would require pages of explanation to make it credible for today’s audience—almost a surefire way to lose your reader. When in doubt, leave it out.
And no matter how hard you work at it, you’re not likely to cover every detail with one hundred percent accuracy, so don’t obsess over it. Do your best, but remember—story is what matters, not accurate details.
5. Go with the most interesting version
When researching an event, you’ll usually find a number of different accounts, especially when using primary sources, none in perfect agreement with the others. When this happens, do what the History Channel does—go with the most entertaining version of events.
Remember, you’re a storyteller, not a historian. Your goal is to grab and hold your reader’s attention and keep them turning pages. If it makes you feel better, you can include endnotes with references so interested readers can dig deeper into the “facts.”
6. Keep a “bible”
This is especially important if you’re writing a series. You can’t be expected to remember every important detail about the characters and settings you put in book one when, years later, you’re working on book seven.
Record these details in an easy-to-reference format you can come back to later to provide continuity and reader confidence in your ability to tell a coherent story.
7. Don’t fall down the wormhole
I love doing research. It’s fun, fascinating, and absorbing—so absorbing, it can suck you in and keep you from moving on to the writing. You need to be able to draw the line at some point. As Tina Fey says in her book, Bossy Pants, “The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30.”
Know when it’s time to leave the research and get to the writing. Pro tip: set yourself a time limit or a deadline. Even if you don't “feel” finished with research, you'll have a clear marker for when you have to put the research down and get back to writing.
8. Save simple details for last
Sometimes when you’re writing along in your story, you’ll find yourself needing a simple detail. Make a notation, resolve to come back to it later, and move on. Don’t let this interrupt or distract you from getting the story down on the page.
Later, you can come back and do the minimal research to fill in these little details like a character name, a location, a car model, etc. Shawn Coyne calls this “ice cream work” because it’s fun and feels frivolous after the concentrated work of writing the story itself.
9. Finish THIS project before starting another
One great thing about research is that you learn so much and find the seeds for so many new story ideas. The challenge is to not get distracted from your current project.
Make a note to yourself to pursue these other ideas somewhere down the road. Let those seeds sprout and grow in the back of your mental garden, but keep your focus on the story you’re writing now.
Resources: Where to Actually Research Your Novel
I’ve touched on how to do the research. Here, I’m adding a few suggestions about where to go for the goods.
- Wikipedia, and don’t forget to dig into the links at the bottom of the article
- Reenactor sites for historical battles, uniforms, etc.
- Costuming sites
- Travel guides
- Writer’s Digest Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in … fill in the blank (these are loaded with details of landscape, clothing, household items, and more)
- Biographies and autobiographies, and don’t overlook their bibliographies and footnotes
- Blog posts of expert and amateur historians
- Journals and diaries
- Weather reports
- Price lists, to find out how much were salaries, groceries, mortgage payments, etc.
- Birth and death certificates, court documents
- Etymology websites
- Museum exhibits and gift shops, including the little touristy booklets, maps, tour guides
- Libraries! Talk to a reference librarian—they’re awesome at plumbing resources.
Novel Research Rocks!
Research really is intriguing and a lot of fun. There’s so much to discover, but beware because you can get lost in it and never find your way out. You’re better off under-researching than over-researching, so know when to get out and move on.
Also, be aware that your novel's research requirements will differ somewhat based on the genre you’re writing. For instance, with historical fiction, you need to give your readers a travel adventure into the past with sensory details to draw them into the time period.
With science fiction, you need to be able to extrapolate from scientific fact and theory to the fictional premise of your story. In doing so, don’t get bogged down in the journey from point A to point B. Just get to the conclusion. The more you explain, the less credible it sounds to the reader.
With fantasy, it’s the little world-building details that count for so much. Know what your reader expects and craves and meet those demands.
And no matter how much research your book requires, don't discount your personal experience with being human—those emotional, intellectual, and philosophical experiences often cross time and space.
I wish you many happy hours of successful novel research, but don’t forget to write first!
How about you? Do you do research for your novels? Where do you turn for information? Tell us about it in the comments.
Use one of the prompts below or make up your own. Conduct a little research—just enough to add verisimilitude to the scene, a few telling details. Spend five minutes researching two to three facts that will help you set the scene. Then, take the next ten minutes to write a couple of paragraphs to establish the character in the setting.
The death of her father leaves Miss Felicity Brewster alone in regency England and places upon her the burden of fulfilling his last wish—that she marry a safe, respectable gentleman.
Accused of treason, Frendl Ericcson sets out to find his betrayer and restore his honor.
Dr. Vanessa Crane makes a breakthrough in her nanotechnology research. But will her discovery benefit mankind, or destroy it?
With the help of his mortician friend, Victorian-era detective Reginald Piper must use cutting-edge forensic methods to solve a string of murders.
When you are finished, post your work the Pro Practice Workshop here and don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers! Not a member yet? Check out how you can join a thriving group of writers practicing together here.
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.