Research is an important part of laying the groundwork for your story, and your notes are a valuable supplement to your outline. As such, before moving on to discussing different types of outlines and supporting documents, I want to use this post to talk about when and how to research a story. Research doesn’t need to be formal–you could take detailed notes, or you could just look things up as you go and incorporate it into the story–but it helps to know where to look.
When To Do Research
You’re writing about a culture, subculture, or community that you haven’t had much engagement with.
Whether you’re writing about a real sociocultural group or a fantastic sociocultural group that draws inspiration from a real one, research is a good way to make sure that you’re getting things right. Doing the research can help to stop stereotypes from seeping into your writing, paving the way for portrayals that are more accurate, more interesting, and more original.
“But why would I need to do research for my space elves/mer-cowboys/steampunk ninjas?”
Nothing is created in a vacuum. Moreover, your readers aren’t experiencing your book in a vacuum. So, for example, even if your space elves aren’t European, its possible for them to be coded as European if you use lots of European-style names, dress them in European-style clothes, describe their European-style architecture, and give them a very European physical appearance (replace European with Asian, Middle Eastern, African, etc., and you get the point). They might exist in a world without Europe, but readers will still use their own experiences in the real world as a frame for interpreting the culture of your fantasy world, including cliches, stereotypes, and unfortunate implications. Research can help you be better informed, so that you can add texture and nuance to your fantasy world while also rooting out stereotypes.
- Get to know people
- Activism groups
- Articles and testimonials from the culture being represented
Media produced by the group you’re writing about (art, literature, folklore, music, etc)
- These two blogs:
You’re writing concerned with accurately portraying a setting where you have not spent a substantial amount of time.
How accurate your setting is depends on how important it is that you capture it, and how big a role the setting plays in your work. If you are going for accuracy and you have not spent enough time in the setting that you know it well, it’s a good idea to do some research. This goes for both geographic and temporal settings.
For geographic settings, it’s good to know what the place looks like, how people get around there, and what the general atmosphere is. If your characters are traveling around, it’s also useful to know how long it takes for them to get from place to place, and what they’re likely to encounter along the way. Having these kinds of details can make the location more concrete and specific, and can work to firmly root your story in space.
For temporal settings, research can help keep things accurate. The more that I study renaissance literature, the more that I realize how much the public imagination gets wrong about that time period. Popular culture is not a good source for historical information, especially because popular media tend to impose modern view points, biases, beauty standards, and ideologies onto other time periods. Popular media also has a tendency to perpetuate misconceptions. If you are interested in authentically portraying the past, I highly recommend doing some historical research or digging into the archive.
- Google maps
- Images of the location you’re writing about
- Talking to people who live in the place that you’re writing about
- Organizing a day-trip (if it’s feasible)
- History books (though pay attention to who’s writing them)
- Maps libraries (If you have access to an academic library, they probably have a maps room, which contains not only current but also historic maps of different locations–super useful for historical fiction)
You’re writing in a genre that you don’t usually read.
Each genre has its own set of conventions, expectations, and beats (which are very different from a formula). If you plan on working in a genre, make sure that you read a few books first. This can help you to developing a healthy respect for other writers in your field, get a sense of what works (or doesn’t work), and get familiar with what readers are expecting when they open a book.
“But I want to write an unconventional book. So I don’t need to read the genre, right?”
Wrong. The best way to break conventions is to know how they work, and why they became conventions in the first place. Understanding your readers’ expectations lets you know what you’re working with. Knowing how the tropes of the genre operate can make the difference between a successful subversion, and something that’s merely disappointing.
Knowing the conventions is also important because it lets you know what actually is and isn’t unconventional. There are lots of things that appear to be subversive to people outside the genre, but are actually pretty standard if you’ve read enough of it. It also stands that it’s difficult to pull off a subversion or deconstruction without an intimate knowledge of the thing that you’re trying to flip on its head, because you need to know the details in order to get beneath the surface.
More to the point, though, if you don’t respect a genre enough to read it, I can’t imagine why you would want to write for it. If you don’t want to read what you’re writing, take a moment and think about why you’re writing it and what you’re trying to get out of this novel.
- Your local library (Bonus points: if you don’t want to leave your house, they probably have a free ebook collection)
- Literary conventions
- Talk to other writers who work in the genre
- Goodreads is a good place to get recommendations
You’re writing about a subject that you haven’t studied before.
This one ought to go without saying. Whether you’re writing hard sci-fi but have no contact with science, or a thriller that involves medieval art but don’t know anything about art history, a little research goes a long way. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should be able to give enough detail on the subject that readers can get a sense of what’s going on in the story. Factual errors are silly-looking at best, and have the potential to be deeply confusing.
This also applies when you need a character to be an expert. If your brilliant mathematician only does basic calculus, your literary scholar doesn’t know any books besides Romeo and Juliet, or your top-notch hacker doesn’t know what an algorithm is, things are going to look fishy.
- The non-fiction section of the library
- Free online courses
- Anyone you know who may be an expert, or have experience in the field
- Absolute Write has a huge list of useful research websites that can be found here.
Common research problems
Research as a stalling tactic
It’s easy for research to become a form of productive procrastination, where you take care of smaller, potentially useful tasks, but at the expense of actually sitting down and writing your novel. Many a good book has been postponed indefinitely for the sake of “just doing a bit of research to make sure I get it all right/fit into the genre/know exactly what I’m doing.”
Remember that you don’t have to be an expert, and that research can take place as you write. Give yourself permission to fill in some of the gaps later, and remind yourself that the research is meant to serve your story.
As a rule, you should know more than what appears on the page. By extension, that means that while your writing will probably demonstrate some of the groundwork that you’ve laid, it’s pretty likely that all of your research won’t make it into the text. And that’s okay. Too much factual research on the page runs the same risk as fictional info-dumps—make sure that there’s only as much information as there needs to be, and that it’s all woven neatly into the story. (More tips on avoiding infodumps can be found here.)