Top 7 Tips For Researching Your Novel
Research is a given when writing non-fiction texts. Journalists and authors of non-fiction books are no strangers to researching a piece before they start writing – but what about fiction authors?
If you’re writing a novel and wondering whether you need to research it, the answer is generally yes . The same rules that apply to non-fiction writers don’t necessarily apply to novelists, but research is nevertheless an important step in planning to write a novel .
There are plenty of things you can do to ensure you’re writing the most authentic novel possible. Setting, characters, plot details, historical influences, even genre and craft – all these elements and more can be researched to strengthen your knowledge and flesh out your book.
So how exactly should you approach the research process?
Let’s take a look at seven top tips to get you started.
1. Establish a system to organise and store research
Before you start researching, it’s imperative to get organised. There’s no point collecting hundreds of bits of information only to create a disorganised mess that you won’t be able to navigate later!
Every writer works differently, so think about your own methods of organisation and what might work best for you when it comes to sorting and storing your research.
Here are a few organisation methods to consider:
- A physical folder or binder, divided into clearly labelled sections such as Setting, Characters etc., in which you can store hard-copy sheets of research and information.
- A digital Research folder on your hard drive, divided into sub-folders for each section of your research. If you choose this option, make sure to back up your files regularly to avoid losing data.
- A notebook full of handwritten notes, clippings and snippets of information.
- A set of research files in a novel-writing program such as Scrivener . These kinds of programs are great for storing information, and because your novel and your research are stored in the one place, it’s easy to access them simultaneously. (Again, as with any digital method, ensure you back up your files religiously.)
Whichever method of research storage you choose, ensure it’s easily navigable, accessible, and well-organised. Trust us – you’ll thank your past self when you’re in the midst of the writing process and know exactly where to refer to that specific piece of information!
2. Read, read, and read some more
As a writer, you’re probably a voracious reader already (and if not, you should be!). All reading helps to improve your craft, your knowledge and your story, but when you’re researching a novel, your reading will have to kick up a notch.
Whether it’s books, newspapers, online articles or any other source of written material, reading is going to be your primary method of attack when it comes to novel research. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of reading you’ll need to do in preparation for writing your book.
Read texts on your subject matter
Obviously, your chosen subject matter will be the first thing you start investigating.
Writing a crime novel? You’ll need to research things like murder weapons, forensics, and past criminal cases. Writing a romance novel set in modern-day Rome? You’ll need to pay Italy a virtual visit by reading as much as you can about its capital city. Writing historical fiction set in medieval Europe? Time to learn everything you can about that period in history.
‘But I’m a poor, struggling writer,’ you might be thinking. ‘How am I going to afford all these books I need for research?’ Well, two words will solve that problem, my friend…
If you’re not already a frequent visitor, it’s time to acquaint yourself with your local library. It’s free to become a member, and most libraries will have hundreds, if not thousands of books on every subject imaginable.
Most libraries should have an extensive catalogue of all their resources, so all it will take is a few keyword searches to discover a wealth of information relevant to your novel. You can borrow as many books as you need, taking down notes as you read and giving yourself a solid foundation on which to build your own story.
If you’re a university student, your uni library can be a great place to start your research. University libraries often have large research collections and access to exclusive online databases.
Here’s a fact that may horrify the most dedicated bibliophiles among us: all the information you need might not necessarily be found in books.
Shocking, we know! But never fear: there’s this new-fangled thing that’s perfect for writers researching their novels, and it’s called the internet.
Think of it as your personal, digital library, full of countless pieces of information and inspiration, all available from the comfort of your own desk. Everything from online encyclopaedias and databases to blogs and digital publications can be extremely helpful in your research process.
However, there’s a caveat that comes with using the internet to research your novel: you need to be extra careful about online resources and their validity.
The internet, being the enormous, free source of information it is, can unfortunately be subject to some pretty dodgy information at times. To avoid being misinformed, ensure you’re gathering information from reliable sources, and that any facts you uncover can be validated.
It’s easy to fall into the Wikipedia trap and believe that everything written online is true, but unfortunately that’s not necessarily the case, so you’ll have to be more discerning when researching on the internet.
Read other novels dealing with similar subject matter
Research doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to reading non-fiction texts about your subject matter. You can also read other novels as a valid and useful form of research.
You can begin by reading novels that deal with similar subject matter to your own. This will not only give you some extra information on your subject, but will also allow you to see how that subject has been covered before, and how you might approach it differently.
As well as novels with similar topics, it’s a good idea to read widely in your chosen genre. This method of research is especially helpful for writers in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, who can’t necessarily visit the places or research the time periods featured in their entirely imagined stories. Reading other novels in your genre can help you see how other authors have tackled the process of building their own worlds . (More on researching genre and craft below.)
TIP: On Goodreads , you can often find user-generated lists of books about particular topics. Simply perform a Google search using the keywords ‘Goodreads’ and ‘novels about [insert topic]’.
For example, say your novel is about an artist. Googling ‘Goodreads novels about artists’ brings up several lists, including ‘ Art & Artists in Fiction ‘, ‘ Fiction Books Involving Art ‘, and ‘ Books With Main Characters Who Are Artists ‘. These lists can give you a great place to start when deciding what novels to read as research for your own.
3. Delve into other forms of media
Books, newspapers, articles and online resources aren’t the only things that will help you with your research. While reading will likely be your primary method of gathering information, other forms of media can be extremely helpful as well.
Movies, documentaries and videos on YouTube can all be great sources of information and inspiration for writers. Whether you’re researching a place, a time period, a type of person or a particular culture, you’re sure to find some video sources that will help you understand your topic.
Sometimes, sensory sources such as video are even more helpful than written ones, as they can allow you to see, hear and virtually experience things you might not otherwise have access to. Try searching some relevant keywords on YouTube or Netflix and see what comes up.
TIP: Similarly to the Goodreads lists we mentioned above, you can find movie recommendation lists online at websites like IMDb . These are also user-generated and can be found using a similar method: Google the keywords ‘IMDb’ and ‘movies about [topic]’.
Sticking with our example of an author writing a novel about an artist, let’s try Googling ‘IMDb movies about artists’. You’ll find that several options appear, including ‘ Top 70 Movies About Painters/Artists ‘, and ‘ Movies with or about artists (painters, composers, etc) ‘.
After you’ve found a few movie options, it’s simply a matter of renting, purchasing, or downloading/streaming the movie (legally, of course) to provide some visual inspiration for your novel.
Images are the next-best thing to video when it comes to visual research for your novel. With millions of images available and easily accessible online, you’ll be able to get a much clearer mental picture of the things you’re writing about in your book.
Google Images and Wikipedia are great places to start – simply type in some keywords and start browsing their mammoth collections. Plenty of institutions have online image galleries, too; for example, if it’s historical images, maps or text excerpts you’re after, try something like the British Library’s online image gallery .
Google Maps is also a great tool for conducting research about locations and settings. We’ll talk more below about actually visiting real-world locations for research, but when that’s out of the question, using the Street View function of Google Maps is the next best thing.
Using Pinterest for fiction writing and novels sounds like a strange concept, but believe us – it can be super helpful! As a visual medium, Pinterest is full of all kinds of images that can be utilised for a writer’s research or inspiration.
You can browse Pinterest without becoming a member, but if you sign up for a free account, you can also create your own collages and collections using what are essentially digital ‘mood boards’.
This is a great way to organise and store images for different parts of your research. For example, you might have a Pinterest board full of images relevant to your setting, another for images of characters and clothing, and so on.
4. Talk to people.
We writers are generally a solitary bunch, but when it comes to researching a novel, sometimes it pays to step away from your desk and talk to some real people!
It might be an expert on the subject you’re writing on, a resident of the location in which your book is set, or a person who can relate to the situation one of your characters is in. It might be a friend-of-a-friend, a relative, or someone you’ve found by reaching out to your local community. Whoever you speak to, you’re likely to gain truly valuable first-hand information and insight that you just can’t get through a book or the internet.
For those who are shy about reaching out to strangers, remember that in today’s digital age, you don’t necessarily have to seek people out in person or by phone. Many internet communities exist in which you can communicate with others via online forums or messages.
Reddit is a great example. It has thousands and thousands of sections, or ‘subreddits’, dedicated to every topic imaginable. Once you’ve found your desired subject, you can search through the existing posts for information, or become a member and create your own call-out seeking answers or insight on a particular aspect of the topic.
TIP: Talking to people while researching may not only provide you with information, but also with inspiration when it comes to characters. Meeting and chatting with new people is a great way to gain insight into the way different people act and speak, and can inspire character traits or quirks in your own fiction.
5. Immerse yourself in some real-world research.
Just as it’s helpful to talk to real people in your research, it’s also extremely valuable to get out and visit some real-world places!
We spoke above about researching setting and place through various online methods. However, if at all possible, it’s always a good idea to visit the places you’re utilising in your fiction. Take some time to stroll through the location, taking in not only the sights but the sounds, smells, vibe and atmosphere of the place.
If you’re writing about a made-up setting, you can visit a similar location to inspire the place of your own invention. For example, if your novel is set in a fictional small beachside town, visit a few of these kinds of locations, and allow details from each to inspire and be woven throughout your novel’s unique setting.
TIP: Don’t assume you already know all there is to know about your setting – for example, if your novel is set in your own home town. Just because you’re already familiar with a place doesn’t mean you don’t need to conduct further research.
You don’t want to become complacent with your existing familiarity. It may mean you don’t end up truly doing your setting justice for readers who aren’t as familiar with it as you are.
6. Extend your research to craft as well as content.
When writers think of researching their novel, they usually think of investigating all the main content components we’ve covered above: setting, characters, plot elements, etc.
However, we recommend that you don’t restrict your research to content alone. You should also research the craft of writing itself. This kind of research comes in two forms: style and genre.
Research on style involves learning about how to improve your skills as a writer. Whether you’re reading advice from other writers, completing writing exercises , or taking a course to further your skills and knowledge, researching the craft of writing is an essential step for any novelist.
Writer’s Edit has an extensive collection of resources for writers wishing to improve their craft, covering everything from how to punctuate dialogue to writing page-turning tension ; from creating backstory to writing and editing sex scenes .
As a writer, you should aim to constantly improve your skills and style over the course of your entire career. This means keeping up to date with advice, branching out and experimenting with your skills, and always striving to become better at your craft.
Research on genre involves learning everything you can about the genre in which you’re writing. You should be intensely familiar with your chosen genre, reading widely within it and learning from the works of other writers.
You should aim to discover where and how your own work will fit within the genre, and to think of ways you can introduce a fresh perspective.
7. Don’t get stuck on research and forget to start writing.
Phew! We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Hopefully you’re now feeling prepared and ready to get stuck into researching your novel. However, once you do start researching, it can be hard to know when to stop.
‘How long should I research for?’ is a common question asked by many writers. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer – only you will know when you have enough material to begin the writing process itself. It’s usually better to have more research material than you’ll actually need, rather than not enough.
However, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of never-ending research as a means of putting off the actual writing of your novel.
If you think this is happening to you, don’t worry – it’s completely understandable. Writing an entire book can be a daunting and overwhelming prospect, and writers want to feel as prepared as possible before they launch themselves into the drafting process.
However, there’s really no such thing as being completely prepared to write a novel. The truth is that even the most experienced writer often needs to jump in head-first and just see where the writing takes them!
Don’t spend months or years researching without writing a single word of your novel. Gather enough information and inspiration to form a solid foundation and starting point, then ease yourself into the writing. There’ll always be time for further research later on; right now, if you’ve got enough research behind you to begin, then begin.
TIP: We have one important final recommendation when it comes to research, and it’s that not everything needs to end up on the page. This is classic error new writers often make: ‘info-dumping’ the product of their extensive research in its entirety, believing it will make for a better story.
The truth is that readers don’t want to be spoon-fed every single piece of information. They’re not reading a research report, after all; they’re reading a novel.
Weave details into your story sparingly, and allow your research to inform your writing as subtly as possible. Trust us: when you know what you’re talking about, your readers will, too. There’s no need to overload them with detail and information.
What are your tried-and-trusted methods when it comes to researching a novel? Let us know in the comments below. Happy researching!
Claire is a freelance editor and proofreader based in Newcastle, Australia. She works with indie and traditional authors to prepare their works for publication, primarily editing fantasy novels. In her spare time, you might find her reading, birdwatching or drinking endless cups of tea while writing things of her own. Click here to visit Claire's website.
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The most basic understanding of “fiction” in literature is that it is a written piece that depicts imaginary occurrences. There is this unspoken assumption that fiction, because it is of imagined events, has nothing to do with reality (and therefore researching for a novel is not important). This is far from the truth.
The history of fiction writing presents an inherent paradox: the most gripping of novels require you to write of imagined events in a realistic way. If we accept literature as a reflection of the world around us, then we must also acknowledge that the best of fiction stems from reality. It may be an account of imaginary events, but is still heavily rooted in the real.
For a writer, this means in-depth research about various aspects of novel writing , including cultural and social context, character behavior, and historical details.
Your task is (ever so slightly) easier if you are writing about situations contemporary to you. But the further you go back, through the annals of history, the harder it becomes to strive for such authenticity.
Grammar mistakes are jarring, but so are plot holes. An inconsistent story is off-putting to even the most immersed reader. So, here’s the bottom line: do n’t assume, and get your research down.
Why is research important for fiction?
Because even William Shakespeare, one of the most iconic figures of literature, erred in making anachronisms. One of the most famous literary anachronisms is in his play Julius Caesar , in Cassius’ line:
“The clock has stricken three.” (Act II, Scene 1)
The error is that clocks that “struck” were invented almost 14 centuries after the play was set!
But Shakespeare was a giant. We have forgiven these misgivings because Shakespearean literature is rich even with such minuscule errors. As for us foolish mortals, it’s probably best to do our research thoroughly.
Having a detailed understanding of the landscape that you are writing about is one of the most effective ways to draw your reader into the story world. Your extensive knowledge of your chosen topic will also give you a stable and authoritative voice in your writing.
What should you be researching?
As you might have realized by now, there are various aspects of your novel you should be researching. To start with, we’ve split fiction writing research into two categories: content and form. By content, we mean the details and elements you should focus on within your story. By form, we mean the style and genre of writing you wish to eventually adopt.
Needless to say, these two categories will overlap with each other as you make your story more streamlined.
A story’s setting is one of the most important elements of fiction writing. It is essentially the time and space that your narrative is set in or the story’s backdrop. A story might have a gripping narrative and well-rounded characters, but it is incomplete if the reader doesn’t have a sense of where it’s all happening. As part of your setting, you can include geographical, cultural, social, and political details that you feel are relevant to the story.
In other words, you are essentially creating a “world” for your story . These may seem like tiny details to add to your otherwise imaginary story, but they provide depth and plausibility to your story.
One cool way to get a lowdown on these intricate spatial details like roads, mountains, hills, monuments, and other geographical landmarks is through tools like Google Maps and Street View . This is especially useful if you have to write about a place you can’t visit or you simply want to get geographical descriptions right.
The worst thing you could do as a writer is to assume things. This is a misstep that is quite unnecessary and can easily be avoided with some research. The information you have already gathered while researching your setting is a good enough start. What you now need to do with all these seemingly scattered pieces of information is to make sure they do not contradict each other.
Character details and human behavior
In plotting your story, you will also automatically gain an understanding of the intention and goals of your characters. In order to flesh them out and ensure that they are dynamic and interesting, research is required.
An understanding of human behavior and nature is a very important skill for a good writer. The stereotype of a perceptive and observant writer is, in fact, due to quite a practical need! Even if your characters do not exist in reality, they should seem real enough for your readers to be able to relate to them.
Historical and social background
Your story world is not just the time, place, and immediate surroundings of your characters. Irrespective of what setting your story has, it also has the larger context of the world that your characters reside in. This could be from a real point in history (like Victorian England, 1920s jazz era, etc.) or it could be completely made up (Oceania from 1984, or Panem).
But irrespective of whether you’re writing historical fiction or creating a new world altogether, it must be thorough and consistent in supporting your plot. As a writer, you must clearly understand the culture and systems that your characters are a part of. A well-rooted universe also gives readers an insight into a character’s identity.
Writing style and genre
If you are writing a novel in a particular genre, it’s important to be aware of writing conventions and tropes commonly used in that genre. The best, and most obvious, way to do this is to read novels and stories in your genre of choice. Look at the top-rated and critically acclaimed books and study them carefully. Be critical in your study, try to understand the author’s creative writing process, and look at the style and tone they try to evoke.
Aside from this, you could also take a look at books about novel writing in general. These will give you general, but useful information about novel writing, like when to write long descriptions and when to cut straight to the action.
How should you be researching?
- Read about what you are researching. Books, articles, and other forms of print media are great ways to gather information on culture, history, and society. Biographies and memoirs are great for character insight (especially if you’re basing your book on a real person). If you’re basing your novel in the real world, you know what to do next. If you’re creating your own world, this is still a good basis for whatever you cook up within your world.
- Films and TV are great sources for helping you develop your character as they help you understand character traits and motivation in your story. Additionally, they might also help you visualize your story.
- If you are writing about characters with a niche profession (for example), take interviews with people who are in that field. For instance, if you are writing a detective story, talk to people in your police precinct and observe their behavior.
- If you are writing about specific locations, read up about that. In the age of the internet, there are many resources and forums where you can interact with people around the world.
- Try to visit the locations you are writing about and spend some time there , to gain an insight into what life in that place is like.
Incorporating research into fiction
Be selective about your details. Whether or not you actually incorporate the details that you have researched, knowing your world well will make your writing infinitely better.
Because of all the information you have amassed, there is a certain bias you acquire as an “expert” on the subject of your story. So if you include a lot of information, there is a danger of your work sounding too technical.
Make sure that every detail you include is directly relevant to the plot. Keep it simple: and avoid unnecessary plot holes.
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On the Fine Art of Researching For Fiction
Jake wolff: how to write beyond the borders of your experience.
The first time I considered the relationship between fiction and research was during a writing workshop—my first—while I watched the professor eviscerate some poor kid’s story about World War II. And yeah, the story was bad. I remember the protagonist being told to “take cover” and then performing several combat rolls to do so.
“You’re college students,” the professor said. “Write about college students.”
Later, better professors would clarify for me that research, with a touch of imagination, can be a perfectly valid substitute for experience. But that’s always where the conversation stopped. If we ever uttered the word “research” in a workshop, we did so in a weaponized way to critique a piece of writing: “This desperately needs more research,” we’d all agree, and then nothing more would be said. We’d all just pretend that everyone in the room already knew how to integrate research into fiction and that the failures of the story were merely a lack of effort rather than skill. Secretly, though, I felt lost.
I knew research was important, and I knew how to research. My questions all had to do with craft. How do I incorporate research into fiction? How do I provide authenticity and detail without turning the story into a lecture? How much research is too much? Too little?
How do I allow research to support the story without feeling obligated to remain in the realm of fact—when I am, after all, trying to write fiction?
I heavily researched my debut novel, in which nearly every chapter is science-oriented, historical, or both. I’d like to share a method I used throughout the research and writing process to help deal with some of my questions. This method is not intended to become a constant fixture in your writing practice. But if you’re looking for ways to balance or check the balance of the amount of research in a given chapter, story, or scene, you might consider these steps: identify, lie, apply.
I recently had a conversation with a former student, now a friend, about a short story he was writing. He told me he was worried he’d packed it too full of historical research.
“Well,” I said, “how much research is in there?”
“Uhhh,” he answered. “I’m not sure?”
That’s what we might call a visualization problem. It’s hard to judge the quantity of something you can’t see.
I’ve faced similar problems in my own work. I once received a note from my editor saying that a certain chapter of my novel read too much like a chemistry textbook. At first, I was baffled—I didn’t think of the chapter as being overly research-forward. But upon reading it again, I realized I had missed the problem. After learning so much about chemistry, I could no longer “see” the amount of research I had crammed into twenty pages.
Literature scholars don’t have this problem because they cite their sources; endnotes, footnotes, and the like don’t merely provide a tool for readers to verify claims, but also provide a visual reminder that research exists within the text. Thankfully, creative writers generally don’t have to worry about proper MLA formatting (though you should absolutely keep track of your sources). Still, finding a quick way to visually mark the research in your fiction is the least exciting but also the most important step in recognizing its role in your work.
Personally, I map my research in blue. So when my editor flagged that chapter for me, I went back to the text and began marking the research. By the end of the process, the chapter was filled with paragraphs that looked like this one:
Progesterone is a steroid hormone that plays an especially important role in pregnancy. Only a few months before Sammy arrived in Littlefield, a group of scientists found the first example of progesterone in plants. They’d used equipment I would never be able to access, nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectroscopy, to search for the hormone in the leaves of the English Walnut trees. In humans, aging was associated with a drop in progesterone and an increase in tumor formation—perhaps a result of its neurosteroidal function.
My editor was spot-on: this barely qualified as fiction. But I truly hadn’t seen it. As both a writer and teacher, I’m constantly amazed by how blind we can become to our own manuscripts. Of course, this works the other way, too: if you’re writing a story set in medieval England but haven’t supported that setting with any research, you’ll see it during this step. It’s such an easy, obvious exercise, but I know so few writers who do this.
Before moving on, I’ll pause to recommend also highlighting research in other people’s work. If there’s a story or novel you admire that is fairly research-forward, go through a few sections and mark anything that you would have needed research to write. This will help you see the spacing and balance of research in the fiction you’re hoping to emulate.
(Two Truths and a) Lie
You’ve probably heard of the icebreaker Two Truths and a Lie: you tell two truths and one lie about yourself, and then the other players have to guess which is the lie. I’d rather die than play this game in real life, but it works beautifully when adapted as a solo research exercise.
It’s very simple. When I’m trying to (re)balance the research in my fiction, I list two facts I’ve learned from my research and then invent one “fact” that sounds true but isn’t. The idea is to acquaint yourself with the sound of the truth when it comes to a given subject and then to recreate that sound in a fictive sentence. It’s a way to provide balance and productivity, ensuring that you’re continuing to imagine and invent —to be a fiction writer— even as you’re researching.
I still have my notes from the first time I used this exercise. I was researching the ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang for a work of historical fiction I would later publish in One Story. I was drowning in research, and the story was nearing fifty pages (!) with no end in sight. My story focused on the final years of the emperor’s life, so I made a list of facts related to that period, including these:
1. The emperor was obsessed with finding the elixir of life and executed Confucian scholars who failed to support this obsession.
2. If the emperor coughed, everyone in his presence had to cough in order to mask him as the source.
3. The emperor believed evil spirits were trying to kill him and built secret tunnels to travel in safety from them.
Now, the second of those statements is a lie. My facts were showing me that the emperor was afraid of dying and made other people the victims of that fear—my lie, in turn, creates a usable narrative detail supporting these facts. I ended up using this lie as the opening of the story. I was a graduate student at the time, and when I workshopped the piece, my professor said something about how the opening worked because “It’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up.” I haven’t stopped using this exercise since.
We have some facts; we have some lies. The final step is to integrate these details into the story. We’ll do this by considering their relationship to the beating heart of fiction: conflict. You can use this step with both facts and lies. My problem tends to be an overload of research rather than the opposite, so I’ll show you an example of a lie I used to help provide balance.
In a late chapter in my book, three important characters—Sammy and his current lover Sadiq and his ex- lover Catherine—travel to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). They’ve come to investigate a drug with potential anti-aging properties that originates in the soil there (that’s a fact; the drug is called rapamycin). As I researched travel to Easter Island, my Two Truths and a Lie exercise produced the following lie:
There are only two airports flying into Easter Island; these airports constantly fight with each other.
In reality, while there are two airports serving Easter Island (one in Tahiti; the other in Chile), nearly everyone flies from Chile, and it’s the same airline either way. On its surface, this is the kind of lie I would expect to leave on the cutting room floor—it’s a dry, irrelevant detail.
But when I’m using the ILA method, I try not to pre-judge. Instead, I make a list of the central conflicts in the story or chapter and a list of the facts and lies. Then I look for applications—i.e., for ways in which each detail may feel relevant to the conflicts. To my surprise, I found that the airport lie fit the conflicts of the chapter perfectly:
Ultimately, the airport lie spoke to the characters, all of whom were feeling the painful effects of life’s capriciousness, the way the choices we make can seem under our control but also outside it, arbitrary but also fateful. I used this lie to introduce these opposing forces and to divide the characters: Sammy and Sadiq fly from Tahiti; Catherine flies from Chile.
Two airports in the world offered flights to Rapa Nui—one in Tahiti, to the west, and one in Chile, to the east. Most of the scientists stayed in one of those two countries. There was no real meaning to it. But still, it was hard, in a juvenile way, not to think of the two groups as opposing teams in a faction. There was the Tahiti side, and there was the Chile side, and only one could win.
This sort of schematic—complete with a table and headers—may seem overly rigid to you, to which I’d respond, Gee, you sound like one of my students. What can I say? I’m a rigid guy. But when you’re tackling a research-intensive story, a little rigidity isn’t the worst thing. Narrative structure does not supply itself. It results from the interplay between the conflicts, the characters, and the details used to evoke them. I’m presenting one way, of many, to visualize those relationships whenever you’re feeling lost.
Zora Neal Hurston wrote, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of structure and rigidity—research, for me, is bolstering in this way. It provides form. But it’s also heavy and hard to work with. It doesn’t bend. If you’re struggling with the burden of it, give ILA a shot and see if unsticks whatever is holding you back. If you do try this approach, let me know if it works for you—and if it doesn’t, feel free to lie.
Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever is out now from FSG.
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Writers on Writing
Research in fiction—necessary but dangerous.
As someone who writes both journalism and fiction, I have often struggled with how to balance research and imagination. The journalist half of me insists on being as accurate as possible; the novelist half of me wants the freedom to invent.
Yet both halves know that if I am going to set a novel in a real place, in a real time, I must get all the details right. I should not put a wall around Washington Square, start the Iraq War in 2005, or claim that maple trees bear acorns. This matters because it has to do with keeping faith with your readers. If you get something verifiable wrong, why should they believe you when you really are making things up? Research, factual accuracy, lays the base for plausible fiction, for it actually enables suspension of disbelief in readers by building their trust.
This hit home for me long ago, when I read a novel set in Berkeley, California, a city I know well. On the U.C. Berkeley campus is a well-known landmark called Sather Gate, which is merely two ornate metal pillars, not a gate at all. But in this novel, the author swung the gate closed and even locked it.
I almost threw the book away. I felt the author had violated her contract with me, her reader. She had closed the nonexistent gate either because she was too lazy to check if it could be closed, or because—and this was worse—she chose to ignore reality for the sake of her plot. And that felt like a cheat.
I have heard fiction writers speak cavalierly of facts. “Who cares, make it up, it’s fiction!” But having been traumatized by that gate, I profoundly disagree. If a writer wants to create a plausible world that draws in readers, makes them laugh and cry, believe and feel—if the writer wants the readers’ respect—that writer owes them as much accuracy as possible.
Yet research has its pitfalls, especially for those who’ve learned to write as journalists. Research needs to be kept in check, like a hungry dog on a leash, lest it gobble your imagination and your story as well.
One pitfall is to concoct a story to fit the facts. That is, instead of letting the story evolve out of your characters, you twist your characters and plot into illustrating your research. This leads to characters doing and saying things they never would, which turns them into puppets and wrecks their credibility, and probably that of your story, too.
Another common mistake is to fall so in love with your research that you stick in facts all over the place, thus clogging the narrative and making you sound like a show-off: “She donned her necklace, made of a rare blue amethyst discovered by Richard Burton in the mines of Eastern Peru, and went down to dinner.” This leads to fiction filled with factoids but without a believable character in sight.
I faced this last temptation myself—wanting to show off my research—when I crossed over from writing my nonfiction book about women soldiers in the Iraq War, The Lonely Soldier , to my novel about the same subject, Sand Queen . Soldiers speak in a lot of jargon and acronyms, many of which are funny. In nonfiction one can explain these easily, but when I was writing in the first person voice of a soldier, it wasn’t natural to have her explain things she says as matter of course. So I had to let some of my favorite gems go. For example, soldiers who need glasses are issued BCGs, or Basic Combat Glasses, but they are so ugly that soldiers call them Birth Control Glasses, the idea being that they make you so hideous no one will sleep with you. One of my main characters in Sand Queen , Jimmy, wears BCGs, but I just couldn’t fit in that explanation naturally.
As necessary as research— controlled research—is for keeping faith with the reader, perhaps its most important use is mainly behind the scenes, not on the page. Thorough research instills in the writer enough knowledge to give her real confidence in her material—the kind of confidence that releases her from a need to show off or twist her plots, and frees her to finally sit down and write.
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Research for Fiction Writing
The Internet, Google Maps, Everyday Conversation, and Other Unexpected Sources
Why new york state, keeping the mind sharp.
Anyone perusing the internet activity of J. Robert Lennon, English, would find an array of strange and disjointed queries. “If the government is tracking my web searches, they probably think I’m running an operation in my office,” Lennon says with a laugh.
Lennon conducts most of his research online, whether it’s looking up how to construct a bow and arrow for his survivalist ex-military character in Castle (Graywolf Press, 2010), figuring out how a steel and glass sculptor would make glass knives for his current project, determining how one would grow pot in a house (again for his current novel), or walking through virtual cities in Google Maps’ Street View to find a character’s home.
“Google Street View has changed fiction writing enormously. It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re writing about, you can at least tell what it looks like,” he says, though he adds the caveat that when writing about a culture that’s very different from one’s own, nothing can quite replace traveling and talking to people. For him, however, Street View has inspired a ghost story titled “Lancaster, California” and helped him pick a house in a Canadian town as the future home for one of his characters.
Lennon also locates much of his inspiration in his surrounding landscape. He describes his current project as “a skein of people’s lives intersecting in the middle of nowhere Upstate New York.” His latest book, See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press, 2014) , a collection of short stories, features several pieces based in the area. And if you read his previous seven novels, you’ll find that many, for example, Castle , Pieces for the Left Hand (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Happyland (serialized in Harper’s Magazine , 2006), are set in Upstate New York.
Lennon is an advocate of writers drawing from different—and not typically literary—sources, be it eavesdropped conversations, genre fiction, music, blogs, or television. “That’s my hobbyhorse as a teacher here,” he says. “I’m not really trying to teach students to write, but to identify things in themselves that are different from other people. I want them to tease out the weird core of themselves and develop it into action.”
To do that, he encourages students to glean from “whatever stuff that people use to express themselves” and to use it “as fodder for psychological tics.” Lennon himself has found inspiration in video games and science fiction. His novel Familiar (Graywolf Press, 2012) features a parallel universe, plus the protagonist’s son is a game developer who makes a game that turns out to be about his family.
Originally from a small town in New Jersey, Lennon moved to Philadelphia for college and then to Missoula, Montana, for his MFA at the University of Montana. From there, every move he made was to a smaller and smaller town, he says, until he landed in Ithaca, a place similarly sized to his hometown. He says he ended up in Ithaca simply because he and his wife liked the place.
As for New York State, Lennon says that he’s attracted to writing about it because “there’s lots of empty space, but there isn’t any that hasn’t been trodden on. People have lived everywhere, and we’ve been walking all over this place for years. There are layers and layers of history.” He adds that it’s an especially interesting place for a writer, because “people are eccentric and a lot of them come to this place.” The local newspapers alone have been a rich source of material.
Outside of fiction writing, Lennon maintains a blog with a diverse assortment of posts: goofy product reviews of pens and office supplies, snippets of his latest favorite comics, screenshots of super short text message stories, expert rants on such topics as PDFs and typography. He is an avid tweeter. “It keeps my mind sharp,” Lennon says of such writing.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what makes a really good piece of writing good and what makes a failed piece of writing a failure.”
Teaching at Cornell, too, has sharpened his understanding of both his students’ and his own writing. Lennon teaches an undergraduate narrative writing workshop each semester and a graduate workshop every other year. In reading his students’ stories, he says he’s come to realize that he can’t just say that a story is or isn’t working; he has to understand and explain why.
“You realize a lot of preconceived notions that you have of what’s good in your own work is just as arbitrary as thinking other people’s work is bad,” he says. “It’s hard to put your finger on what makes a really good piece of writing good and what makes a failed piece of writing a failure, and it’s been interesting for me to have to justify my opinions.”
In doing research as a fiction writer, Lennon embraces a term his wife once called them: professional dilettantes. “I like that as a description for writers,” he says. “I love going to parties with writers—they always have super shallow knowledge of a zillion different things.”
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How to organize research for your novel
Follow this step-by-step guide to learn the modern process of organizing research in Milanote, a free tool used by top creatives.
How to organize your research in 7 easy steps
Whether you're writing a sci-fi thriller or historical fiction, research is a crucial step in the early writing process. It's a springboard for new ideas and can add substance and authenticity to your story. As author Robert McKee says "when you do enough research, the story almost writes itself. Lines of development spring loose and you'll have choices galore."
But collecting research can be messy. It's often scattered between emails, notes, documents, and even photos on your phone making it hard to see the full picture. When you bring your research into one place and see things side-by-side, new ideas and perspectives start to emerge.
In this guide, you'll learn the modern approach to collecting and organizing research for your novel using Milanote. Remember, the creative process is non-linear, so you may find yourself moving back and forth between the steps as you go.
1. First, add any existing notes
You probably know a lot about your chosen topic or location already. Start by getting the known facts and knowledge out of your head. Even if these topics seem obvious to you, they can serve as a bridge to the rest of your research. You might include facts about the location, period, fashion or events that take place in your story.
Create a new board to collect your research.
Create a new board
Drag a board out from the toolbar. Give it a name, then double click to open it.
Add a note to capture your existing knowledge on the topic.
Drag a note card onto your board
Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.
2. Save links to articles & news
Wikipedia, blogs, and news websites are a goldmine for researchers. It's here you'll find historical events and records, data, and opinions about your topic. We're in the 'collecting' phase so just save links to any relevant information you stumble across. You can return and read the details at a later stage.
Drag a link card onto your board to save a website.
Install the Milanote Web Clipper
Save websites and articles straight to your board.
Save content from the web
With the Web Clipper installed, save a website, image or text. Choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.
3. Save quotes & data
Quotes are a great way to add credibility and bring personality to your topic. They're also a handy source of inspiration for character development, especially if you're trying to match the language used in past periods. Remember to keep the source of the quote in case you need to back it up.
Add a note to capture a quote.
4. Collect video & audio
Video and movie clips can help you understand a mood or feeling in a way that words sometimes can't. Try searching for your topic or era on Vimeo , or Youtube . Podcasts are another great reference. Find conversations about your topic on Spotify or any podcast platform and add them into the mix.
Embed Youtube videos or audio in a board.
Embed Youtube videos or audio tracks in a board
Copy the share link from Youtube, Vimeo, Soundcloud or many other services. Drag a link card onto your board, paste your link and press enter.
5. Collect important images
Sometimes the quickest way to understand a topic is with an image. They can transport you to another time or place and can help you describe things in much more detail. They're also easier to scan when you return to your research. Try saving images from Google Images , Pinterest , or Milanote's built-in image library.
Use the built-in image library.
Use the built-in image library
Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.
Save images from other websites straight to your board.
Roll over an image (or highlight text), click Save, then choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.
Allow yourself the time to explore every corner of your topic. As author A.S. Byatt says "the more research you do, the more at ease you are in the world you're writing about. It doesn't encumber you, it makes you free".
6. Collect research on the go
You never know where or when you'll find inspiration—it could strike you in the shower, or as you're strolling the aisles of the grocery store. So make sure you have an easy way to capture things on the go. As creative director Grace Coddington said, "Always keep your eyes open. Keep watching. Because whatever you see can inspire you."
Download the Milanote mobile app
Save photos straight to your Research board.
Take photos on the go
Shoot or upload photos directly to your board. When you return to a bigger screen you'll find them in the "Unsorted" column of the board.
7. Connect the dots
Now that you have all your research in one place, it's time to start drawing insights and conclusions. Laying out your notes side-by-side is the best way to do this. You might see how a quote from an interviewee adds a personal touch to some data you discovered earlier. This is the part of the process where you turn a collection of disparate information into your unique perspective on the topic.
That's a great start!
Research is an ongoing process and you'll probably continue learning about your topic throughout your writing journey. Reference your research as you go to add a unique perspective to your story. Use the template below to start your research or read our full guide on how to plan a novel .
Start your research
Get started for free with one of Milanote's beautiful templates.
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Oct 16, 2019
Research Tips for Fiction Writers: Where to Find Information and How to Use It Effectively
And how to store it so you can find it again.
If you’d asked me fifteen years ago how much research I did for my fiction writing, I probably would’ve said “Not much at all”. I guess back then a lot of what I wrote was based on my own experiences, or my imagination, and what I didn’t…
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Writer, editor, book lover — I've published many children's books and three crime novels for adults so far. I edit other people's fiction and poetry.
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Research Tools Every Writer Needs
In this guest post historical fiction author Kelly Gardiner shares some of the wonderful free resources that writers can use to make the most out of their research time.
‘Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.’ – Robert McKee, Story
All writers need research. Whether you’re writing a memoir based largely on your own life, a story set in a neighbourhood you know well, a fantasy in a created universe, or a feature article, research can add depth, verisimilitude, and those telling details that further plot or character.
I write historical fiction, which involves more research than some other forms – luckily, I love the process of imagining, seeking, finding, interrogating and then integrating (or not) material that helps me populate an imagined past and draw its people.
So here are a few things I’ve learned that can help you, no matter what form your writing takes.
Find, don’t search
It seems so easy to look stuff up, doesn’t it? A quick Google search, and there’s a world of information at your fingertips. But is it what you really want, and is it any good?
Some tips on searching well: first, start with a broad query then refine it. You can add extra words to it if they are useful refinements, but don’t just keep adding terms. Think about what material you want to find. Who would write that? Try to imagine the words they would use to describe it. A good example is health information. If you want to see results from a whole lot of health forums on which people discuss their symptoms, use common words. If you want to read informed medical advice, search using terms a doctor or medico might use.
If you’re having trouble, you can limit your search query by using inverted commas. For example, if you want to look up a quote or a line from a poem, try putting quote marks around it, like this: “Feed your talent” – if you just type feed your talent , you’ll get results with the word feed or the word talent . You only want results with both words, and in that order. Inverted commas make it much easier to find titles of books or specific concepts. You can also limit your search to a specific site of general web domain – just type your keywords then site: and the domain, eg site:gov – or file type, eg type:pdf.
The big search engines give us great tools for refining our queries by time or date, or by country, or even by reading age (perfect if you’re writing for kids). What happens if you change the country domain – are you searching for US or Canadian or Australian or UK sources, for example? The information you find can be different, depending on the country in which it’s hosted – very useful for getting two sides of an international debate, or hiding stuff you don’t want to see.
One great tool is in Google image search, where you can limit your results by colour. Why? Apart from the obvious, it’s a big help if you’re looking for an old photo – just choose Black and white and hey presto, all the movie stills and clip art will vanish. This is handy even if you aren’t looking for a photo – the image is just a neat way to get you to a blog or article you might not have found in a general web search.
Alternative search tools
But you don’t have to start with Google. Major reference libraries and public libraries provide access to a huge range of trusted resources you may not find through a commercial search engine. Sign up for free, and you can scout across enormous databases of publications, scholarly journals, encyclopaedias on any topic – all from your desk at home. If you need to know about a particular person, for example, they might be listed in a specific reference text – Grove Encyclopaedia of Music, say, or a dictionary of biography from Ireland. You might find what you need in an old story in National Geographic or the latest medical journal.
Usually you have to pay to access these, but chances are, your local, state or national library will have already paid for a subscription to the sources you need. Here, for example, is what you can get from NYPL , the State Library of Victoria or the Toronto Public Library . Your nearest major library will probably offer a similar range. You can often access a huge range of ebooks for free too.
Google Scholar is another great way to find in-depth research, conference papers, and considered opinion from academics and professional researchers (some of the articles may be stored in a database, so a library membership will help you there too). If you want to know something, why wouldn’t you look up the world’s leading experts on the topic?
Worldcat can help you find copies of books and articles at libraries close to you
The Internet Archive holds video, audio and a huge range of digitised texts.
Trying to find that elusive web site you remember from ages ago? Online services like the UK Web Archive , the Wayback Machine , Collections Canada or Pandora (Australia) let you see websites that have otherwise vanished or changed.
For transcribed or digitised books, try the Gutenberg Project , the Internet Archive , or Google Books’ historical material.
Over the last decade or so, collecting institutions all over the world have been scanning and photographing their precious items so they can be shared with the world, online. Here’s how these can help:
- A photo or map of an old building can show the town or street you once lived in
- Fashion drawings (even original clothes) help you describe what your characters wear
- Newspaper reports provide information about people, events and places while the ads give you a bit of local colour
- Paintings such as still lives let you peek into other people’s homes hundreds of years ago
- You can read books that are out of print
- You can read letters, notebooks, and all kinds of unpublished material written by famous people or folks who just wanted to record what they saw and did – in a war or on a farm or digging gold or building a house.
There are incredible primary and secondary sources online. Newspapers, maps, architectural plans or drawings, photographs, paintings, company records, diaries, radio broadcasts, films, TV shows, railway timetables, birth certificates, ships’ passenger lists, court transcripts, magazines, government licences, patents, sports results, street directories – there’s no end to the digitised material from past and present that you can access. If it’s not yet digitised, your local archive, library, museum, school or historical society might let you see the original.
These may not come up in normal search engine results, so here are some great ways into to these treasures:
Europeana brings together the collections from a whole lot of different institutions you can sweep with one search
The Library of Congress holds an incredible range of past and present material about the US
Libraries and Archives Canada has a vast collection of material from old coins to the latest thesis
Trove , from the National Library of Australia, offers access to newspapers and material from libraries and archives all across the country.
Sometimes it can feel like there’s just too much information in the world. So how do you keep it all under control?
I use Evernote to keep all my notes, scribbles, and any sources I might want to quote all in one place – and searchable. Using the web clipper, I can clip any page or PDF to my Evernote account wherever I am on the web.
If I think I’ll need to cite a reference like a book or journal article, or refer to it again in the future, I use Zotero – it’s a free and powerful referencing tool.
I use Diigo for all my bookmarks, but it depends how your brain works – you might prefer a visual bookmarking tool like Pearltrees or Kippt.
Like Aerogramme Writers’ Studio , I use Pinterest to gather resources and keep them in source books for myself and for others.
And to streamline all the information coming in, I use Feedly to bring news and blog posts to me all in one place.
Here’s more on what’s in my online tool kit .
I still have those moments where I can’t find that critical piece of information, but searching through a couple of different services is a whole lot better than hunting through piles of paper.
What are your favourite tools for managing your research? Have you got any go-to sources?
It may be also wise to point out that using Wikipedia as your sole source of information will be a pretty big fail. Using it to help in your research, no problem. They provide resources at the bottom, but using that as you’re “go to” will make your writing less intelligent.
Good point. Wikipedia is a great place to start, and to find related information. You can also use the ‘Talk’ and ‘View history’ tabs on every page to see what has been edited, by whom, what they’ve discussed and if anything is controversial. But like most encyclopedias, it’s a jumping off point to explore other, deeper resources. And no matter where you start, if there’s a piece of information that’s really important to your writing, act like any good journalist and fact-check it using another source. Cheers, Kelly
I thought you might be interested in adding another useful resource to this article.
Power Thesaurus ( http://www.powerthesaurus.org ) is an easy-to-follow, crowdsourced online thesaurus.
Hope this helps!
This is awesome! I’ve also had a lot of success with the British Library’s online resource (sound bites, maps, manuscripts). Looking forward to checking these ones out.
Thanks for this informative post, especially the “Managing Resources” section, which is a weak area for me. I’m great at acquiring information, not so great at organizing and keeping track of it.
You’re not alone in that, Jenny. Have a play with some of these free tools and see which appeals. The important thing is to use something that suits you and the way you work. And an update on New York Public Library: it has recently made its digitised collections much more accessible, and the number of maps, photographs and other material is up to about 800,000. Many major libraries and collections (and fabulous smaller institutions, like local history groups, too) are doing the same, so it’s a wonderful time to be a researcher. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/01/05/share-public-domain-collections
I would like to use this excellent post as a handout to a writer’s group (about 20 people may attend). Can I have your permission to photocopy please?
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Characteristics of a non-fiction text includes the presence of a table of contents, headings, captions, diagrams, charts, graphs, a glossary and an index. Additionally, the subjects of non-fiction are real and not imagined or made up, as th...
Launched in early 2001, Wikipedia is a free, Web-based encyclopedia that is fully accessible to every user. As an online reference site, it includes entries in nearly every language on a broad range of topics, from science and mathematics t...
Top 7 Tips For Researching Your Novel · 1. Establish a system to organise and store research · 2. Read, read, and read some more · 3. Delve into other forms of
How to Research a Novel: Tips for Fiction Writing Research · 1. Read everything. The preliminary stage of research is generally exploratory and
The best, and most obvious, way to do this is to read novels and stories in your genre of choice. Look at the top-rated and critically acclaimed
The first time I considered the relationship between fiction and research was during a writing workshop—my first—while I watched the
Yet research has its pitfalls, especially for those who've learned to write as journalists. Research needs to be kept in check, like a hungry dog on a leash
Research for Fiction Writing. J. Robert Lennon finds much of his inspiration in his surrounding landscape. Featured.
Whether you're writing a sci-fi thriller or historical fiction, research is a crucial step in the early writing process. It's a springboard for new ideas
Maps, language tools, and specialist blogs · 1) Start with a plan · Even if you're a pantser, you should plan out your historical research in advance. · 2) Take
How to Research a Novel: 7 Tips · 1) You can't do too much research. · 2) You can write what you know. · 3) You can do research on the cheap. · 4)
If you'd asked me fifteen years ago how much research I did for my fiction writing, I probably would've said “Not much at all”.
I write historical fiction, which involves more research than some other forms – luckily, I love the process of imagining, seeking, finding