When I was a high school student, research papers were my downfall. For weeks I’d diligently scour the reference shelves at the library and take copious notes by hand on index cards (these were the days before photocopiers), and long before I ever exhausted my sources, I’d realize I only had a day or two left to actually write the paper—and no idea how to distill all my notes into a cohesive narrative.
Research is one of the trickiest activities for fiction writers. It’s necessary, because if your details are inaccurate, it will tick off your readers-in-the-know, and give them a reason to dislike your work. (I know there are a lot of stupid people out there, but people who read are smart, mostly.) This is not an exhaustive list, but you might need to do research if:
- You’re writing historical fiction. You’ll want to understand what the world was like during the period you’re writing about—the political climate, the fashions, popular culture, common names, what the setting would have looked like, etc.
- You’re writing science fiction. Even though it’s fiction, it’s based on science. You have to know how the science works. Even if you’re creating your own world, in order to be believable, it will have to submit to the laws of physics, or you may have to provide an explanation of why it doesn’t or else risk losing your knowledgeable readership.
- Your characters are using technology, current, future, or antique. Your readers will expect your characters to use instruments, devices, and terminology properly.
- You haven’t lived in your story’s setting. Ideally, you should travel there and spend some time. If your situation won’t allow you to do that, you’re forced to depend on other persons’ descriptions and photographs, or create a fictitious but believable setting of your own.
- Your characters have an occupation or belong to a specific organization. An FBI agent will have a different sort of workday and responsibilities than an elementary school media specialist. Don’t give them authority they do not have.
In order for your research to be successful, though, you will have to avoid these research pitfalls:
- Over-researching. Do too much, and you’re just wasting time that could be spent working on your story.
- Under-researching. Do too little, and your writing will lack authenticity.
- Researching the wrong angles. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. You expect your research will uncover certain things, but it seems no one has ever documented them. And you’re in danger of bypassing the whole forest while hunting for the elusive tree.
- Looking in all the wrong places. We are accustomed to depending on search engines online to find answers to our questions. Sometimes that’s all we need to do. But sometimes research demands we leave the comfort of our homes and travel to a destination. When that’s not possible, it might be necessary to interview, remotely or in person, someone who is familiar with the location or the issue we need to learn more about.
- Getting side-tracked. Ah, this is the pit I fall into most often. While looking for background information about one thing, I often discover an equally interesting side-topic, one that spawns lots of what-if ideas that beg to be developed into the next shiny new story. This leads to huge detours where I read just one more article and just one more article until I’ve squandered my writing time and haven’t made any progress at the task at hand.
How to keep your research on track:
- Set a limit. This can be either a time limit or a page limit. You might devote two weeks, or two months, or even a year or more, depending on the project. Or you might decide that as soon as you have 50 pages of notes, you will get on with it.
- Make a list of specific items you need to find out about. Important events in the lives of prominent people who directly or indirectly impact your story. The year the trolley first ran down Main Street. What the temperature in your setting was during the winter of 1963. Headlines from the area newspaper during the timespan of your story. Write down everything that you think you might need to know. You won’t use everything you uncover (nor should you), but the more you know, the better prepared you will be to write. And if you do miss an important detail, you can always look it up later.
- Where and how will you be most likely to find out what you need to know? I always start with a Google search. Choose your search terms carefully. If your search doesn’t yield fruitful results, tweak the terms. Also, if your local library has a research librarian, she can steer you to possible resources. Think about people you know who have knowledge about people, places, and things related to your story. They may be able to direct you to authorities on certain topics. Also, movie documentaries and even dramas and novels with elements in common with your story can reveal information you need to know.
- Think about how your research will inform your writing. What path will your story take, depending on what learn? Maybe the ending you were planning won’t work, based on what you found out. You may need to re-map your idea. Maybe different complications will yield a more realistic outcome.
- What to do with the interesting but unrelated stuff you unearth. If you find information that is sparking your imagination with ideas for new projects, by all means, write yourself some notes (or take a picture with your phone). But then put that information someplace else. Don’t keep it with the notes for your current project; it will be a constant distraction.