Fiction is, by its very nature, something you make up but that does not mean that research cannot play a part in your preperation.
Why research for fiction?
Before we look at researching for fiction, we need to first understand why we need to research at all. after all, if we can just make stuff up, why do we need to worry?
One of the things that can anchor a reader into your world is when things that they know about in the real world are accurately reflected in your fiction. For example, if you have a Sargent ordering around an Admiral, readers are going to feel like you don’t understand how army ranks work.
Likewise, if you are writing a murder mystery, it might pay to have police officers that behave in a realistic way. You might want to find out how long DNA tests take to get a result. You may wish to know how a forensic expert examines a crime scene.
While you could just make it all up, you are likely to lose any reader that knows how things really work. Showing at least some understanding of real-world things can help your work feel more compelling and real.
Research is a writer’s tool for avoiding writing things that yank the reader out of the story. Something a jarring inaccuracy can easily do.
How much to research
At the very least, you want to get a broad understanding of your topic. Learn at lest as much as an enthusiastic amateur might know. This level of understanding will get you quite far. The finer details and how to get them absolutely correct we will look at further on in this post.
How much you need to know depends on how significant the details are to your story. If you only need to know what rank an officer might retire at and keep their title in civilian life, you can probably look that up in a few hours. Whereas if your story involves soldiers in every chapter, you may need to know a whole lot more about military life.
Learn as much as you need to in order to write confidently and at least get the broad strokes correct. That is, enough that even if you are not entirely accurate as to how things work, you do not need to completely re-write half the book. At most, you should only need to tweak your wording a little bit.
How to research – your methodology
Trocaire College Libraries has a great article on the 10 steps for researching and writing a research paper. A lot of the same advice applies to research as a writer. I have modelled this methodology list on that research guide.
1. Identify your topic areas
When you start, you may only have a vague idea of what you need to know. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you can at least identify your areas of study, you have already reduced the possibilities from all of mankind’s collective knowledge and understanding to a single topic area.
2. List the questions you need to answer
Only you know your story. Using your story or story ideas as a starting point, try to identify questions that you want to ask about your topic. These questions will be your guide for starting to research.
Your early questions are probably too broad to post on forums but they do make good search terms. Just paste your question into Google (or whatever search engine you prefer) and see what comes up. If you don’t find anything helpful, try phrasing your question in a different way.
This approach is often how these more in-depth articles I write start. I read around the topic until I feel confident enough to talk about it fully. Less so if I already have a wealth of experience to draw on; much more so if I am less experienced in the topic.
3. Get a broad overview of your topics first
Getting the broad strokes view of a topic can provide a good foundation to build your learning upon. An overview of the topic can act as a road map directing you towards more detailed and deeper research.
Your overview gives you a sense of context for the detailed research you may uncover later. This can help you focus your learning on your story needs.
Introductory articles, Wikipedia entries, and news stories can be a good starting point.
4. Refine your questions
As you gain a basic understanding of your new topic, you can start to refine the questions you wish to ask. Use these to help guide you to the information you need for your story.
As you learn, what you discover may throw up further questions. Make a note of these new questions. Refining your questions will help keep you focused on what you need to learn so you can get back to writing.
As you refine your questions, they will quite likely multiply and become very specific. This is good. Focused questions are where forums and question & answer sites can be most helpful. You can demonstrate that you have done your homework and replies are likely to be just as focused.
5. Use the right tools for the job
Where you get your research information from is important. So important that this post has an entire section dedicated to where you can research.
Remember to start with broad topics and then hone in on the specifics once you are grounded in the broader subject.
6. When you get stuck, ask for help
If you find yourself lost, stuck, or unable to find answers ask for help. This might be in specialist forums, writer’s groups, or from experts. We all get stuck as some point and there is nothing wrong with seeking guidance from others that understand what you are trying to do.
7. Compile your resources in one place
A “researching must” is keeping your notes all in one place. You are going to want to refer back to your notes throughout the writing process. An easily searchable and logically organised set of notes will save you a lot of time.
We will take a look at some of the tools you can use in the section titled “organise your research“.
8. Evaluate your resources
It is a little too easy to get overwhelmed by the wealth of research choices. Once you have built a broad overview, you can start to evaluate which sources of information will be the most profitable to study.
There is almost certainly more information out there than you could ever read. Not all information is of equal quality or relevance. Do not be afraid to filter down to the best and most helpful sources. Anything that does not help you gain enough insight to start writing, is surplus – so get rid of it.
Be on the lookout for opinion and guessing disguised as an expert opinion. Not everyone is as expert as they claim to be. The sooner you can filter those from your study notes, the faster you can get to the good stuff.
9. Stay organised
Well organised research will allow you to dip in and out of your pool of accumulated information as needed. We take a deeper look at staying organised later on in this post.
Keep track of the questions you have formed and the answers you have found. I like to use the questions as headings but construct your notes in whatever way makes sense to you. The important thing is that you can find what you need to refer to quickly.
10. Write the story
You have done all this work for one reason – to write a more authentic story. Now you have studied the subject, it is time to apply what you have learned to your writing.
Where and how to research
Study existing research
One place you might find research for and by writers is our Writers Explore category. There we take deep dives into specific topics which can make for a good jumping-off point for further reading.
However, not every topic has been covered by us yet so where else can you find good research?
For today’s writer, there is a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. From broad overviews given by Wikipedia to full lectures posted to YouTube. There has never been a better time to be a researching writer.
There are probably many more sources of good information than I have listed here. If you think of any I have missed, why not mention them in the comments.
Wikipedia, while far from perfect, is a good place to get a broad overview of a topic. Aside from the articles themselves, the links and references are likely to be highly useful for deeper research.
You may even ind yourself coming back to add new sources and content to some articles as you learn more about your subject.
If you want to know how to do something or how something works, there will almost certainly be a wealth of videos to teach you about almost anything you can think of.
Good videos are likely to take you deeper into a subject than Wikipedia. However, it is also very easy to get distracted by cat videos so remain focused.
The warning to be careful of self-confessed experts applies here too. Not everyone with a youtube channel knows what they are talking about. Your grounding in the broad overview should make it easier to spot the fakes and fools.
Sometimes, when you have a general question, the best thing to do is type that question into Google.
I do this all the time when researching something new.
Fiction by authors who do research
If other authors (who did there own research) have written about a similar topic or setting, you may be able to learn something while enjoying a good read.
Reading books similar to your own will give you a chance to assess areas where other authors have done well or could have done better. You can learn how not to do something from a bad book just as much as you can learn how to approach something from good books.
Finally, something Netflix is good for other than eating into writing time. Netflix and most other streaming services have a large collection of great documentaries. While the quality varies, if you are a visual learner these can be a helpful guide into the topic you are studying.
Industry White Papers
Some industries share their best practices in the form of White Papers. White Papers can be a gold mine of insight into an industry. While often a heavier read than most other sources, a White Paper can help you drill down into a subject to a professional level.
If what you are studying is taught at any level, then there are probably textbooks on the subject.
If not actual textbooks, there are many factual books on almost all topics. A single well-written book can be a bible for writing accurately about any real-world topic.
Sometimes, talking to an expert is the way to go. I cover this in a few other parts of this article so keep reading.
Interviewing people who can give a first-hand account of something is an art form all of its own. This article is already too big to go over it in any real detail.
If you thought White Papers were heavy and deep, then you might not be ready for scientific research papers. Written assuming a solid grasp of the wider subject, research papers can give a lot of insight in a very detailed way on a narrow topic.
Doing original research
Sometimes what you need to know is not well documented or perhaps is too specialised for general reading. This is where original research comes in.
This might mean going to a location and seeing it for yourself or finding and interviewing people. You may even find yourself conducting experiments to try and figure things out for yourself. It all depends on what you want to know.
If your setting is specific or historical, a visit to the site of your setting can give you a better grounding in the realities of the time. Many historic castles, forts, and building stand as musiums or memorials to times past.
Likewise, many locations have local museums with exhibits about local history. If you are interested in Ramsgate in days gone by, a visit to Michael’s Bookshop will yield a treasure trove of reprints and old pictures.
Then there is the Tudor House in Margate, the Shell Grotto, the Maritime Museum and many other local sources. This is true of most places.
Travelling to the place you want to write about will give you a level of insight that books and videos simply cannot. You will gain a first hand feel for distances, sights, and sounds of an area.
Talking to people
While not many people who lived through World War One are with us any more, it may be possible to get an insight into what it feels like to be in a war zone by talking to veterans of more recent conflicts.
Likewise, a friendly retired police detective might be able to give you an invaluable insight into law enforcement for your crime story.
It is easy to say find and talk to people who know, it can be harder to actually do this. Nevertheless, if you persist, you may find someone willing to regale you of their days in whatever field you are interested in, in exchange for a cup of coffee or a few pints. Failing that, praise and cash are universal lubricants.
The important thing to remember is to be respectful of other people’s time – do as much homework as you can first.
We will take a closer look at getting input from experts later in this article.
While not all cutting edge technology is ripe for amateur experimentation, there is something to be said for testing things out. For example, if you want to know what it is like to perform magic, learning and performing for an audience will give you first hand experience to draw upon.
If you want to know, for example, if a well trained man with a dagger could take on and beat three guards with pikes, a local HEMA (Historical European martial arts) group might be more than willing to help you work out the answer.
Just remember, the difference between research and messing about is writing it down [link].
Organising your research
I am a great believer in creating some sort of story bible for a novel. In there, I can keep notes on my characters, facts about technical details, and anything else that I might want to look up.
Use the right software
There is a lot of free (and also none free) software designed to help people research and track information. Picking the right software or shaping what you have into the right tool, can help you stay organised and on top of your research.
For one project, I created a family tree going back to three generations using GRAMPS family history research software. I used it to keep track of character sheets for every single character on the entire island. There was also a family tree in the hard copy version of my story bible; just because sometimes a hard copy feels nicer to work with.
For that project, GRAMPS (a free family tree program) was the right tool for the job. You will not always need that level of family detail.
Use a (sort of) research wiki
You may find something more like a wiki may be helpful.
If you use the skills centre, you will get an actual wiki for your personal use. This is a great place to keep notes and organise research information. Wikipedia has a whole list of personal and note taking wikis.
If I have a lot of information to track I might create a “private wiki” from my word processor. With Libre Office (and, I imagine, Microsoft Office too), you can insert hyperlinks to other documents. Click the link and the other document loads.
What I do is have each topic organised into a separate document and divided into headings with a quick navigation table of contents (and key links in the footer). I can add as many separate files and pages as I need and find cross-reference them with a simple link to the other document.
I often create a master document and have separate documents for each character – the character creation sheet in the skills centre is great for this. If I have a lot of research this too will go in a separate guide. I include a link back to the master document which means I can click that link in one document and have the other one open up for me.
A possibly useful online tool is Wakelet. You can use Wakelet to create collections of links, videos, images, and notes. These can be public or private and just for you. This may be ideal if the information you need is found all over the web and you need a central place to keep track of it all.
Here is a writing advice Wakelet that I have started. It is a collection of articles and videos.
As you learn more about your topics and find answers to your questions, you will have started to understand topics that will quite likely interest potential readers. Why not start blogging about what you have learned?
Not only will the Internet be only too happy to correct you if you are wrong but you will be likely to develop a following of possible readers who are as interested in what you are learning as you are.
With description and dialogue, we writers try to make everything do as much as possible – say, establish character while moving the plot along too. You could let your research do two things at once, help you write the story and help you find your audience.
Experts – moving beyond research
In one of his lectures, Brandon Sanderson, claims that you can learn about 50% of everything you need to know in a day or so. The other 50% takes nine years to learn. His recommendation is to learn the basics which will stop you making the really big mistakes.. Write the story with that level of understanding and then recruit or hire an expert to beta read and point out the smaller mistakes.
People who are experts in a field often enjoy the process of showing off their expertise. You might find yourself with willing volunteers to read your work. If not, put your hand in your pocket and make an offer. Something that fairly reflects the time they will invest in helping you get the fine details correct.
If you have been publishing your findings, you may find that you have already drawn the attention of experts (or at least deeply interested fans of the subject). This could be a rich pool to draw expert beta readers from.
Failing that, a politely worded email or letter to a relevant retired expert may yield at least a few interesting exchanges if they are happy to talk about their professional background. Just be sure to express your gratitude for their help thus leaving the door open for other writers to have fruitful conversations too.
We have a series of research challenges in our Free Form Writing Course at the Thanet Creative skills centre. These challenges will help you grow your researching skills.