Let’s talk about research today. I feel like sometimes people think that writing fiction means the author gets to make up all of the details of their story. Granted, there are times when writers can get away with that, or times when stretching the truth means you have a more compelling story. However, I think you give your work more credibility and sometimes more complexity when you can weave fact and fiction into a satisfying narrative.
The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, was inspired by real events. Margaret Atwood brought clippings of the news articles that gave her ideas when she went on interviews to promote the book. You don’t have to be writing dystopian speculative fiction to research certain elements of your story, though. Even fantasy benefits from little doses of reality here and there.
Here are a few research tips
Let’s talk about some of the things you can do when you’re researching a project.
Use multiple sources
We’ve gotten really used to search engines these days. It’s so easy to plug something into Google and expect it to spit out the right answer, and a lot of us don’t even think to question it. John Boyne accidentally included a recipe from a video game in a recent novel thanks to a rushed internet search. Unless you’re looking into something really obscure, it shouldn’t take long to look up the information from a second source and double check.
Also, you don’t have to get all of your information from the internet. You can check out books from the library or look at museum exhibits. You can also try to get in touch with professionals who might let you interview them, or even shadow them at work for a few days so you can get a firsthand look at whatever it is you’re researching. Janet Evanovich spent two years doing research before she started writing her best-selling Plum mysteries; she hung out with law enforcement officers and even learned how to shoot. She also took improv classes to help with writing better dialogue–it worked, too. Her dialogue is fantastic.
Less can be more
Sometimes you end up learning a lot about a topic before you’re satisfied that you have enough information for your book. If that happens, watch out that you don’t bombard your reader with too much information. You don’t want your sci-fi novel to end up sounding like an engineering textbook.
I totally get wanting to use all of that newfound information that you’ve dumped so much time into acquiring. But it’s better to use a light touch than accidentally bore your reader. Also, if it’s a really complex subject, you might get some tiny detail wrong and, well, then you’re going to be answering to people on Twitter. Isn’t social media fun?
Write beyond your experience
“Write what you know” gets thrown around a lot, and we’ll talk about that later this month, but it’s more about writing with emotion rather than facts. You can use research to write about things you would never have been able to experience on your own. How would you write a book set during the United States Civil War, or the Spanish Inquisition, without being able to research those topics?
If your MG novel protagonist is a 10-year-old girl who loves horses, it makes sense that you learn something about horses, too. How else would she be able to share her obsession? If you’re writing a story about a rock star, it makes sense to learn a little about the equipment they might use on stage. Do you know about power chords? Your rocker probably would, and that means you might want to look into it, too.
It’s absolutely fine to write outside your experiences, but you need to do what you can to make sure what you write is accurate.
But wait. Shouldn’t editors catch all my mistakes?
Sometimes they do find the errors in a book before it goes to print. But editors are people, too, and they don’t know everything. Also, editors’ roles vary quite a bit: a developmental editor isn’t going to give you the same feedback a copy editor would. If somebody’s looking through your story for spelling and punctuation mistakes, they may not notice that your story is set in a Kroger in Burlington and realize that Kroger doesn’t have any stores in Vermont. (I realize this is weirdly specific, but it happened to somebody I know). Additionally, this is YOUR book, not your editor’s. You need to assume full responsibility for it.
It’s up to you to figure out what’s right for your project
As always, writing is subjective and you have to do what’s best for your story. If that means research, then don’t be afraid to dive right in! Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something that will inspire you to write another story. That would be good, right?
Tomorrow I have a post about literary agents, and I hope you’ll be back for that. For now, keep working on those NaNoWriMo goals! You’re almost halfway through the month now, so it should (theoretically) be downhill from here. Good luck!