June 14, 2022
by Kristin Oakley
Research? But I write fiction, can't I just make this stuff up? Yes, but even a novel has to be grounded in fact. Lack of plausibility is one of the main reasons agents, publishers, and readers reject a book. Novels that are well-researched are not only realistic, they're entertaining and enlightening.
When to Conduct Research for Your Novel
First, use information you know, particularly for your first novel.
When you start writing your first novel chances are you'll write about something you're passionate about. On average it takes five years to write a debut novel, so having that passion will help keep you motivated. And if you love the subject chances are you'll know a lot about it which will cut down on your research time.
Save research for the second draft
When you write the first draft of your manuscript, concentrate on getting the story written. Don't worry about editing at this point, no one but you will read it, and don't spend time going down the internet rabbit hole.
When you come across something that needs to be researched, simply highlight it and move on. Avoid using research as an excuse to procrastinate.
Two caveats to this:
1. If you suspect the facts might change your story dramatically, take the time to research it. While writing the first book in my soon-to-be-released series The Devil Particle, I considered making a major character hearing-impaired. After doing online research, I came up with a plausible reason why she would become deaf at the age of ten and how it would affect her story. I started to write it that way and then stopped, realizing I didn't know enough about the subject.
I contacted my editor's wife who is an audiologist. After talking to her I realized creating a hearing-impaired character would mean she would have to learn sign language and/or read lips and would have to be involved in a deaf community. Her boyfriend and best friend would also have to learn sign language. It was becoming something far beyond what I'd intended. So, well before I completed the manuscript, I decided to scrap this idea and I'm glad I did.
2. If you find your writing is vague, maybe even boring, then it's time to do some research. Researching will give you specific details and spark ideas which can breathe new life into your manuscript.
How to Conduct Research
We're so lucky we live in this day and age when any information we need is just a few clicks of our computer keys away. I'm always amazed at the things I learn in an afternoon of writing.
One day while working on my second book, God on Mayhem Street, I decided to keep track of my online research. That afternoon I discovered how to speak with an Italian accent, a synonym for cannoli, what morphine lollipops look like, the 1985-1986 US network TV schedule, the top slang of the 1980s, the early morning farm chores a child can do, and the symptoms of pneumonia.
Think how much time this research would have taken me if I didn't have the internet at my disposal! For more info on fictional research CLICK HERE
Be sure to keep track of your online research by including the sites in the comments section of the manuscript. Then if you need more information it's readily available.
Books and librarians
Sometimes we need specialty books for more in-depth research. This is where your local library can be a godsend. Be sure to get to know your librarians, they can provide you with a treasure trove of resources.
Oftentimes you can't find what you're looking for on the internet or at your public library. That's when you'll want to consult an expert. At first it might seem intimidating to do so, but people love to talk about their expertise and they'll be thrilled you're interested enough to ask them.
Be sure to keep a record of who you talked to and include them in the acknowledgements section of your book. I also like to send them a signed copy of the book to thank them for their time.
If your book is set in a location you're not familiar with, be sure to go there. Put yourself in your character's shoes. Stop by the places your character would hang out, walk the same streets, taste your character's favorite food. Record everything for future use.
While writing the third book in my upcoming series The Devil Particle, I realized my protagonist would have to survive for weeks in the mountains. I thought, okay, I'll just borrow some survival books from the library. I quickly realized survival techniques weren't something I could read about.
Then I discovered Explorer Chick and their weekend trip to Mountain Shepherd Survival School in the Appalachian Mountains. I signed up. We hiked on the Appalachian Trail and learned survival techniques such as how to start a fire in the rain, what's the best tool to have (nope, it's not a hatchet-it's a knife), and how to make a tent out of a tarp, a few stones, and some twine. Adding these details to my book has made it much more authentic.
For more about my Appalachian research adventures CLICK HERE.
How Much Research is Too Much?
I guarantee you'll do more research than you'll need for your story. Just because you spend so much time researching, don't think that means you should include all of it. Your goal is to write the best possible novel, not an encyclopedia. Avoid information dumps!
If you're not sure how much should be included write a chapter or two with the details and then enlist the help of Beta readers (people who love to read books in your genre). They can tell you where the story is dragging. Chances are you've added too many unnecessary details in those sections.
You can also enlist the aid of expert readers, people who work in the field you've researched. They'll help to ensure your story is accurate.
Finally, read quality books in your genre to get a taste for the amount of research the genre requires.
How to Integrate Your Research Into Your Manuscript
Determine if the information is necessary to the story. For instance, while readers might need to know the killer used a revolver, do they need to know he "cocked the hammer partially rotating the cylinder indexing one of the cylinder chambers into alignment with the barrel, allowing the bullet to be fired through the bore"? (Wikipedia description).
Incorporate All Five Senses
Be sure to use sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell to set the mood and place the reader in the story. You've explored your setting whether it's the local diner, a natural history museum, or Duvall Street in Key West, now be sure to describe it. You know the diner's apple pie was heavy on the cinnamon, the lights in the museum left the corners in shadows, and Duvall Street smells of salty humidity, marijuana, and conch fritters.
Include dialogue that is authentic. While sitting in the local diner or walking down Duvall Street pay attention to how people talk. Yes, eavesdrop. What slang do they use? Are their sentences clipped or long and drawn out? Do they say what they mean? Incorporate what you've learned into your manuscript.
Have fun with your research, it's one of the best things about being a writer! And once you effectively incorporate that research into your writing, your novel will come to life.
Kristin A. Oakley is one of our most popular presenters at Let's Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference. She's the author of two award-winning suspense thrillers, Carpe Diem, Illinois and God on Mayhem Street. She teaches writing workshops, critiques manuscripts, and has helped writers hone their agent pitches. As a former Chicago Writers Association board member, she was the managing editor of The Write City Magazine and The Write City Review. Kristin is writing a soon-to-be released young adult thriller series called The Devil Particle Series. Additionally, she reviews books and writes about being a novelist in her bi-monthly newsletter, available at kristinoakley.net.
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