5 Strategies for Researching Your Novel
Research is vital when it comes to storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a historical romance, a contemporary YA thriller, or an epic fantasy set in a world borne solely of your imagination. There’s going to be at least one detail—whether it is a type of food, where a river should flow, or how a crime scene is handled—that requires expert knowledge on the subject.
Readers will know when you get it wrong. Have you ever read a story where it was clear the author didn't do their research? Maybe they set their novel in a city you know well, but none of the story's locations match where they are in real life, or worse, the author relied on stereotypes about the people there instead of making an effort to understand the culture.
Glaring inaccuracies pull readers out of the story. The last thing you want is for your audience to stop reading because they're annoyed or offended by an error that you could have avoided!
If you're starting to panic, don’t worry! We’re here to guide you through the process and make researching as painless as possible—dare we even say fun?
Wikipedia is a starting place, not a destination
We know Wikipedia might be your first stop because it’s often the first result when you type a subject into any search engine. And that’s okay—it’s a place to start. But remember to take what you read there with a grain of salt. Anyone can edit the site, and there’s not a solid fact-checking process.
However, it’s a useful jumping-off point. Let’s say you’re writing a book set in the Hamptons. You need to send your character there from New York City. The Wiki page displays the most common transportation methods like the Jitney or the Long Island Railroad. Now you can go directly to those websites, which are primary sources and have factual information.
Another great trail to follow is checking the footnotes at the bottom of the Wiki page. That’s usually filled with other fantastic, more legitimate sources: newspaper articles, books, interviews, podcasts, etc. Make a list and see where those sources take you next.
Fully immerse yourself in the subject
You may have some idea of how you want to shape your research. Maybe your main character is a real estate agent, and she falls through a portal into Victorian times while showing an old house in London. You know everything there is to know about Victorian fashion, but what about food, shops, and building materials for the portal house? It’s time for a trip to the library! This could be physical, virtual, or deep in the internet archives.
Read everything you can find about your story's world: fiction, nonfiction, folklore... maybe even scientific articles to understand how your novel's technology or magic might work. You never know what details will spark your imagination or spin your story in another direction.
The same goes for podcasts, documentaries, movies, and television shows set in the era. There is so much information at our fingertips—and even if you don’t use it all, learning is never a waste. The details might fit into your next book!
Talk to experts
We know it sounds daunting. Talking to strangers—asking detailed questions—is always a little scary. But sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to go directly to the source. Who knows more about running a small-town bakery than the owner? A surgeon is the best person to ask about the tools in an operating room. A sleep specialist can explain the difference between REM sleep and deep sleep.
However, there is a polite, professional way to go about reaching out to experts. Email is usually the best way to contact anyone. Check their professional websites for an email address or a contact form. Don’t send your questions in an introduction email. Let them know what you want to talk about—and specify how much of their time you will need—and go from there. Prepare your questions ahead, and do not exceed the time limit. Make sure you send a thank you email afterward.
Try it yourself
Are you writing a road trip story where your characters are trying to get from Chicago to Nashville for an important event? Will they be sidetracked along the way? You can study maps and watch videos of places along the route, but what would be better than driving it yourself? You can scout out the best rest stops and quirky tourist destinations along the way. You can taste the diner food and sit in gridlock traffic. Immersing your physical self in your character’s place will exponentially enhance your writing.
Of course, it’s not always possible to hop a flight to France to experience Paris in the spring. But you can watch French-language films. You can try a local French restaurant (or watch French cooking videos). You can even find videos on YouTube that give you step-by-step tours of famous locations. Some are so detailed it’s almost like you’re in a virtual reality simulator.
Save your research for revisions
It may be tempting to research every little aspect of your story before you begin writing, but ask yourself: does my first draft need all the details? Sensory details bring stories to life, and we would never suggest you ignore their importance. But when you're taking your first pass at the story, does it matter what the restaurant interior looks like, or is the fight your characters are having over their meal the focus of the scene? Do you need the exact medical terminology for removing an appendix, or do you want to show what happens when the patient’s presumed dead mother shows up in her room?
More often than not, the little details can wait. Placeholders like brackets [research distance from Hawaii to Portugal] or TK (a popular journalist tool for “to come”) make it easy to search your document when you’re finished with a draft. You can list all the details you need to research and then get to work. Waiting until the end of a draft will also prevent you from using researching as a way to procrastinate!
Remember, research doesn’t have to be a struggle. By using one or more of our strategies, you’ll be able to paint a vivid picture for your reader that feels true to life!