“But I write fiction, I create worlds so I don’t need to research, right?”  Wrong.

All writers need research to make their worlds resonate for the reader; to add details that make their stories believable, however fantastic. This is what hooks and holds readers. The secret is to identify what you need to know, where to find verifiable information … and when to stop.

For non-fiction writers on any topic, the need for accurate research is obvious but it must also be up to date. The first time you submit an article with factual errors will be the last time that publication looks at your work.

For fiction and non-fiction writers the aims of research may differ but the principles are much the same.

What do I need to know?

That depends on your subject, or story theme. If it involves changes over time, whether in the future or the past, it is useful to construct a time-line: a simple chart of main dates or periods and the key events that relate to your story and its background. This helps to structure your story, and to identify the details you will need to lead your readers convincingly to the right time and place.

Think of the five senses: what do your characters see, smell, hear, taste, and touch that will create the world and the ambience you want your readers also to inhabit. Even in a fantasy world, you must relate these elements in some way to the known and understood, and they must be consistent. This is particularly important when writing about other cultures. Even if you are creating a unique culture or sub-culture, you still need to know how cultures work.

For landscapes and settings a few well-researched specifics can save long descriptions that interrupt a story, or avoid your characters or your article dangling in no-where land.

Where do I get reliable information?

Misinformation is abundant in print and on-line. Our research professor told us, “Believe nothing you hear and only half what you read,” I suspect this was not original but it is sound advice. The most important tip is to use more than one source so you can cross-validate. Professional researchers use the term triangulation: if three different sources concur, the data are likely to be correct. A problem with global information and the speed and ease of dissemination is that the same information – or misinformation – is repeated in many places: what you think are different sources, turn out to be the same source ‘shared’ and leaked all over the internet.

The solution is to tap several media and use at least one primary source in your triangle. Primary data are original, usually direct observations recorded by someone with credibility in that area or topic. They might include the correspondence of historical figures, or official documents, accounts of travellers past and present, the results of field research by anthropologists or archaeologists, the discoveries of scientists, or – if you are mentioning writers and artists – their original works rather than someone else’s review or crib-notes.

Secondary data uses extracts from primary sources to relate it to other topics, or to tell a story. Secondary sources are more readily available and can offer valuable insight and synthesis, especially for the tuning-in stage of your research (more on that below). They can also provide links to primary sources and other reading in their bibliographies. An indication of reliability in a secondary source is whether it cites its primary data sufficiently for you to check it out if you wish (unless of course it involves a year with head-hunters in the Borneo jungle).

What are the different media I can use?

  • Interviews: with interviews you create your own primary data whether you’re recording answers to questions or taking down someone’s reminiscences. Interviewing is a skill worth learning in its own right because the way you ask the questions can skew the answers, but two important tips: do your homework first – don’t ask busy people for information that is readily available elsewhere; be clear in your mind what it is you want to know before you start.
  • Books and articles: both can provide primary and secondary data. Make friends with your local library – it will have a range of useful references books. Novels, like films and magazines can give you a general feel for a place, period, or type of character and excite your own creativity.
  • Internet: used with caution search engines can identify reliable information – including primary data – especially for places and environments (Google Earth), and the web sites of universities, libraries, or specialist institutions many of which give access to original documents. (You may have to register and/or pay for these). And don’t forget pictures and music: plenty of these on the Net offering both visual and audio detail and ambience.
  • Wikipaedia: this site is better moderated than it used to be but never use it as your only source (unless simply stimulating your imagination), especially if no references are listed; if they are, some of these may be useful primary sources.
  • Being there : this is primary data for your imagination to work on. We can’t all travel to exotic locations, but you can try out an activity featured in your story, or if you want to create a particular environment, find somewhere similar and use all your senses to experience it. Woodland for example, what does it smell like? What do the leaves feel like? At a distance, European larch looks like any other needle-leafed conifer but touch it and its fronds feel like silk. Music, paintings, photographs can all stimulate your understanding of period, place or people, and evoke emotional connection with your subject.

And keep notes of where you found key information: you may want to return for more, or to check something out.

When should I start research, and how do I know when to stop?

Some fiction writers prefer to get the gist of their story down before engaging more analytical skills for searching and assessing data for the details. Even so, you’ll write a better first draft if you do some ‘tuning-in’ research first: any or all of the above media can be used to tune your mind into settings, periods, or characters for your story and to spark your imagination – you can always go back later for specifics. As you read, scribble some notes: not from the page but from creative ideas relating to your story that pop into your head as you read.

For non-fiction, it’s a waste of effort to write before you research: your whole angle could be based on error. Preliminary research will identify key data and help you find your approach and structure. Once you start writing you will need to return for more data or to check details.

Research is an iterative process: rotating between outline, writing, and searches, and when you review and edit you’ll be repeating the cycle. It can feel like going round in circles but really it’s a spiral: each circuit propels you further into your story. If you don’t do this rotation – which focuses on what you need to know – or you lack the self-discipline to stop following every intriguing thread you find, the spiral can become a whirlpool with you flailing around inside.

However strict you are, you won’t use all your data in the writing, and you need to be careful how you use it: neither fiction nor non-fiction readers want chunks of raw indigestible data. Using research well in your writing is like cooking an exquisite curry, the art is in how you blend-in the ingredients to give the subtle flavouring of spices.

For more tips and techniques on research, interview skills, planning, writing and publishing, see: Writing Your Non-fiction Book: The Complete Guide to Becoming an Author, which has many tips for fiction writers too.

(This article first appeared as a guest post on NZ Writer’s College Blog)

How to Research: staying out of the whirlpool

10 thoughts on “How to Research: staying out of the whirlpool

  • January 7, 2012 at 6:48 am

    Wonderful piece, Trish. Even established writers have a lot to learn from this. It’s true that fiction writers need to research too. Points have to be perfect in order to be authentic. Mind you, I’ve spent hours researching some areas, only to edit them out later LOL Par for the course, I guess. Thanks for sharing

    • January 7, 2012 at 6:59 am

      Thank you Jane. Yes, I know that frustration of later cutting things you have spent time researching (and saving them somewhere else!), but that is how we find that golden kernel that changes a good story into a brilliant one. Happy writing, and researching.

  • January 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Masses of great advice here, thank you Trish. Will be back for another read later.
    Have just tweeted that if there are any excellent examples of well researched fiction books two have to be Gabrielle Kimm’s His Last Duchess and The Courtesan’s Lover!

    • January 7, 2012 at 10:18 am

      I agree with you absolutely, Gabrielle Kimm must invest a great deal of time and effort in ‘living’ Renaissance Italy to write so convincingly and engagingly about it. Good research can make a huge difference to fiction. The knowledge isn’t hard to find, it’s the application of it through our own originality that is the challenge. To my mind, this is a feature of a great writing. Thanks for commenting, Sue.

  • January 8, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Nice article Trish. I hadn’t thought about research in this manner before, and I’m sure I will from now on. Thanks for posting this!

  • January 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    This is a great article Trish! Something that highlighted the principles you’ve laid out here for me was when writing about a Ferrari’s navigation system I found that only certain brands are used (Tom Tom). Thanks for this, I’ve definitely found some things I’ll be incorporating into my research habits!

    • January 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      I’m pleased to learn that, Dee thank you. It’s wonderful the way you can pick up all sort of ideas and snippets of information on blogs, just at a moment when you need them. I think learning depends a lot on timing.

  • January 12, 2012 at 2:09 am

    Excellent article, Trish!
    For my stuff, writing fiction, I think credibility is really important and though I have tended to rely on what I know when I’m writing, rather than things that I would have to research, I entirely agree with you about ‘Being There’.
    I have often been to a location that I’m going to use, either to check that it hasn’t changed too much since I was last there, or to get the feel of the place again. And that counts whether it’s a backstreet in London, or a warehouse, or a park.
    You can still be caught out though. In my second book, I mention a fork lift truck in a warehouse and I received an email from somebody telling me that for that scene, I should really have stated that it was a side-loader…

    • January 12, 2012 at 6:18 am

      What a lovely surprise to see you here, Joe, a great start to my day. So glad you enjoyed the article. ‘Being There’ is my favourite form of research – it gets me away from the keyboard for an airing. I didn’t notice the side-loader issue in ‘Another Man’s World’, I was too caught up in the excitement, but I’m not sure I would have emailed you if I had. I think people often get a kick from being able to use their own knowledge and experience like that, and that’s fine – he or she has probably bought your subsequent books, too. Thank you for reading and commenting…

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