How to Research for Fiction

No matter what you’re writing, at some point you’re going to have to do some research. It may be the details of exoplanets or ion drives for sci-fi. It may be mythology or medieval society for fantasy. It may be the royal court of Victorian England for historical romance. Every genre and style of story can benefit from some kind of research.

However, research can be challenging. Sometimes, the information you want is difficult to find. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. When I started my novel, Razor Mountain, I quickly discovered just how little we know about prehistoric humans more than ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes, there’s far too much information available, and it can be completely overwhelming. It’s easy (and dangerous) to get sucked into endless YouTube or Wikipedia links in the middle of a writing session.

There’s a great discussion around research for fiction on episode 15.41 of the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that the best question to ask is “How little research can I do?” I take that to mean, “how can I do exactly enough research to write this thing well?” Research can be fun or frustrating, but ultimately it only has measurable usefulness if it contributes to the writing getting done.

When trying to limit your research, there are three important questions: when to research, what to research, and how much to research.

When to Research

Research can be done before, during, or after the first draft of the story.

Before starting the actual writing, you may have an outline, but you will be at the point where you know the least about your story, and therefore the least about what you need to research. However, before writing is a great time to do general research about a particular setting, a culture, a time period, or other broad parts of the story’s milieu. This kind of undirected research is a great way to find new ideas that will feed into the story and the characters.

N.K. Jemisin suggests traveling to places that you’ll use as settings in your stories. Of course, that’s only feasible if the setting exists in the modern world (or you can glean something about the past from visiting the present). It’s also time- and money-consuming, and not always practical for many writers or smaller projects. Sometimes Google Maps street view is good enough. However, if you’re making money from writing, travel can sometimes be used as a tax write-off, and a great excuse to see new places.

During the actual writing is when it’s easiest to find smaller details that need to be researched. These may be simple facts or figures to look up, like the three tallest mountains in the U.S., or more general ideas, like what types of fruit you’re likely to find in the green room of a Chinese TV talk show. It’s more rare to suddenly realize you need broad knowledge of a particular setting or culture, but that can happen as well, especially of you are an exploratory writer, and you’re discovering your plot as you go.

After writing the initial draft, research is sometimes an important part of editing. Things that didn’t make sense or need to be expanded may require research.

Putting Off Research and Filling Blanks

Research, especially at a broad level, can be infinite. You can know the answer to the three tallest mountains in the U.S., but if you’re researching the Canadian punk scene in the mid-1970s, you have to go in knowing that there is no end-point. The research is done when you feel like you have enough to write the story.

This mindset of “how little can I research” helps to avoid the problem of research as procrastination. Writers find a million ways to procrastinate, and research can be a dangerous one, because it feels useful. If it’s not putting words on the page, it’s really just a form of entertainment, not productivity.

This kind of undirected research can completely derail a writing session. In Writing Excuses 15.41, Cory Doctorow suggests using the old journalist notations, TK (for “to come”) and FCK (for “fact check”). When you’re writing, and you need a fact that you don’t know, just throw TK or FCK into the manuscript with some placeholder text and keep writing. This can also work when you need to remember something from earlier in the story — was the murder weapon in the study or the library? Just TK it and keep writing.

These strange abbreviations are sequences of letters that tend to not show up naturally in English, so it’s easy to search for them later. You can always come up with your own notations, but I’d suggest you use something that’s easy to search out in a manuscript. You might dedicate time to a research session instead of a writing session, going through these notes and finding what you need to fill in the blanks, without worrying about it detracting from the day’s word count.

Plot or Detail?

Sometimes, research will be needed for details, and sometimes the result of the research will directly affect the plot. The details and little bits that bring the world to life can often be FCK-ed for later. It doesn’t really matter what fruit is available in the green room. It won’t affect what the character does when they go on TV. On the other hand, if you discover that there really aren’t any talk shows on TV in that country, that may derail the next couple of scenes.

It’s important to differentiate between these detail and plot-vital questions. Skipping over a plot-vital question and continuing to write may backfire when you get to the research and the answers turn out to be incompatible with what you’ve written. This is a recipe for depression, as you’re forced to throw away hard work and change the course of the plot.

Details, on the other hand, are relatively safe. They can usually be put off for later research without much consequence. It’s important to understand the difference.

Using What You Know

One of the best ways to avoid research is to already know things. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Chances are, you’ve lived in a few places. You may have a job, and probably know other people who have jobs. You’ve been places. You’ve seen things.

“Write what you know,” is such well-worn writing advice that it borders on trite, but it is undoubtedly the best way to avoid research. In Razor Mountain, I decided that one of my protagonists is a former software developer from Minnesota. That happens to be my current job, and the place I live. There are plenty of other things that I have to research for that book, but any questions that come up about living in Minnesota or working in software will probably be easy for me to answer with my own experience. By using what I know, I can do less work and get the same quality result.

Just be aware that using the same knowledge over and over, to the point of it being a crutch, can be obvious to your audience, and even get a little boring. Not all your protagonists have to be writers, Stephen King. There are other professions.

Don’t Rely on Tropes and Stereotypes

Just because you want to limit your research doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners, especially when it comes to people and their cultures. One of the reasons old movies and books with minority characters are so often cringy is because they rely entirely on tropes and stereotypes for those characters and cultures.

Some of this can be avoided by finding readers who live in the places you’re depicting, or come from the same culture as your characters. These days, those people are often called “sensitivity readers.” They’re living research assistants, with the personal experience that you’re lacking. Whatever you call them, they invaluable.

When working with this kind of reader, it’s even better if you can work with them as you write. It’s better to ask questions up-front to avoid plot-breaking discoveries. And your reader will definitely appreciate reviewing work that already works hard to understand who they are or the culture they come from. Of course, like any person who works in a professional capacity to help improve your writing, you may have to pay them. This is skill and knowledge that you’re getting from someone else, and it’s as valuable as something like editing or cover design.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Research can make stories feel more real, but it can also be yet another form of writerly procrastination. It’s important to ask “when, what and how much,” as you delve into research. If you can use what you know, you may be able to skip that research and spend more time writing. If you can TK or FCK those detail, you can avoid derailing a productive writing session and come back to that detail later.

Research may seem like a daunting thing that requires travel and first-hand experience, but there’s a lot that can be discovered through the internet, and even through your local helpful librarian and (gasp) books. If you can find experts on a topic, they can be a great resource too. When it comes to depicting a culture or group that you aren’t a part of, finding readers and consultants to fill in those gaps in understanding can be a necessity.

Don’t let research scare you, but don’t let the allure of knowledge distract you from actually getting the writing done either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s