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.

Asking For Feedback

No matter what I’m writing — short story, novel, or something else — I’ll start with a first draft, do some amount of editing, and then start to feel the need for feedback. No matter how great you are at editing and revision, you can’t catch everything. In fact, if you’re me, you can’t catch a lot of things.

As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, feedback is going to be interesting. While I’m going to start with a buffer of a couple completed chapters, I’ll be publishing as I write. Unlike my normal process, I’ll be interleaving the first draft writing, editing, and incorporating feedback for different chapters.

Regardless of the project you’re working on, getting feedback is critical to making your writing the best it can be. However, it’s important to understand that you’re not just throwing a manuscript over the wall to your reader and expecting them to toss back some notes. To get the most out of your readers, it can and should be a collaboration!

Who Is Your Reader?

When you’re asking for feedback, consider who you’re asking. If you have friends and family who are willing to read, that’s a fantastic resource. Many writers have a spouse or trusted friends who act as beta readers. You might also have writer friends, a critique group, or fellow writers on a critique website.

The largest differentiator between your early readers will probably be between “regular” readers and fellow writers. Readers tend to look at what they like or dislike about a story, and point out typos and grammar issues. Writers are much more likely to think about story structure or word choice, and to think about how they would do it were they writing your story.

If you use the same readers for several projects, you’ll get to know what feedback they’re good at giving. If you use a big online critique group or service, you might get different people every time. In either case, there’s a simple way to stack the deck in your favor and get more of the feedback that you want. Ask for it.

Know Your Weaknesses

First, think about what your own weaknesses are. What mistakes do you make? Writer, know thyself! The easiest way to do this is to pay attention when you’re editing. Keep track of the errors you fix and the things you improve.

For example, I love asides in the middle of sentences — like this one — and I have to restrain myself when it comes to em-dashes, parentheses, and sometimes colons.

I also tend to hedge when I’m not entirely sure about a moment in the story. For example, I might say that a character felt angry when or seemed upset when it would be more forceful to just say that the character was angry or upset. And then, I usually try to do away with that telling entirely, and show that the character is angry or upset through their actions or words.

If you don’t already pay attention to your editing like this, taking inventory of your foibles as a writer is a great way to improve. It’s also a way to build up a list of things for your early readers to look for.

What Are You Worried About?

When I write, there are some parts of the story that are rock solid. They’re straightforward and I know exactly what I want to do. I write them, and it comes out pretty well. Then there are other parts of the story where I’m less certain that I’m doing the right thing. I know there’s room for improvement. I feel like the character’s actions don’t quite match their personality, or the story is taking a detour, or the words just don’t fit together in the way I’d like.

You’ve probably had similar feelings. We all have parts of the work that we’re worried about, for one reason or another. That’s great. Those are perfect targets for your beta readers. Let them tell you whether you’re right to be worried, or doing better than you thought.

Asking For What You Want

Now we get to the crux of it. You have a list of your writerly tics and foibles. You know the parts of your story that you’re worried about. And you have some readers waiting in the wings.

If you have readers with a particular set of skills, you can always sic them on specific problems. Maybe you have a reader who is great with grammar and spelling. Don’t feel bad telling them to focus on those things. Don’t prevent them from bringing other issues to your attention, but cater to their strengths.

If you have readers who are generalists, or you’re not sure what their feedback strengths are, you can always include a few bullet point notes with your manuscript to guide them. Have them pay attention to a particular character that you’re unsure about, or particular scenes. Also consider whether you want to put these notes up-front at the start, guiding your reader to pay more attention to that particular thing, or at the end where they will prompt your reader to reflect on your concerns after they’ve finished reading.

You don’t always have to be extremely specific either. Maybe you’re worried that your comedic sidekick character, Phil, is unlikable. Rather than asking that directly, you might just ask how the reader feels about Phil. You can suss out their feelings without guiding them too much in one direction or another.

Guided Feedback is Great Feedback

Almost any beta reader feedback is going to be beneficial. When you find good readers, you need to take care of them and nurture them as a precious resource. You’ll find that they’re even more effective when you ask them for the kind of feedback you want.

Nobody knows your story-in-progress better than you do. If you have concerns about some particular part, there’s a good chance they’re justified. Use your beta readers to shore up those weaknesses and turn them into strengths, and your stories will be better for it.