The Joy of Research

One of the most important things a writer must do besides actually write a story is to do research. Nothing can ruin a book, short story or non-fiction/opinion piece more than messing up on the details. A lazy researcher makes for a mediocre writer.

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As I research my current project, a story that crosses time to the era during and around The Great War and its aftermath, I’ve been burying myself in books and articles about the battles, troop movements, the commanders, the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic. I’m perusing books of photography, reading collections of wartime poetry and even collections of letters sent home from the different theaters of war. All of this material will give me a better grip on what the people of that era were enduring as they lived through those monumental times.

Granted, writing a story out of time and in such complex conditions requires a great deal of research and quite frankly, I might be going overboard with it. But here’s the thing… I am profoundly interested in The Great War, and therefore, the research is a joy, not a burden. When the book is finished, the characters that I create will accurately portray the attitudes and experiences of the people of that period.

It follows then that good writing, dependent on good research, naturally emanates from an author who writes about a subject, in a genre, during a time period that he or she is extremely interested in. Writers set themselves up for failure when they choose to write something they wouldn’t read themselves.

Before I go on, I must say that I’m not advocating limiting yourself to just one style of writing. For example, nothing says a romance writer can’t write science fiction. Or a science fiction writer can’t author a noir thriller. It’s important to test and stretch your writing skills, get out of your comfort zone. But, you have to love it! You can get into trouble if you choose to write something with which you don’t relate or in which you have no interest. Why would a writer do that?

Trends in fiction or pop culture can have an impact on what you choose to write about. If you feel compelled to follow those trends, maybe even for perceived financial reasons, the result will be a body of work that is not backed by your enthusiasm, your fascination and your love for the words you have penned. The research will be a drudgery, and likely will lack the scope and depth necessary to give the bones of the book flesh and blood. Without your passion fueling it, the project may bog down and never be completed. That, my friends, is a waste of your precious time.  The question is how much and what type of research should you do?

As an overview, here are some items that may need to be researched for your story and/or book.

Time and space/place – if writing in a period of history, a geographical location you are not familiar with, or both, extensive research will be needed to create the landscape, set the scene and the mood for the story.

Weather/climate – get your seasons straight! Related to place/space, weather for the locale should be appropriate for the seasons. It will determine what clothing your characters will wear, have an impact on their activities, driving conditions and so forth.

And speaking of driving conditions… what sort of transportation is common in the place where your story is set? Make sure buses, trains and subways actually provide service to that city. Is there an airport? Do flights really connect to the places where your characters travel? Does everyone depend on automobiles for transportation? If so, on what side of the road do they drive? Where does the driver sit?

Regarding characters:

What is their race/ethnicity? Is it the same as yours? If not, don’t make assumptions, or worse, write cliches and stereotypes. There are resources for writing a character of a different ethnic background online. Even better, interview a friend or coworker and get first-hand knowledge.

Even within a country there may be great regional differences. Language or dialects, religion, socioeconomic conditions can vary widely within a large nation.

Employment – don’t give your characters a job you know nothing about. Alternatively, make sure you have access to someone in their particular field that you can ask questions and from whom you can get detailed feedback.

Age – an older writer may have trouble relating to the experiences of a modern day child/teen/young adult, unless of course, they have children that age. Additionally, a young writer will not know what it feels like to be an old person. Ask parents, grandparents, older neighbors and friends.

Even habits like smoking, drinking, gambling… or exercise regimens like running, weight lifting, or sports like golf or tennis might need to be researched to get the terminology correct.

That is by no means an exhaustive list but it may give you an idea of the details that, even if they are not directly included in the narrative of your story, will give it the sound and feel it needs to be authentic and entertaining. I hope this demonstrates how being fascinated by your subject matter will make research a joy and not a burden!

54 thoughts on “The Joy of Research

    1. I’m writing and researching all at once! I research as issues arise in the plot. That way the information is fresh in my mind. That might not work for everyone… The general concept for the story started with a visit to Flanders and the Commonwealth cemeteries there. And after having read The Guns of August and All Quiet on the Western Front. So I had an overall idea of what I wanted to write about… I am rambling, sorry!

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  1. Oooh, too right about the little details. I eventually got around to reading The Da Vinci Code (ugh) which proved to be a page-turning pile of shite. I couldn’t stop reading it (good pace) yet found myself grimacing at the errors, cliches and stereotypes. The worst point was a reference to ‘England being the only country to drive on the left’. Well, there’s the rest of the UK, Japan, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, most of southern Africa…
    My problem with research is that there’s an absolute pile of things I need to know for my planned novel. So I end up blogging instead. Doh.

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    1. Hahaha! Don’t you wonder how it ever got past an editor? Come on!

      And I’m afraid I might be overdoing it with the pile of research I have in front of me… My biggest fear is getting the British ‘feel’ of the story wrong! Its a risk to set the story in a place I do not live. (Although I have visited, many years ago. And don’t worry, I’m not using BBC America as a reference!) I am hoping as I post each chapter, one of my English friends will point out my errors. Hint, hint.

      How far along is your book? Have you started writing or are you still working out the details?

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      1. Absolutely fine if you want us to go over your Britishisms, but be warned that we are a very disparate bunch in a comparatively small area. What is said in one area won’t necessarily be the same in another. What are your British locations?
        My nan, who died a few years ago (born November 1912) had one memory of her dad who had come home on leave from the Western Front (Lance Bombardier Sidney Ensor, Royal Field Artillery, 41st Division, Ammunition Column). He was in his uniform and greatcoat and carried her down the stairs to say goodbye. She never saw him again; he was killed in July 1918.
        Most of my book is still in my head, but a few jottings of ‘things I need to know’ quickly grew to a daunting list. I’ve ticked a few things off but I really ought to do some more!

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      2. I’m using fictional locations, one is based on Folkestone, the other I haven’t quite worked out yet….

        Wow, what a memory – my great grand father was in the Scottish regiments, I don’t know which precisely, but he fought in France, suffered through a gas attack but lived to tell. Although the gas was his ultimate downfall – he died of lung disease in his 40’s.

        Maybe you should just start writing and fill in the details as you go! You’ll forget half the research by the time you start! 😃

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  2. While that research can be so much fun, it is WORK. Readers have no idea how much research can go into a historical novel. In my thriller The Executioner’s Diary there are chapters that take place in 1950’s Cuba; before and after the Castro take over. The research took months. This novel you are wokring on promises to be a great one. Keep up the good work.

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  3. Good advice to stretch in our writing, to consider many options, and do research. I like that you’ve found research as a joy. Much better that way than it be tedious. And it can inspire events and scenes in your story.

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    1. Stop writing about stuff you hate, Phil! JK. Isn’t amazing the fact checking you have to do even for stuff you “know” about? I had to rewrite an entire chapter after I checked the Philly train schedule and realized I couldn’t “get there from here!” Lol!

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      1. I know! It’s stuff like that that makes me crazy. Also, I’m writing a story involving time travel right now and keeping things happening in the right order is maddening. BTW let’s get to work on your interview for my blog so I can promote your new book!

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  4. I love the research. And I want to do it all ‘hands-on’… So I’m going to need to take a few trips — Paris, Tuscany, NYC, Hawaii, London… And I’ll need a few super-delicious men. Quite a few. Have to be sure every, ahem, act is truly realistic.

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  5. Totally fascinating post, Meg. As an avid reader/history lover nothing (and I mean nothing) turns me off of a novel or movie quicker than a continuity problem. I just seem to lose interest almost immediately as if I was yanked back from my journey

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  6. I love the research. I want to learn more about times and places that interest me enough to write about them, anyway. More of a problem is probably overdoing it, if anything. Maybe because that is another good way to procrastinate!

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  7. Some fantastic points here.

    I’m close to finishing my first book, it is a heartfelt but humorous recounting of how I survived a suicide attempt and how I learnt to be grateful for what I have; focusing on the little things I learnt along the way. Needed to do a little research, by mostly wrote straight from the heart.

    As for my next planned project, which is a fictional character study of death set in 1970s London, bring on the research!!

    Not sure why I felt compelled to share. But thanks for your post.

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