Grounding your novel in good research is vital for immersing your reader in your setting. This is true whether it is a contemporary city, ancient kingdom or imaginary land. This guide will cover a number of resources and strategies crucial for researching your novel.
Who is this guide for?
Nearly every story can benefit from research. Even if you are setting your novel in your own hometown with characters who are similar to you, it’s likely that there will be things that you will need to research. Some genres require more research than others. If you are using a historical setting or setting your novel in an unfamiliar place, or your novel depicts procedures like police or archaeological work, research is key.
Beyond the above points, any writer who has even felt stuck at a particular point of the writing process can benefit from this guide. All writers have to decide how to balance factual accuracy and the creative demands of their stories. For example, science fiction often builds on existing science to imagine things that are not yet possible, so the amount of real scientific basis required varies. The Earth’s Children series of novels by Jean Auel were set in prehistory and were heavily researched, but they also took many liberties for the sake of the narrative.
The Benefits of researching your novel
If you’ve ever read a book set in a place you know and encountered an error, you know how this can diminish your reading pleasure. Noticeable errors take you out of the story. With the right research, you can make the past or another location as vivid for the reader as the room in which they are reading your book.
When you research well, you’ll avoid pitfalls such as characters who do not fit their time and place. One of the most exciting aspects of doing research is the unexpected creative connections it can open up for you. Your research into mountaineering in Nepal, the lives of medieval anchorites or how to build a hot air balloon may lead you down unexpected pathways that open up new possibilities for your story.
Research your market first
One of the first things fiction writers should do, if being published is their ultimate goal, is make sure there is an actual market for the books they want to write. While researching the market, it’s important to keep in mind that the book may need to be marketed or “sold” a number of times before any money changes hands in these interactions.
Writers must first ‘sell’ their book to an agent or publisher. If a writer has an agent, that agent must then convince a publishing house’s editor to purchase the book. The editor in turn must convince the marketing department of the book’s viability, and the sales team must sell it to bookstores. Finally, bookstores and reviewers must convince readers to buy the book.
What you want to avoid at each of these stages is having your book turned down without really being considered either because it is considered so unusual that there is little to no market for it or because the market is already saturated for the type of book that you want to write. Of course, there are always exceptions; sometimes, unusual books come out of nowhere and seize the public imagination, and some agents and editors have been declaring certain subgenres like vampire fiction dead for at least two decades. Despite this, books about vampires continue to hit the bestseller list. To give your book as many chances of success as possible you should keep the market in mind. Here are a few ways to research the market for your book:
- Frequent bookstores and keep up with book blogs and bestseller lists so you know what is happening in your chosen genre. Keep in mind that it will take you any number of months to write your book, and if you go the traditional publishing route, your book could be released anywhere from 12 to 24 months after a publisher buys it. This means that whatever current trend you may be noticing is likely to be over by the time your book comes out, and editors and agents are also probably already tired of seeing manuscripts in that vein. Therefore, looking at what’s out there right now may give you a lot more information about what you shouldn’t be writing than what you should be writing.
- Talk to agents and editors in person. Although they are busy people, this is not as difficult as it may seem. If you are able to go to a convention based around your current genre that professionals attend, go and ask the agents and editors that attend what they are looking for. Sometimes, these conventions even offer “pitch sessions” in which you can talk about your novel idea and get feedback on the strengths and shortcomings of your pitch.
- Make contacts online. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to go to a convention, a number of agents and editors have a presence online such as Betsy Lerner and Kate Testerman. Some are happy to answer writers’ questions.
If your market research does turn up disappointing results, keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t write your novel. It might mean you may want to de-emphasise certain aspects of it but it can also help you think about how you can market the final manuscript in a way that takes advantage of what agents, publishers and readers want.
Researching elements of a novel – place
Researching place is important for ensuring that you immerse your reader in the setting. When a setting comes alive for the reader, the rest of the novel will seem more believable as well. There’s no better way to research a real place than to visit it. If this is possible, you need to go armed with a purpose. Be sure to take a camera and something to take notes on. Visit all of the locations for your novel, and notice sensory details. What does it sound like and smell like? What strikes you as unusual or unexpected about the location that you particularly need to include in your novel?
Visiting the place that provides the setting for your novel is not always possible. It might be too far away, for one. If you are writing historical fiction, the place is not likely to still exist as it will in your book. If you are writing fantasy or science fiction and building your own world, the place will not exist at all. Whether or not you can visit the place you are writing about, there is plenty of other research you can do. The internet is an excellent place to start. Google Map’s street view can be an invaluable tool. You can also read blogs that focus on place (such as travel blogs) and look at images. You might also watch television shows, movies and documentaries that share your setting.
Researching place can be helpful even when you are inventing your own. Including details from life can give you what you need to make a fantastical place seem real. Old archival atlases, for example, can spark inspiration as you map a fantasy land. Finally, reading books about a place is still one of the best ways to research. Novels, travelogues, and books and articles on specific features of settings (such as architecture) can all help you create a vivid sense of place.
As you research setting, think of all the elements that comprise place. This includes climate, vegetation and architecture. If your setting is a city, what is the public transportation like? Is the city thriving economically or depressed? What distinguishes the different parts of the city from one another? What are some of the popular restaurants and night spots, and what types of people can be found in those places? If your setting is the countryside, you’ll want to think more about details such as topography, flora and fauna.
Researching elements of a novel: Time
Even if you see your novel as being set in the present day, you’ll still need to think about how firmly you want to anchor your novel in a specific time. Do you want to pin the events to a specific year, month, or series of days? You may want to centre your novel around a major world event such as an earthquake or a war, or you may choose a particular contemporary moment for thematic emphasis. In such a case, you should make sure that you get elements including pop culture and weather correct. Watch out for small factual errors as well: don’t have your characters meeting at a city restaurant in August that actually closed in May of that year. Your in-the-know readers will notice.
If you are writing historical fiction, you will need to do research whether the period in question is 30, 300 or 3,000 years in the past. The type of research you need to do will depend upon the focus of your novel. If you are writing about court intrigue, you will need to have a good grasp of the ins and outs of politics at the time, but if you are writing about a peasant family in a remote place, government goings-on may have little impact on their daily lives. You should also decide what kind of readers you are writing for. Are they readers who want a good deal of historical detail, or do they want just enough authenticity to produce a realistic portrait of an era before you get to the story? Clothing, what people ate, what their beliefs are, how they are expected to behave, what types of things are prohibited and taboo, and details about everyday life are all aspects you will need to investigate. Another aspect to consider is culture. For example, what do different kinds of popular music say about the era in which they were most popular?
Researching elements of a novel: Character
You may think that character research is only for people who portray historic personages in their novel, but this is not the case. Even if you are not writing historical fiction at all, you can benefit from character research. For example, you can bring your character to life by basing that character in part on some of the real characteristics you observe about people around you. One terrific way to research and develop character is through observation and note-taking, and you can do this in public, with people you work with, or even with your family. Notice things like people’s speech patterns, idioms they use, the gestures they make, the clothes they wear and how they hold themselves, and consider what that tells you about them. If you are basing characters on people who are close to you, you can make changes or even create composite characters to ensure that people do not recognise themselves.
It’s possible that you may need to research aspects of your character’s profession or lifestyle. This may certainly be true if that profession or lifestyle is an important aspect of your novel, but even if it is not, you must be sure that you get any details right whether your character is an astrophysicist or a schoolteacher, a religious evangelist, a rock star, an anarchist or an insurance agent. Depending on how much you need to know about that profession, you might contact someone who works in that field and interview them about their work, find out if you can spend a day job-shadowing them as they go about their work, or even take an online course at a site like Coursera.
It is necessary that you research any historical figures that you use in your fiction, not only because you must get your facts right but also because details of the person’s life can provide inspiration and back story. The same is true if you are writing about invented characters in a real historical time period. One thing you need to keep in mind is that people from other historical periods thought very differently from modern readers. Your reader needs to be able to relate to your characters, but if they are too anachronistic, this may become distracting for your readers. Even so, across time and across cultures people have displayed similar qualities: they are happy or sad, rebellious or obedient, and serious or frivolous. Human nature may express itself in different ways, but it does not change; this is why works of literature still speak to us across cultures and thousands of years.
Researching elements of a novel: Technical professions
In some cases, you may need to understand more technical details about your character’s profession. For example, if you are writing a crime procedural, a medical thriller, or a hard science fiction novel, you may need to go considerably outside your expertise to learn more about a profession or environment. One of the best ways to do this is by talking to people. Phone a nearby university and see if an expert in the relevant field will speak to you. You should also see if you can get someone to review your novel for errors when you are finished writing it. Science fiction writers may particularly benefit from having a university contact.
It is entirely possible, if not always necessary, to become an expert in a subject without formally studying it or working in the field. Tom Clancy, the successful thriller writer, was lauded by high-ranking military officials for his technical and political details that he swore he obtained from manuals and interviews. On the other hand, formal study is certainly an option. For her alternate history fantasy Ash, author Mary Gentle obtained her master’s degree in war studies in order to write a protagonist who commanded a medieval military unit. Crime writers should contact police and sheriff’s departments and can consider visiting a prison and attending open trials. Police forces sometimes have public relations departments, and writers might start here. One thing writers must be wary about is taking their research from television. As popular as shows about forensics and crime scene investigators may be, they also tend to be inaccurate. For example, many tests take months instead of hours or days to return results.
Resources for researching your novel
It would be impossible to list all the resources available for research, but the examples below should give you an idea of the scope of what is available. Online encyclopedias can be excellent starting points for research including the famous Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are also specialty encyclopedias such as The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Medline Plus for medical information and photographs.
Online images are another excellent resource. Getty Images offers an archive of iconic moments from around the world captured in photographs. Pictures from American history can be found at the Library of Congress. Flickr has searchable images from 500 years of books.
Reference works on particular topics are still an excellent way to find the answers you need. From baby name books to books on particular geographic areas, dress, food, folklore and more, a librarian can guide you and may also be able to obtain books through inter-library loans. Your local used book store and sites like Alibris, Bookfinder and The Book Depository may be helpful for locating out-of-print books.
Online video archives such as the British Pathe YouTube channel (which has newsreel footage of major 20th century events) as well as the Internet Archive are both valuable resources. Your library may have local newspaper archives. Wikipedia lists many that may be available globally while Chronicling America has many historic American newspapers from 1690 on.
Books written in the time and place that your novel is set will enrich your factual research. For example, there is nothing quite like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to give a sense of the 1920s and the Jazz Age in America or Jane Austen’s novels for learning more about how people thought in Regency England.
Organising your research
You need to be able to access your research in an efficient manner while you are writing your book. You also need a way to note places where you need to do more research in order to avoid getting sidetracked while you are writing. It can be tempting to think that you can quickly go online to check a fact, and it’s all too easy to then suddenly realise you have lost 15 or even 30 minutes of your writing time in this way. It is best to leave yourself a note in the manuscript to keep yourself from being distracted. You might use highlights, comments in track changes or other features to make these points in your draft stand out.
You will know best whether you prefer to work with notes kept on your computer or in hard copy. You might want to organise your material into folders either online or in hard copy by topic such as historical personages, buildings and clothing. You might find that index cards or notebooks with dividers for different subjects suit you best. You might even use your browser’s bookmarking feature to sort and store valuable information that you find online.
One important tip is to not allow the process of research and organisation to overtake your novel writing. Too often research becomes an excuse for never beginning the novel. As you are organising, focus on deciding how much information is enough for your purposes.
Putting it all together
From understanding the fiction market to knowing what kind of dress your 16th century French protagonist might have worn to an important dinner, research will be an important part of writing your novel. Thoroughly researching place, time, character and technical details will ensure that you create a vivid, believable world for readers who are introduced to the setting of your novel for the first time as well as those who might be very familiar with its real world counterpart. Given the enormous amount of resources available online and offline you can organise your research and make notes along the way to ensure that your fact-finding does not distract you from your writing. What are your go-to methods or resources for researching your stories?