Lately I seem to be coming across more and more authors who thumb their noses up at the thought of doing research, which makes me scratch my puzzler. Not only is it a fundamental part of the process, regardless of the type of fiction you write, it is also a chance to learn and grow as a person as well as a writer. The simple fact is, if research truly is the bane of your existence, then you’re not doing it right.
Yes, you are most likely creating an entire world from scratch, in your own image and the laws of reality obey whatever rules strike your fancy, but even the most fantastical setting must have a sturdy foundation. And that foundation must be built with bricks of solid facts in order for your story to have any sort of credence.
I personally enjoy the research stage almost as much as the construction stage, but I understand how daunting a task fact-finding can be, so I’ve jotted down a few of the steps I tend to use when I’m in that researching frame of mind:
1. Pinpoint the right questions. The assumption is that you either have a strong interest in or possess a rudimentary knowledge of the story you’re attempting to pen. And that’s all you need in the beginning when you’re plucking the idea from the ether and committing it to the page in the form of an outline. But as you rearrange the story sequentially and create scenes to flesh the idea out into proper story form, you should be asking yourself how you’re going to make the story mechanics work. If your story is a period piece, you should be knowledgeable of that era, if your main characters hold down specific jobs, you should be familiar with the basics of their occupations, if the story takes place in a different part of the world… you get the point. Your research begins when you write your outline because that’s where you’ll find the questions that need answering.
2. Locate your resources. You’re probably thinking this part’s a cinch as long as you’ve got internet access, and I can’t really argue the point. As I’ve stated in a previous post, the internet is the wise sage of our virtual village (see: Applying Life Lessons To Your Writing) but, as is true with a great deal of online content, the reliability of the source material found therein can be erroneous, so verify, verify, verify as best you can in order to avoid unnecessary embarrassment at a later date. Myself, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned in my approach to research and armed with my trusty dusty library card I visit ye olde public bibliotheca in search of books pertaining to the various subjects in my story. I only rely on the internet as a back-up resource if I come up empty at the library.
3. Make a treasure map for your gold. What good is that golden nugget bit of research that you’ve discovered if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it? If you own the book, sure you can bookmark or dog-ear pages, underline or highlight passages–but only if you own the book, please, marking up someone else’s tome is utter book sacrilege. If the book isn’t yours to mar, you can create your own index system by jotting down the book title, page and paragraph numbers, and a few keywords on the passage’s content. Then when you’re done info-gathering, you can transfer the text to your computer (arranged by subject headings) or to a notepad if you prefer to write longhand.
4. Create a vision board. Sounds hokey, I know, but pictures have that magical ability to transport your fertile imagination to all the unfamiliar aspects within your story and adding a visual component to your research and writing can help to serve as inspiration for time periods, locales, era clothing, vehicles, weaponry, etc.
5. Walk around in your story like you own the place. Nothing worse than a writer who lacks the confidence to strut their stuff within the world they’ve created. Even if that world is rife with utter nonsense, your job is to sell that nonsense as truth. There’s a saying that used to be popular when I wore a younger man’s clothes, but I haven’t come across it in a dog’s age, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Now, this doesn’t mean you should out-and-out lie to your audience, but if the moment arrives when research fails and you need to invent something in order to make your story work, you should endeavor to portray it with as much authenticity as possible.
All the rest of the time? You live up to the trust that your audience places in your hands by checking and double-checking your sources and making sure your facts are as accurate as they can be. Also, you need to keep in mind that despite your best efforts, you aren’t ever going to get the facts correct all the time, but that doesn’t give you a reason not to do your due diligence. And should you ever deliberately decide to ignore the facts, you should alert your audience either in the author’s notes or afterword.
One of a writer’s biggest attractions to the written art form can be best summed up as, ex nihilo omnia fiunt–from nothing, everything is created–but we owe a duty to our audience to make the lie of fiction as truthful as possible.
Sally forth and be researchful.
I find vision boards priceless. At a glance I can see what is going together and what is clashing.
I think vision boards have gotten a bad rap ever since “The Secret” backlash began, but I find them an invaluable tool.
I agree, they do get a bad rap. Oprah did them no favours.
Thanks for the affirmation. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the research process, but I feel so much smarter when I do…even if I use nothing in my immediate project. Somehow it all comes around when I need it.