Researching Your Novel
Recently, I received a question in the Daydreamers forum about research–where I do it, how I do it. I actually did a series on this forever ago (like, 4 years!! Can you believe I’ve been blogging so long?!), so now seems like a good time to re-address this subject.
Now, I’ve met writers who think that since they’re writing fiction, they can get away with making up whatever they want and don’t have to research. Erm…no.
Yes, your readers will suspend disbelief, but only so far.
Like, you can get away with fudging a few details-–TV shows get away with it all the time (e.g. the female cop who prances around in 3-inch heels)–but you’ll tick off some of some readers doing it (the 3-inch heels irk me EVERY DANG TIME). What happens when you tick off readers? That’s right: you lose them for good.
Ultimately, when the suspension of disbelief goes against our common sense or when that suspension doesn’t fit with what we know about the universe, then it’s a problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, historical, or contemporary, if anything feels implausible, the reader will dismiss the book and dismiss you as an author too.
So do your research, build your setting well (which will be a topic for another day), and keep your readers happy.
But where do I even start my research? you ask. Well, I’ll help you with that.
Quick Note on Primary vs. Secondary Sources
No matter the subject/genre you’re researching, you’ll need to know the difference between primary and secondary sources. You probably learned those terms back in high school, but here’s refresher: a primary source was written at the time of the event (e.g. a newspaper article written in 1876 Philly about the Centennial Exhibition), a secondary source is something written after-the-fact about the event (e.g. a Wikipedia article about the Centennial Exhibition).
I imagine most of you will be relying on secondary sources, but if you’re writing historical or contemporary fiction, then you might find yourself perusing more primary sources. I used a ton of primary documents when I was researching for Something Strange & Deadly, but my research for Truthwitch has been almost exclusively from secondary sources.
But no matter what you’re trying to research, it’s highly probable someone has studied your topic and studied it in depth. You just have to find where that person compiled his/her research.
Seriously, always start with the internet. There is a WEALTH of information online these days, and you can get a good feel for how many sources exist on your topic with a simple google search. The fewer the helpful sources that immediately pop up, the more likely you’re going to have to take your research to the next level (see below).
Alongside google, search your topic on Wikipedia (that’s where I always start). Click through links and take notes (I start a specific “research” page in my Scrivener file, in which I paste links or important chunks of text). One especially helpful thing on Wikipedia is the “references” section at the end of each article–it’ll point you in the direction of other helpful sources.
For historical resources (especially primary documents), be ABSOLUTELY SURE to check out archive.org. If you search within “texts”, you will find an insane plethora of resources (many of them from the era in which you’re studying). For the Something Strange & Deadly, I found guidebooks to Philadelphia, Paris, or Cairo written in 1876. I read diaries or scrutinized maps, and all of those sources came from archive.org. It’s an invaluable tool.
But let’s say you’ve exhausted the internet or perhaps you’re just finding that no one has put their research online (this definitely happens–especially with older topics). That means it’s time to…
Look for Books on the Subject
I always start on Amazon to discover what books are out there and what other readers think of certain sources. Textbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, biographies–all of these can be incredibly helpful for your research. If you’re researching historical, the Writer’s Guide to Everyday life series from Writer’s Digest are incredibly helpful. The key is to start specific with what you want (e.g. “everyday life in 1876”) and then get more general based on the results you find (e.g. “everyday life in 1870s”, “everyday life in Victorian America”).
Another tool I’m a huge fan of (specifically with regards to historical research) is to read fiction written in my story’s time period. So for Something Strange & Deadly, I read Henry James, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Louisa May Alcott. Those books gave me a good feel for the 1870s–how people viewed themselves, what they took for granted, what the common prejudices and paradigms were, etc. Those books also helped bring all my other research to life (like: Oh! So that’s how they use the expression “by the shadow of death!”).
Okay, so you’ve got your list of books from Amazon. If you’re like me and don’t want to spend more money than you have to, head to your local library and borrow what you can. Or, if you don’t want to prepare a list beforehand, you can with the librarians. I promise: helping you find sources is what they’re trained to do, and if there are any resources not available at your local branch, the librarians can set you up with some interlibrary loaning.
Do you live near a university? Even better! They tend to have super well-stocked libraries for the more scholarly subjects. Or, best of all (and if you’re not to shy)…
Ask an Expert
I know, it sounds scary (aah! Communication!), but you’re best bet is always to ASK someone who knows. Trust me: it’s better to be uncomfortable (I hate asking people for help; it’s way outside of my comfort zone) than to have a mistake in your story.
So back to that nearby university, reach out to a faculty member who’s an expert on your subject. Or, if you’re not near a university, contact the experts online. Most people are willing to share their knowledge (heck, I LOVE to talk about marine biology or data analysis or karate or anything that makes me feel useful and needed ;)). If you want to know about police procedures, then ask a cop for help. If you want to know how to fight an attacker, ask a self-defense teacher (or ask me–Sarah J. Mass does it all the time). Or if you’re wanting to know what the opposite sex really thinks in certain situations, then ask some guys/girls (I’ve asked my husband some VERY awkward questions for the sake of a story). Just be sure to thank the people you talk to in your book’s acknowledgements!
Actually, last week, I emailed a reader of this blog (hey, Lori! You’ll totally be in the Truthwitch acknowledgements!!) because I needed help with some horse stuff. I knew Lori had horses, and sure enough, she was able to help me figure out a few key sentences in one of my scenes.
Another option, if the timing is right, is to take a workshop taught by an expert. This can give you great all-around exposure to a certain subject. Like, since so much of Truthwitch and its sequel Windwitch happen on ships in an alternate Adriatic Sea, I knew I needed to beef up my knowledge on all things seafaring. So I signed up for a fabulous online workshop through the RWA’s Hearts through History branch.
And hey! Look at that: they have an upcoming workshop on How to Make the Most of Online Research. That’s what I call great timing! There are a ton of other branches in the RWA too, so be sure to check them all out and see what classes they offer. Or, Savvy Authors often offers a similar array of online workshops.
Bringing It All Together
So, if I remember correctly, the lovely lady who asked me about research mentioned needing to know more about archaeology. I though I would quickly show y’all how I’d research that. I’m going to pretend I have an archaeologist character in present day and that I need to flesh out her day-to-day life/concerns/experiences.
First, I’d google “life as an archaeologist.” That search leads me to this list of awesome resources on about.com. From here, if I don’t get all the details I wanted, I’d keep perusing my google search (oooh, this is a cool and helpful breakdown of an archaeologist’s day). From there, I’d do a similar search on Amazon–“archaeologist memoir“. This yields a ton of intriguing books, and I can easily check if any are available in my local library (thank you, internet card catalogue!). If, after checking out and/or buying books on the subject, I still have questions, my next step would be to ask an actual archaeologist my questions. I happen to know one (friend of a friend sort of thing), so I’d get her contact information and email. Easy as that. 🙂
Now you tell me: how do YOU research subjects for your fiction (or nonfiction)?