Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Doing the Research

Stories Yet To Be WrittenWe’ve been talking the last couple of months about writing basics; walking through individual craft elements in conjunction with the new book I’m working on.  Last week we put together the Character, Conflict, Setting, and Outline, and shifted focus to actually writing the story.

Once you finally start writing, it is quite likely that at some point, you’re going to need to do some research. Maybe you have a quick question that needs an answer like “what’s the lifespan of a bumblebee?” or maybe you need to know something a little more in depth like “what was the political climate like in London during 1816?”

At close to 40,000 words on my new story, I’ve had a few questions that I needed answers to. I’ve also had to decide what information I should include in my story and what does not need to be there.

That’s why this week my focus in on: Research

You don’t need to know everything

Doing research can be what is technically known as “a time suck.” You go off looking for one little fact and then hours (or days or weeks) later you come back with not only the fact you needed, but also a ton of other (possibly) related information that “seemed interesting” or “might be useful later.” Research can be fun, like going on a treasure hunt, but unless you’re actually a paid researcher you probably want to keep it to a minimum so you have the time you need for your writing. I have found setting a timer to be a useful tool when entering research-mode.

Along the same lines, although it can be tempting to try to learn as much as possible about whatever subject you are researching, your story doesn’t necessarily need all that detail. You don’t need to research the history of bees, for example, if all you are doing is making a brief reference in your story. Research can also be a delaying tactic to keep from actually writing.   If you find yourself stuck in the research phase, you may want to take a step back and ask yourself “why?”

Your reader doesn’t need to know everything

In depth research can lead to the tendency to want to share all that wonderful information with your reader. Try not to do that. Your reader wants to focus on your characters and your story, not get bogged down in passages and passages of facts and extraneous details. I read a book by a popular New York Times bestseller earlier this year that was crammed full of all the information she had researched. I found myself mentally editing the majority of it out as I read because it bogged the story down. At some points, I was skipping pages and pages. Unless you are writing a reference book, a good rule of thumb is, “if it helps move the story along put it in otherwise leave it out.” If you’ve done some great research that you really want to share, then post it on your website as an extra feature or include it at the back of the book in an afterward.

There are many sources for information

Years ago, when you wanted to research a topic, you very likely went to the local library and pulled out the appropriate volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or the Periodical Index, or asked the helpful librarian to point you in the right direction. If you needed information from old newspapers or the library’s archives, you might have found yourself scanning through reels of film on a microfiche/ microfilm reader. Things have changed a bit since then.

According to their website, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia gets 374 million unique visitors each month. It is often the first stop for someone wanting to do some quick research. Many newspapers have user searchable archives online and many libraries have portions of their collections online as well. For a writer doing historical research, something like Google Books can be a great resource. It allows you to find books written and published in the time period of interest so you can not only get information but also get a feel for the language, speech patterns, and the like that were in use then. There are also a number of authors that share the information they’ve researched on their own websites. This seems to be particularly common for Regency writers who love their Regency details.

That said . . .

Choose your information sources wisely

Where you choose to get your information is important. I know it may come as a shock to some, but not all of the information posted on the internet is completely true (gasp!).  It’s important to verify your information from more than one source. If you’ve used Wikipedia or some other information aggregator as your starting point, scroll down to the footnotes and follow the sources. Also remember that, just because you read a “fact” in someones story doesn’t mean it is true.

Think outside the library

Sometimes you may just need a quick piece of information for your story, rather than some full blown research. Social media, friends, writing blogs – all of these can be great sources for you. This past week, for example, I’ve reached out on social media for help on random things from “drink names for a theme bar” in my story to “what flavor ice cream would you think of as a guy-flavor?”  A couple different writers I follow have posted recently asking for readers to help brainstorm character names or other story details. Sure you could Google “popular baby names for the year xxx”, but including others in your research process can bring interesting alternatives to light and can also be a fun way to engage with your readers.

So what are your thoughts on research? Do you have an example an author who handled the inclusion of “facts” well (or a bad example of one who missed the mark)?   What’s the most interesting thing you’ve researched lately?

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Doing the Research

  1. The internet is perfect for quick research – how long does something take, how much does it cost, is it possible, did it ever happen? This week one of the things I checked was – can you buy a lighthouse (answer: yes) and how much does it cost (answer: it depends). I also love ‘how to’ videos on Youtube. When my previous heroine, Rose, was making a necklace, I watched a lot of videos about hand-enamelling techniques.

    When I need to dig deeper, I’ve found that if I think hard, it’s surprising how often I realise I know somebody who has the expertise to help me. Recently I spent most of a family party grilling one of my in-laws about alternative energy research in the UK, especially wave and tidal power 😉 .

    I hate it when a book has page after page of research infodump, but I love it when I read something I know a little (or a lot) about, and it’s obvious that the writer really knows her stuff. I recently read Penny Vincenzi’s current novel A Perfect Heritage, which is set in the cosmetics industry, and I thought it was really well done.

    • Jilly, I too have been able to take advantage of friends and/or family with the knowledge I need. Just last night I was quizzing my son on the construction permitting process so I could figure out a plot complication (success!).

  2. I agree that sometimes research can lead you down a rabbit hole. But sometimes, you really, really need a rabbit hole (or sometimes the muse uses those contents of the rabbit hole in a wonderfully wacky way).

    My current book, I spent a lot of time on researching the weather. Maybe too much. I don’t know how to fit it in, exactly, but I was just driven to log it, get pictures of it, and put it into a daily chart.

    Another thing that caught my eye was a death at the opera during my time period. That was an interesting little rabbit hole — strange family. The husband was descended from a Revolutionary War hero, the wife was also famous, the young companion was listed as an adopted daughter, but later research showed that her mother was still alive and actively sponsoring her at the time of her wedding. There’s a lot going on under the surface there! I had no idea why I was checking it out, but my subconscious transformed it into a major scene that drove the plot forward after I changed the heroine significantly.

    God, I hope there’s another one of those miracles hidden in my notes!

    Research is certainly not the speediest process in the world, though. I may have a different opinion five years from now, when I can look back at the book and see clearly what I did right, and what I goofed on.

    • Interesting items you’ve come across Michaeline – sounds like some great story material. Can’t wait to see how you make them all work. I’ve found some interesting random nuggets myself, usually while looking for something completely different. Though I don’t know what to do with most of them, I too am hoping my subconscious will transform them into something for my story.

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