Minna-san, konnichi wa!
In today’s post, I will be talking about research and more importantly how to get out of the constant rut of over-research.
For many, research can feel like a chore, and it may at first seem like a major hindrance to our creativity or it might put a lingering halt on our creation of vast lands, magical creatures, intriguing characters, and an engaging storyline to go hand in hand with the amazing world we created.
However, research is (though reluctantly) a necessary part of our novel journey and may become useful in other aspects of our career, such as researching the industry in which we would like to publish (whether it be via traditional or self-publishing), marketing, and growing and maintaining our author platform (which I am currently working on and researching for as we speak).
And who knows? It may even be fun if you find something interesting. Though I may be one of those who find research time-consuming and frustrating at times, I do get excited when I research as I love educating myself on the self-publishing industry, the time period in which my novel is set, and the geographical location of my novel.
And yes, I am one of those nerds that enjoyed school and education, and I was the exact definition of a teacher’s pet. I also didn’t despise researching for a paper as much as my schoolmates. In fact, whenever I told people English is my favorite subject and walked out of the bookstore with stacks of books in hand, I would most likely be receiving a face like 😲.
Maybe I should make a post discussing some of the reactions or assumptions I’ve received when I told people that I’m an English major. 🤯
Got a little off-topic there. Anyways back to the topic.
Research: a Necessity or Hindrance?
When first going into research, especially coming from a place of not knowing anything about the industry, time period, setting, careers, weapons, houses, or transportations that may be used in your story, it can feel like falling into a never-ending abyss of endless research.
And when it feels like all the books are stacked against you (literally), then it may seem like there’s no way out.
However, research is a way to prepare you for whatever it is you need to know. It makes your story accurate, adds realism, and lets the readers know that you know what you’re talking about, and therefore, is a necessity to the writing process and to learn about the overall writing industry.
My Current Research Materials
I am about halfway through my current read, which is for research purposes.
I’m currently reading The Gilded Age in New York by Esther Crain, which is, as you can guess, a history book detailing the period between 1870 and 1910 and is the perfect book to aid in my accurate representation of nineteenth-century New York within The Foreshadowed Series, which is set in 1890.
I am really enjoying the read and can’t wait to discuss it in a later post.
I also have a few books on Victorian etiquette that I may take a look at later, and I’m planning on googling images of New York to mentally transport myself there as I’ve never been to New York before, though it’s on my bucket list for sure.
I have also been utilizing online resources for researching the publishing, marketing, and blogging aspects of becoming an author and have found them to be useful, such as creative online courses, articles from other bloggers, and videos from YouTubers, which honestly make research all the more fun.
Who says research should be limited to just textbooks and scholarly databases? Well, maybe they’re necessary for academic research. But when you’re in the creative field, it’s good to get creative in your research and to have fun with it.
Best Research Methods
First things first. The best method I can recommend for research in order to create an accurate representation of the world, characters, setting, or time period of your novel is to write from personal experience.
Location: Think about the place your story is set. Can it be set in a location you’re familiar with?
Is it sunny California? Windy Chicago? Snowy Lake Tahoe? Or is it hot and humid like Florida?
Wherever your story is located, it should depict an accurate representation of the actual place you are basing it off of, unless you are fashioning a world from scratch. But you should still have some knowledge or research on geology and other basic science to gain a better understanding of how certain landforms are created.
Now you might point out the hypocrisy in my story taking place in New York despite me never having set foot in New York myself.
If you don’t mind the extra research and you absolutely want to set your story in a place that you’ve never been, then I say go for it. I am.
Also, note that while my current book project takes place in New York, I have a book project that takes place in San Francisco, which is a lot closer to home for me as I am from Northern California, and my second book project takes place in a small town in Oregon, which is where my dad is from and I have visited there on occasion.
I want a variety to my locations and don’t want every location to be set in California.
Career/Field: It’s always great to relay any personal knowledge that you have from careers or fields that may pertain to any characters in your novel.
Do you have experience in the medical field? Maybe you’re a doctor by day and an author by night. Or vice-versa. Does your book take place in a hospital setting? Is your main character a doctor? Or is your character sick and spends a lot of time in the hospital?
Do you have a law degree? Maybe your character is a law student or a lawyer.
Were you on the police force? You can use your expertise to help solve a crime in your novel.
Are you a science major? Perhaps your scientific knowledge can inspire you to create a mad scientist for a horror novel. Or to aid the above crime novel in incorporating a coroner to help investigate the death of a victim.
But if you are creating characters who are in different fields or who have different career paths as you, then I would recommend doing your research.
Both characters in my first and second book projects are aspiring writers and journalists. Even though they are pursuing a slightly similar field as me in terms of writing, the career path they have chosen is completely different from mine as I am not an expert in journalism and have no interest in pursuing that career path.
So I would do some research. However, the fact that my characters are interested in writing as a career does bring it a little closer to home for me, just a little, and it makes me feel more comfortable in writing for those characters. Other than that, my characters are way different from me personality-wise.
Time Period: Of course time period can be a little tricky if you are writing a story set during the Renaissance or Victorian Era. However, if you are setting your story during modern times then it might require a little less research.
But researching a time that takes place decades ago might be attainable if you or someone you know was there during that time. Otherwise, for any time period that takes place beyond a century ago, it might be a wise time investment to hit the books.
Miscellaneous: You may also have to do additional research. Such research may include weapons, fighting, transportation, animals, or even romance.
Is war featured in your novel? Will any of your characters need to specialize in some sort of weapon training, or hand-to-hand combat? If so, do you have any sort of experience in weapon training or fighting? Were/are you in the military? How about a police officer?
If not, then you may need to do some additional research into specific weapons or certain fighting techniques that may be involved in your novel. Or talk to or interview someone who might have the knowledge and expertise on imparting such information onto you.
For example, if I’m writing a war book where my characters are learning how to shoot a gun for the first time, then I would ask my family members who were in the military and have had that sort of training before.
Of course, the whole point of research isn’t to include every technical jargon you’ve come across as a means to let the readers know you’ve done your research. But it is to help YOU–the author–better understand what certain weapons and techniques may be used for, to enable you to know what you’re talking about so that it’ll come across as convincing to the reader, and to help you better translate it in a way your readers will understand.
What about transportation? Is your character interested in cars? Is he/she an auto-mechanic? Do you like cars and have experience with fixing them? Otherwise, if you aren’t very auto savvy, then I would suggest either researching about cars or talking to someone who is an auto-mechanic or who knows a lot about cars.
Is your character an animal lover? Does he/she know how to take care of pets? Or is he/she a veterinarian? Maybe you have a pet at home and know about pet care or perhaps you can interview your local veterinarian.
What about romance? If you’ve experienced a first love or even a first kiss, then maybe you can relay some of that emotion into your characters when they experience a first love or kiss. And if you haven’t, then that’s okay. Maybe you can ask someone who feels comfortable enough to tell you about their experiences.
So what if you don’t have the knowledge or experience to answer any of the main questions for your story, such as:
Where does the story take place? When is the time period? Who are the characters and what do they do?
Along with other side questions that may pertain to your novel, such as:
How to remove a bullet from a leg and how to cauterize the wound so that it won’t get infected? Or any other questions that may be specific to the kind of story you want to tell.
Well, if you don’t have the knowledge, experience, or expertise to guide you in writing your story, then the next big thing is to try to get as close to the source as possible by conducting interviews or having a discussion with people who may have the knowledge, experience, and expertise that you seek. That could be a doctor, lawyer, police officer, military personnel, pilot, captain, historian, or anyone really.
Note: Just be mindful when approaching people that have the answers that you may want and when conducting the interviews. NEVER push someone to participate in an interview and don’t press them for answers or details if it makes them uncomfortable. Also, be respectful when conducting the interview and be sure to thank them for their time.
Now, what do you do if you don’t have the knowledge or experience to depict an accurate representation of the story you’re trying to portray? What if you don’t have anyone that can or that’s willing to give you insight into your topic? What if you don’t feel comfortable asking people to discuss these topics? Then what?
That’s okay. It’s okay if you don’t have first-hand knowledge and it’s okay if you don’t want to conduct interviews or if you don’t know anyone willing to participate.
You can always go to your local library and read books on the subject. There are also affordable eBooks that you can find on a related topic. And the internet with all its databases offers vast resources at your disposal with tons of information that covers different aspects of your research.
When to Shift Focus from Researching to Writing
I can honestly say, don’t do what even I’m guilty of, what I’m sure many people are guilty of, and that’s endless research before even attempting to outline and write your story, otherwise, you are bound to get sucked into a vortex and it may be hard to come out of it.
It’s okay to make your story as accurate as possible but start outlining and start writing at some point.
Do some initial research into the location and time of your novel but then write, outline, and ask yourself questions during the writing process and set the questions aside to answer later. This will prevent you from doing any unnecessary research that may become futile.
Also a little tip on organization: Create folders or categories of your notes to help organize certain areas of research. For example, since I am researching nineteenth-century life, I need to get a basic understanding of the kind of clothes that were worn, the food that was eaten, and the transportations that were taken back then. So I would organize these into separate categories, such as Food, Clothes, and Transportation.
This will make finding what you’re looking for easier without sifting through endless piles of notes, trying to look for that one piece of information. Gone are the days that I would just dump everything I learned onto several pages and in no particular order and then having to scroll through for what seemed like forever before retrieving that one piece of detail. My blood type-A self would be proud.
When to Take Liberties
By this I mean, is it okay to stray outside accuracy — historical or otherwise?
I know some people would argue that you should make your novel as accurate as possible. But I say — with honesty and complete certainty — do what you have to do.
Like seriously — if you’ve tried your best to do accurate research, and nothing is turning up for that specific piece of information, then I say go for it. If you feel comfortable enough to stray outside the accuracy line and provided that your entire novel isn’t filled with historical or any other types of inaccuracies and it’s evident that you’ve done thorough research for your novel, then I say it’s okay to take liberties as a last resort and if you have to — NOT as an excuse to not do further research.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but hey that’s okay.
I’ve always lived with the mindset that if my novel isn’t prepared and thoroughly researched to a T, then some unknown historian will come out of the woodwork and criticize my work. And you know what that did to me? It fueled my anxiety and made me procrastinate my actual writing with unnecessary amounts of research.
You may think that you’ve prepared, outlined, and researched enough to know that you’re characters are likable, your plot has no holes, and your story is as accurate as can be, only to find out that a reader with a different sense of humor may not find your character as charming or funny, that one super keen eye may be able to detect a plot hole from a mile away, and a history buff may suddenly resurface to criticize a single piece of inaccurate detail in your story. And then you’re like “ah, f#%k!”
Heck, I’m pretty sure that really popular medical dramas and crime shows have some inaccuracies, but it doesn’t detract from their popularity and people still enjoy those shows.
And no, I’m not saying that you should emulate popular shows and bombard your readers with inaccuracies because you shouldn’t. I’m just saying that no matter how much you research, there may be some people who will find fault within your work and may not like it and that’s okay because not everyone is going to like your work and nothing in life is ever perfect and you can’t make it so.
Other Sources that Might be Helpful
Here are some additional articles that discuss research.
21 Ways to Research Your Novel (My Book Cave)
How to Conduct Research for a Book (The Write Practice)
How to Research a Novel: 7 Tips (The Writer’s Digest)
Things to Consider When Researching for Your Novel (Ari Meghlen)
How to Research Writing a Novel (Angela Clarke)
Researching for my novel was something that a part of me dreaded going into writing. But it can eventually be a fun and enlightening experience depending on how you research. It is always a good idea to never pour your energy into one sort of medium when researching. Instead of focusing on reading countless books, which can give you a headache, try mixing it up and watch videos on a particular subject, google images, and conduct interviews. Research can be fun if you let it be. Just remember to know when to stop researching and start writing.
I hope that you enjoyed reading my post on researching and that it helps alleviate some of the heavy burdens that researching can pose on some writers.
If you have any other thoughts, opinions, or advice on the topic, then please feel free to leave them in the comments below.
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I will be back with another post next Friday at 10:30 AM PST. So stay tuned!!!
What are some of your favorite research methods? And do you over-research, under-research, or sprinkle some research in between writing and outlining? Let me know in the comments below.
Until next time, ja mata ne,