An Author's Guide to Research
Research Tips for Writers: Research matters. For a story to be successful, a reader has to buy into the narrative no matter the genre of the novel; a reader has to suspend their disbelief. And if details jar, or are inconsistent, that acceptance bubble pops. Whether fantasy paranormal romance or science-fiction, the rules are the same. Details matter.
A recent review I received for The Guardians’ Trust: Siana said:
“The attention to detail is second to none, and for that reason, I can’t wait to read more". Long and Short Reviews.
For a writer, this is high praise indeed!
Authors have to research in order to create authenticity as they weave their worlds. But what research techniques work and what kind of challenges do writers from different genres encounter as they try and acquire their facts? In this blog I explore these questions and sum up my findings in 7 lucky points.
My romance series is set in North Wales and Chester, near to where I live, so in many ways my life is research for my books. The hall the Guardians live in, for example, is loosely based on the National Trust’s Erddig, near Wrexham, North Wales. It is a place I have visited many times and know well.
But there are aspects of my books I have to research in more depth – the careers of my female characters, for example. My first heroine (Dr Ana Jones in The Guardians’ Trust: Ana) learns about her fated mate and her arranged marriage at Chester Zoo near the aardvark enclosure. One of my favourite places at the zoo, it’s familiar territory. But while the location for this scene didn’t present a research challenge, Ana’s veterinary skills and the kind of language she’d use as she tended the tigers (and her panther shapeshifter husband!) definitely did.
Not knowing any vets, it was Google that came to my rescue!
My female leads also include a doctor, an arboriculturist, a soldier in the British Army and a Greenpeace activist… the list goes on. All needed to be researched – not just the subject specific language the characters would use, but their academic qualifications and the behaviours and beliefs that would make their characters credible.
Many blockbuster authors employ research assistants, but if you don’t have the budget, or the inclination, then you might be interested in the ideas and experiences below.
As I began my research about research, I asked the #writingcommunity on Instagram how they feel about this topic. I have included some of their comments below as I break my findings down into these 7 areas:
1. Search Google like a Pro
@terrysegan commented: “Google is my friend for a lot of research, like when I needed to know the process at a crematorium.” – I’m with you Terry! It’s hard to imagine how time-consuming research would be without the internet…
There is no doubt that Google is amazing, but while key words and generic searches will get you so far, there are ways to make your research more effective so you can cut through the many layers of information the search engine generates to better find what you need.
As author Ryan Holiday puts it in his blog about his work as a researcher, “How do you find a needle in haystack? Get rid of the extra hay.”
Ryan cites how Tim Ferriss conducted his research to illustrate his point:
“When he was researching for the secrets behind health and diet, he used a few specific hacks to drastically reduce the search area he needed to cover.
For example, if he was looking for a high level athlete, he’d go on Wikipedia and find the world’s first and second-best athletes in that sport from a decade ago. Why? It meant there would be plenty of available material and unlike athletes currently on top of the world, these would be willing and available to talk.
He’d search Google with phrases like “[My closest city] [sport] [‘Olympian’ or ‘world champion’ or ‘world record’]” A search for “San Francisco bobsled Olympian” might get him a recently retired team doctor — the perfect lead to start with.
In other words, don’t look for just any needle in your haystack of choice. Look for the right needle.”
It’s always worth remembering that as magical as Google is, it does have it’s limitations when it comes to research. As Author Dan Brown said, “Google' is not a synonym for 'research'.”
@kimberlykeyesromance commented that while she frequently uses Google "I also have books on idioms, European gardens, European castles, London gardens, maps etc. in my office I glance at as needed." Which takes me neatly on to point two...
2. Authors as Magpies
@cassiesanchezauthor commented: “I was working on a book where the main character worked at a wild animal sanctuary so I found one outside of Denver… I met with the PR guy and he gave me a tour. Then I went back and took notes.”
The love of notebooks and writing seems to go hand in hand. Writing for the BBC, author Lawrence Norfolk states, “A writer's notebook is a junkyard; a junkyard of the mind. In this repository of failed attempts, different inks speak of widely-spaced times and places, the diverse scrawls of varying levels of calligraphic awkwardness, lack of firm writing-surfaces, different modes of transportation. All the places a good idea might blossom into something bigger and better.”
I’ve learnt to collect ideas when they occur to me, or when they pop up while researching. Once the moment passes, the idea is likely gone forever unless you get it down. I collect weblinks, images, notes, anything and everything. I use notebooks, excel, power points, even a kind of scrap book. I’ve been known to sleep with a notebook by my bed and I frequently stop in the middle of a run to record a word, idea or sentence on my phone.
By having a ‘notebook’, whether a paper or e-version, authors have a wealth of ideas they can dive into as and when they wish. Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens… they all kept notebooks filled with ideas for the next novel and as Wernher von Braun said, “Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing.”
3. Chance and Serendipity
“With a library it is easier to hope for serendipity than to look for a precise answer.” ― Lemony Snicket, When Did You See Her Last?
When writing, I’m a big believer in following where your imagination wants to take you rather than trying to control it. I've learnt it's a mistake to try and direct your thoughts where you believe they should go. The same applies to research – Google or otherwise. If your searches take you off in an odd direction, embrace it. You may encounter a much better idea.
4. The Secret Author:
@katieroseromance commented: “I like to learn from people, which is hard when you live a normal life and then double as an author, asking hundreds of questions to family, friends and colleagues and them not having a clue you are studying you.”
Katie makes a good point. Many authors, particularly romance authors, write under a pseudonym. As such, they might have to collect their information indirectly. Google is all well and good, but there is no substitute for the added details a real-life conversation brings. It is those little anecdotes, those nuggets of personal opinion, which can bring a character to life – and they are arguably harder to come by if you’re interviewing by stealth.
5. Genre Dependent:
@rachel21stanley commented: “The great thing about writing fantasy is that we get to make sh** up so there are limited reasons to research.”
Rachel touched on an important point here. Genre plays a huge part in not only the type of research an author needs to complete but also the depth of research required. Some of the best forensic crime books I have read have been written by authors who are also pathologists – the detail and specific scientific lexis required to make the text work requires very specific knowledge.
When a world is make-believe (such as in a fantasy novel) the world still needs to be credible... even if it’s incredible. It is important that if the rules of science are turned upon their heads, the inversion is consistent. World building is key.
Learn more about Paranormal Romance Books: World Building | Beth Linton here
6. The importance of location
@wendifournierbooks commented: “I make a point to visit every setting that takes place in my story. Whether it be sitting in the middle of the woods or strolling a sidewalk in a small town. I find it most helpful to simply sit, look and listen. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about an environment by doing so and how much richer your writing will become.”
While Google, books and film will get you so far, many authors in the #authorscommunityofinstagram felt there was no substitution for visiting a location in person. In fact, several writers (myself included) believe knowing a place well adds originality to your writing.
“Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it's the key to victory over fear and it's cousin, depression.” ― Robert McKee,
7. Forbidden topics:
My final point is a cautionary one. There are some topics any author needs to be careful about researching. I have two soldiers featuring in my series soon. One is a explosives expert. If I start Googling certain skills this character might have, I may well find myself getting flagged in some database! I have been advised that this isn't a good idea!
To conclude, while writing this blog I've learnt that whatever your chosen route to research, preparation is key. Know what you need, where you can get it and check your sources. I leave you with this final thought:
“The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” ― Samuel Johnson
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To find out about my novels click here and visit my books page where you can find the blurb for the first five books in the romance series.