Bookshelves, libraries and the internet are great sources of inspiration for writers. Who hasn’t whiled away hours researching essential story questions like: how to hotwire a car? Or do four-leaf clovers exist?
Problems arise, though, when you lose yourself too deeply in research. Perhaps a year passes, and you still haven’t started that first draft, because certain aspects of Victorian England/the ancient Egyptian mummification process/Freudian psychoanalysis remain unexplored, and you couldn’t even conceive of writing your story until you’ve expertise on these subjects.
Or, you might have avoided this pitfall, diving straight into your story about an ISIS child soldier from Timbuktu seeking asylum in Italy.
Problem is, you’re not sure you’ve quite got the details right regarding life as a jihadist, or an asylum seeker, and now you’ve reached the first plot point, these obscure details have grown problematic.
Finding the right balance is challenging.
However, certain guidelines may help tighten your research processes.
Book Research Tip 1: Research your story world/setting first
Ideally, you should conduct enough research to build a strong story world in your mind before you begin your draft.
Failure to do this may mean later halting mid-draft for further research, thus losing momentum. Or worse, you may reach the end of your manuscript and find the whole premise upon which your novel was founded falls apart.
Carrying out essential story world research early on is important and necessary. Just don’t get distracted by details unrelated to your story.
TIP: Write a story synopsis/overview before deep diving into research, so as to keep in mind what topics may/may not be relevant, so as to avoid falling into unnecessary research rabbit-holes.
Book Research Tip 2: Research your characters next because they will generate your plot
Stories are generated by proactive characters following goals. The more you research the lives of the characters who inhabit your story world, the better position you’ll be in to draft a strong story synopsis.
You need to understand your characters’ motivations – especially if they have different life experiences to you – to ensure that you’ve given them believable and culturally-appropriate story/scene goals. If you fail here, this can be a hard hurdle to overcome afterwards, likely requiring a total rewrite in future drafts.
Researching your characters, therefore, is a justified use of your time. However, consider placing a time-limit on your initial research, so it doesn’t swallow up all your time.
TIP: Vary your research, so as to widen your information pool. Podcasts, documentaries, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, museums, and personal interviews can be great ways to familiarise yourself enough to write what you don’t personally know.
Book Research Tip 3: Research harmful tropes so you know how to avoid them
TIP: Before you plunge into spending three years familiarising yourself with a profession/part of the world/area of history/culture you’ve absolutely no familiarity with, ask yourself if this truly is the best subject for you to choose to write about.
Can you do so with the sensitivity to avoid clichés, tropes, and causing offence?
If you can, then I wouldn’t want to stop you from exploring exciting story topics, but beware: you’re taking on a challenging task – especially if seeking to write the stories of people less privileged than yourself.
Cultural appropriation is a topic of huge debate in the publishing world these days.
If you’re going to write what you don’t know, be prepared to approach your research with humility, open-mindedness, and a clear understanding of your own privilege in the world.
No matter how well you conduct your research, how well-meaning your attitude, you may find readers hostile if questions of cultural appropriation arise.
It’s worthwhile seriously considering whether you’ve the experience, even with the benefit of extensive research, to write stories from the point-of-view of characters significantly less privileged than yourself.
Some writers can pull this off – but it’s immensely difficult. Jeanine Cummins spent years researching her subject matter for American Dirt, yet she still unintentionally caused offence to many.
See here for more.
Book Research Tip 4: Develop systems for organising your research
Use whichever system you prefer – electronic notes, paper notes, Scrivener software, spreadsheets, etc. Just ensure you’ve organised them so know exactly where to search when you need to locate your findings again.
Book Research Tip 5: Interviewing experts and outsourcing research
You may be able to arrange to speak with professors/policemen/experts/anyone possessing more experience of your story world than you do.
This is a great idea, as long as you remember this only represents one person’s view. You may even consider outsourcing your research, for example, by paying a graduate student to carry out research for you.
TIP: To maximise these opportunities, do your preliminary research and draft your story synopsis first. That way, you can target your interview/ outsourcing questions more specifically towards your story’s needs.
Book Research Tip 6: Once you’ve started drafting, wherever possible, don’t let research break your writing flow
Don’t throw yourself out of the story-writing flow to research small details, or you’ll lose drafting momentum.
TIP: A simple trick is to write ‘TK’ at every part of your manuscript where you need to research details further, knowing you will come back to it later. No English word has the letters TK in immediate succession. When you’ve finished drafting, search ‘TK’ in your manuscript and you’ll immediately be able to find the areas requiring elaboration.
Imagine a story about an 18th Century pirate. You won’t need to research, either before or during your first draft, exactly which type of woods were used for such vessels’ floorboards.
Unless, that is, your pirate furiously stamps his foot, accidentally smashing a weak floorboard, thus breaking his ankle and derailing his entire mission. In that case, do research early on which woods an unscrupulous 18th Century ship-builder might have used to save money, and whether a weakened board would realistically snap on impact.
Don’t force your research into your story where it isn’t required. Research to educate yourself, not your readers.
Article Written by Polly Watt
A former refugee lawyer in the UK, Polly Watt honed her skills working on cases where careful editing often really was a matter of life and death.
As a Fictionary StoryCoach Editor, she will apply the same care and attention to detail to your structural story edit. She’s passionate about stories and loves working on all different types of literary genres.
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