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Research for Writers

If you want to be a writer, you must learn to research.


Why? Why can't I just create worlds exclusively from my head? Shouldn't I "write what I know"? If I have to research, doesn't that mean someone else is more qualified than me to write that story?

Research can be daunting, and might open all sorts of doors to self doubt. But believe me, you can do this. I recently took a college course by Ann Dee Ellis who taught me something crucial: you don’t have to be an expert to start writing about a certain topic. But, you better believe that if you’re doing it right, you’ll be an expert when you finish! Using accurate details in your writing enriches stories of any genre. Even contemporary fiction needs it! Widen your perspective on humanity by really trying to see through a different lens and you will be great.

I first recognized how important research is while reading one of my favorite novels, Timebound by Rysa Walker. The most riveting scene in the story involves a resourceful teenager, Kate, facing off against one of the most sinister serial killers in American history, H. H. Holmes. Being closely invested in Kate’s story made me feel like I experienced the terror of Holmes’ labyrinthine Chicago World’s Fair Hotel first hand. A few weeks later I visited some friends in Washington D.C. and they brought up a thrilling nonfiction called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. As they began to tell us the story of H. H. Holmes, I perked up. Our discussion went back and forth and I found that all of the information I read in Timebound was accurate. Rysa Walker’s extensive research enabled me to have a genuine conversation about a real-life topic. Ever since then, I seek out stories that teach me ambiguously about reality. It’s part of why I've been drawn to write about historical figures such as Margaretha von Waldeck, or Emma Smith.

How to get started:

First, it is important to have a base level of knowledge about the setting, culture, time period, and etiquette. So, dive into reading whatever you can get your hands on. Novels set in the era, non-fiction works, movies, journals, newspapers, etc. ​The world your characters live in affects the way they interact. And their choices directly affects the plot. For example. In Pride and Prejudice, the fact that fifteen-year-old Lydia runs away with Wickham is a scandal even by modern western culture standards. However, set in the Elizabethan era of England, it holds extra consequences. Lydia’s actions threaten the remaining Bennett sister’s chances to marry well, according to the cultural climate. And, in a book whose opening line is “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” it’s basically the ultimate climax you can have.

Where to Find Sources

While the internet seems like the quickest way to access information, remember that there is a lot of misinformation out there. So, how do you find reputable sources? I like to find at least three authorities that are in agreement before I adopt web info as fact. One of my favorite tricks for finding reliable information is to go to Wikipedia (bear with me here) and look at the primary records they cite. Even though Wikipedia may not be completely reliable, their sources are often a great springboard for finding documents to investigate.

The library is a crucial place to be familiar with. Don't waste time trying to track down individual documents when your topic may have already been compiled by professionals. Make a list of information that will enable you to know what life was like for your protagonist. For my 15th century novel I searched out the lives of specific people, castles, customs, maps, oil paintings, and family trees. Aside from buying and borrowing books, I read essays on google scholar and even emailed a castle in Germany to get information I couldn’t find elsewhere.

Professionals can be a wonderful resource for interview, however, it is important to have a basic knowledge of the topic before approaching them. Mary Robinette Kowal spoke on this in a recent podcast. She said she studied as much as she could beforehand then came to them with prepared questions that could propel her into the deeper understanding that she truly needed.

Finally, my favorite form of research is first-hand experience. When I had the opportunity to travel to Germany with my husband two years ago, I knew at once that I wanted to write a book set in a German medieval castle. The atmosphere completely captured me. Walking up the steep stone staircases onto the wall surrounding the city, looking down on the crooked rooftops of the houses crammed inside, visiting the Christkindlmarkt, seeing shop windows filled with hanging meats... I was so enveloped in a different atmosphere and tradition, I knew I had to carry that home with me.

Using Your Research

Once you complete your basic understanding of the era, the next step is to begin a story outline. I know some writers are pantsers, but when writing historical fiction, I believe an outline is a necessity. For example, in my upcoming novel, one of my plot points included the Battle of Muhlberg affecting my protagonist. I originally wanted the scene to be set in the middle of winter, in a harsh, dark snowstorm to help set the tone for the scene. However, doing research, I found that the battle happened in April. While it isn’t unusual for there to be a random snow in April in the mountains of Germany, it definitely couldn’t be the biting, dark storm I wanted. So, I adjusted the scene to be at night, with an unusual storm that melted quickly in the days following.

Once you have a completed outline, begin writing! But remember the research doesn’t stop here. I am a believer in never hitting backspace while I write because I really want to keep the forward momentum going. However, I was constantly pausing, to do a quick google search. For example: after I wrote the sentence, “She tried the doorknob, but it was locked.” I paused and thought “This is set in 15th century Germany… Did they have doorknobs back then?” I did a google search for “when were doorknobs invented?” and found they weren’t patented until 1878 by a Mr. Dorsey (a beautifully ironic last name. And yes, I triple sourced that fact.) So, that sparked further research. What did they use instead? A latch? Yes. But could latches lock? Yes. Okay. So now I went back to my original sentence and wrote: “She tried the latch, and found it locked.” Just today, my co-writers wondered if zucchini existed in upstate New York in the early 1800's. While the indians used it, it wasn't broadly domesticated until 1920 in Italy, so we decided to play it safe and nix the inclusion of zucchini. Such a simple and even silly sounding thing, but absolutely necessary.

Another useful tool you can use is Mariam Websters' dictionary. It cites the first date a word appeared and can help you keep your language period accurate.

As you compile more and more information, try keeping a research journal. In Scrivener, there is a very useful method of keeping records straight. If you are a hard copy kind of person, it is extremely useful to have a file folder of details. It’s also useful to keep a bibliography of all the sources you used to research. Depending on the type of project you have, publishers may ask for these to publish at the back of your book.

Finally, sending your manuscript through an editor helps develop a definitive voice for the era. Editors help keep things consistent and see lost opportunities to include more enriching details. After the copy edit phase, go through a proofreader. My own experience with historical proofreading was incredible. She double checked my research and found misspelled Russian words, a regent queen who reigned five years instead of eight like I had said, corrected longitude and latitude coordinates, and many many other details.

Likewise, having your manuscript read by experts will elevate your manuscript even more. I had a beta reader on Scribophile who was in the navy. One of my lines said, “The wave swelled around him, knocking him against the reef.” She commented that swells in the ocean were the up and down motion of the water before it reached the shore. She said a more appropriate term would be heaved.

The thing you must remember, however, is that first and foremost, people and characters are what truly bring a book to life. Research and details can be inspiring and help set the scene, but without human emotions and elements, you won’t reach readers. But get both right, and you’ll completely transport them.

Happy writing!


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