Unless you’re writing an autobiography (and you kept a very thorough diary) a little research is, alas, pretty much unavoidable, so here’s a little guide to researching your novel.
I did zero research for the novel I’m currently writing. I raced through the first draft and got it finished-ish. And the kicker is… I needed to research. My story is set in an alternate universe and is a fantasy, but isn’t too out there.
Here’s the thing is though, had I not gone through the process if whizzing through the first draft I wouldn’t have had a clue what I needed to research. The moral of that little story is that even if you’re pretty sure you don’t need to do any research, it may be a way into your writing that you discover that you need more than a little knowledge of, for example, mining practices of the 1700s, the basic anatomy of a cat, or how long it’ll take you to get from Johannesburg to the largest of Saturn’s moon if you’ve only got £300 and a donkey.
Why should you research your novel?
1. Er, so you know what the hell you’re wanging on about.
Ever read one G.R.R. Martin’s books? They are bloody well researched. Everything from what the soldiers wore in a battle to the livestock that would have been available to what was traded where and by whom.
But why? Westeros is a fictional place. It’s also chock full of dragons, wizards, and ridiculously intricate updos, so who cares what the soldiers wear?
As it turns out, a lot of people. Keeping the background details familiar and accurate ground the story, and make it more…believable?
2. It can help you write your story
I’m not a planner or a pantser. I write out little biographies of the characters, a general story and then I write. For the novel I’m currently writing, I didn’t do any research bar reading novels in a similar genre.
I didn’t have any idea what I needed to research. One day I was reading a blog post about unusual places to set novels, and one of them really stuck with me. Turns out I know NOTHING about salt flats, and salt in general.
Had you told me before I started my novel that I would need to know quite so much about salt, I’d have been very confused indeed.
How do you research a novel?
1. Google it
Obviously. I don’t actually recommend this though, because, Jesus, you can find yourself down some wormholes. I feel like I shouldn’t really recommend Wikipedia, but tbh I’ve found it very useful in the past. I mean, I’d recommend you check the references, but it’s a great place to start.
I have multiple boards on Pinterest that I use for general inspiration, but it’s great for helping you visualise your characters and locations. Some of the fan art and photography is so good and super inspiring.
3. The library
Or books in general. Check their credibility if you’re researching something controversial or even just something that changes a lot. For example, if your story is set in ancient Egypt, check the book you’re using as research is fairly up to date, and hasn’t been widely refuted.
4. TV shows/fiction books
Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an element of truth in it. These are great for researching your genre. Enjoy this kind of research, it’s the best. Writing a fantasy? Spend the afternoon under a blanket reading Harry Potter. Writing a dystopian novel? Watch the Hunger Games! Writing a detective story? Curl up on the sofa and watch endless repeats of Poirot on Itv-Encore. I do this one anyway. Banking a bit of research for if I ever write a detective novel.
5. Ask someone
If you’re writing about a farm, ask a farmer if you can interview them. Or a nurse. Or someone that lived through the war/in a cardboard box/up a tree. You get it.
I feel like I should end this blog post by saying that I am the laziest researcher EVER. The pantser in me just refuses to do any kind of research until it becomes clear that I know so little about a subject I’m writing about that I can’t get any further. Luckily my inner planner does recognise the need to do the research, so it does get done. Eventually.
If you have any tips for researching, please let me know, especially if you know of any websites called, for example, everythingawriterwilleverneedtoknowaboutanything.com