How Research Can Help Fiction Authors Write Better Stories

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Even when writing fiction, getting your facts straight is critical for ensuring the reader’s enjoyment. In a fictional story, you’re asking your audience to suspend disbelief (either a little or a lot), so make it easy for them by being factual whenever you can. If you’re writing about a particular time period or a specific geographical location, make sure everything is appropriate to the setting. If a technical topic pops up in your work, do your research to be certain you’re writing about it accurately.

In this post, we’ll demonstrate how research can help you build worlds and characters that your readers buy into. The last thing you want is for them to lose interest because you got your facts wrong. Looking for feedback on your book? Get a professional manuscript critique—our editors would love to help you refine your story.

Why should you research?

There are countless reasons why you may need to research as a fiction writer, but here are a few examples.

Let’s say you’re writing a historical work of fiction. You’ll need to get the tone and setting of your chosen period correct. Chances are the average reader wouldn’t be able to tell if you got some details wrong, but some would. In case your plot includes real historical events, you must assume that at least some within your audience will have knowledge of those. If you get the details wrong, readers will be annoyed and may lose trust in you as a writer. Disgruntled readers may also post about their frustrations online, and if others find out the details in your book are less than factual, they won’t be happy, either. 

Adequate research will help you avoid anachronisms such as featuring a piece of technology that hadn’t been invented yet or a character who can read and write at a time when almost no one could. You can run into problems if, for example, it’s crucial to the plot that your character is literate, so you’ll have to come up with an appropriate workaround.

Research will also help you understand a character’s occupation or hobby. If they are a detective, you should probably learn about police procedures. If a character rides horses, you’ll need to know a bit about horseback riding: What equipment is needed, and what is it called? What are the different breeds of horses? How much experience does your character need to reach that level of proficiency? You don’t need to become an expert yourself, but you should thoroughly research any elements that appear in your story.

Even the most fictionalized subgenres require research. If you’re writing a science fiction book, you’ll need some understanding of science despite the technology in your story being fictitious. If you’re writing a fantasy novel set in a medieval period, you may need to learn about siege warfare or the agricultural practices of the era. Maybe you want to wrap your head around the imagined biology of a mermaid—break out the human and piscatorial biology books!

In short, you need research to build your world and develop your characters—things that are foundational to your story. You may also need research to drive pivotal plot points in your story.

When should you research?

There’s no right answer to this question. However, it’s easiest to do your research during the planning and brainstorming stage. Jot down research notes as you’re generating ideas, outlining your plot, and inventing your characters. If you wait until later, you may find you need to rethink major elements of the story because you’ve already built pivotal points on inaccurate details.

This doesn’t mean you can’t research as you write, but the risk of having to seriously reevaluate certain scenes or plot points increases. Also, researching while writing can slow your momentum. Take as many notes as possible as early as you can, and save small bits of research you need to fill in the gaps.

How should you research?

The short answer is that you should research in any way you can. It’s a wide world out there—get the information you need from whatever credible source you can. That said, here are three main research avenues you can pursue.

Read (and watch)

This is the basic form of research we learned to do in school: read a book, watch an educational video, or listen to a lecture. 

Internet research is fine, especially as you get started, but to truly know a topic, you’ll likely have to dig deeper. Read some nonfiction books on relevant historical topics, watch a documentary, or listen to a podcast. Consider heading to archives to peruse some newspapers from the time in which your story is set. Even watching a YouTube video of someone’s first-hand account of a real-life event can be extremely valuable. How deeply you dive into the subject depends on how it impacts your book, but you can’t do too much research.

Talk with people

Reach out and interview experts. After all, they’re the ones who write all the books on these subjects. Ask a historian about a certain time period or talk to someone who has your character’s occupation. 

Experts aren’t the only ones with relevant experience—hobbyists are also fountains of knowledge. You can talk to a botanist and a gardener. Both will have valuable insights into the world of plants, if that’s a topic you need to know about. Seek out special interest groups in your area, and you’ll have access to an array of knowledgeable individuals. Most people will be happy to help an author understand better their field of expertise or their passion, so don’t feel shy about reaching out.

Gain direct experience

Gaining experience is the most time-consuming research method and not everyone has this privilege, but do so if you can. 

If your character is a bird expert, do some birdwatching. You can go one step further and join a club to gain some valuable first-hand experience. Unless you have a legitimate interest in birdwatching, however, you should be upfront about your reasons for joining the group to ensure your new friends don’t feel duped.

Visit the places you write about. Travel to the city or region in your novel. If you can’t manage that, you can still rely on the previous research methods by poring over maps and travel guides and talking to locals. Whenever it’s feasible to visit a location, do it. When you’re there, you’ll want to talk to the locals, experience the culture, and get acquainted with the aspects of the area that are relevant to your story.

You can never have too much information

There’s a multitude of ways to get information, so don’t limit yourself to searching the internet and borrowing a few books from the library. Use as many research methods as possible. Involving people—experts, hobbyists, locals, people who’ve experienced a particular event—is perhaps one of the most effective ways to research because not only can you directly bounce your ideas off experts, but when you release your book, they may proudly tell their family and friends about their involvement in the project, providing word-of-mouth advertising for you. The more information you have, the better you can flesh out your characters and craft a story that your readers get lost in.

Don’t forget that our editors are here to help you hone your story. Find out how we can improve your manuscript with a big-picture edit.

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