How Writers Do Research Right

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Research is easier than ever these days- thank you, Internet! Depending on what you’re writing, you may perform zero or tons of research to avoid sounding like you have no clue. You may also perform research for inspiration. Maybe a cool new fact is just the what you need to start outlining your next bestseller.

Some things to consider regarding research:

You may still want to go to the library. If you’re writing nonfiction, or straight historical fiction, you have to go to the library- don’t even try to worm out of it. Once you’re there, make friends with a librarian. They do more than just scan barcodes on books! Tell them what you’re working on- they’ll help you find what you need and save you tons of frustration.

Cite your sources properly. If you lift quotes or images straight out of someone else’s book/song/poem/whatever, you’d better (1) make sure the original creator has granted you permission to do so, and (2) include attribution. This is more a concern for nonfiction, but fiction writers shouldn’t be plagiarists either.

If you conduct research online, spend some time getting familiar with all the resources available to you. Google’s the obvious start, with its regular search engine, image search… seriously though, nothing made me more excited than when Street View came out, as it meant I could stage scenes on a Parisian street corner, for instance, and sound like I had some idea of what I was talking about. There are plenty more free online resources that may be of help: Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia, to name two. Your friendly neighborhood librarian will have even more ideas specific to whatever you’re trying to find.

Keep your BS detector handy. Do your best to confirm your online findings in real life. This would be more important for nonfiction or fiction that purports to be close to reality. If you’re writing something that’s more Wild West-flavored than authentic Wild West, for instance, then maybe you don’t care that saloon girls rarely doubled as prostitutes.

Be open to opportunities and surprises. If your findings invalidate your story idea, that’s not always a bad thing. Be open to taking a new direction- or, figure out how to make your original idea work in a more creative way. This roadblock may make your story more interesting than if it hadn’t existed.

Do NOT interrupt writing time for research. This can be so hard sometimes. You’re in the middle of writing a scene and you must know, what sort of objects might appear in an Italian kitchen in 1641? Well, let’s just flip to the browser! Several hours later, you’re an expert on medieval Italian kitchens- and you haven’t written a lick.

If you’re prone to get sucked into research binges, like I am, disable your Internet connection during writing time. When you come to a place where you need more info, note it down and start drafting a different section. Later, when you have lots of research items compiled, you can go back and look them all up at once.

Use your research to inform and flavor. Don’t be tempted to do more than that. As much cool stuff as you learn through research, you must refrain from cramming in and explaining every single detail. Show without telling. Delving into the why or how will take the reader out of your story.

To give an example from a manuscript I once proofread: my friend had drafted a really neat story about wizards in Pittsburgh. These wizards were about to meet up at one of the city’s many bridges. Instead of proceeding to that scene, the story segued into several paragraphs explaining the (admittedly) colorful history of the bridge. While this was neat info, it had nothing to do with the plot, and was only delaying the action.

A few minutes of research does not an expert make. Whatever you’re writing about, try to experience yourself if at all possible (or safe). There is no better way to lend power and credence to your written descriptions than by banking on personal experience.

But hey- not all of us can time-travel to Pre-Colombian America or set ourselves on fire. In that case, look for beta-readers or interview subjects who have experience with what you’re writing about. If you’ve never been in a fight, ask a martial artist or weapons expert to help with your fight scenes. If you’ve set a story in San Francisco and have never visited, a beta-read from a friend in San Fran might spare you from embarrassing mistakes.

Have you ever watched a Hollywood chase scene based in your city? Often, they jump between highways and neighborhoods that are actually miles apart from each other. Most people won’t be familiar with the geography, so it’s no big deal to them- but for actual city residents, it jars them out of the film.

Do you have any other suggestions or caveats concerning research? Drop me a line in the comments!

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