Guest Post – Research For Writers
It’s time for another guest post – and today I’m welcoming back fellow author Jessica Lave with her thoughts on research. Take it away, Jessica:
Stop Procrastinating & Dig In
Why Research Matters
Writers make things up on a daily basis. We’re professional make-believers, compulsive liars, and spend substantial time in a fictionalized version of reality. Why research when we can just as easily make something up?
Readers can only be asked to push their imaginations so far. If a writer constructs a contemporary story in a real city, the history, intersections, colloquialisms, and landmarks had all better match up, or the locals will be after blood.
Even in science fiction or fantasy, the laws of physics and bounds of reality still apply. The writer must set up exceptions throughout the story so the reader can keep up with the “rules” of the fictional world. It’s easy to make up an explanation for why something happens in a book, but a reader has to buy the explanation, and that’s where research comes in.
Research keeps a story balanced with a good blend of fact and fiction.
When to Research
Writers sometimes struggle to separate imagination from reality. It’s hard to experience the story from a reader’s perspective. But, whether it’s science fiction, historical romance, or contemporary crime fiction, there’s a point at which readers will buy into the story’s premises, and a point at which they’ll put the book down, shake their heads, and write a two-star review saying, ‘It just wasn’t very realistic/believable/good.’
Beta readers are invaluable when it comes to research – they’ll tell you what is or isn’t believable and ask questions if something was confusing. However, a good writer thinks a few steps ahead – while writing, or at least during the editing process – about the research needed to make the story work.
If you as the writer have to stop and ask yourself about something in the story, you need to research it. How long does it take to fly from London to New York? Did people still send telegrams in 1968? How do I write about a mathematician when I barely understood high school algebra? You don’t need to be a frequent flier, over the age of 60, or understand advanced mathematics to write these things into your story. You just need to investigate.
Good Research Strategies
Strategy depends on your work style. If you work best without interruptions, it’s best to make notes as you go and research later on. Vocalizing your questions and thought process – yes, talking to yourself about your book – can help you identify the parts of the story that need more research.
If you prefer a little background noise while you write, some movies or even books on tape (ones in your genre!) can be a great way to research style and dialogue. Connecting with settings, action, and dialogue similar to your story fuels the imagination.
If you are a multi-tasker and flit around while you write – checking your email or Facebook or getting up for a snack or a drink on a regular basis – then keeping a few “research tabs” in your browser may work for you.
Some good starter pages:
- A dictionary/thesaurus website: for that perfect word
- A name generator or baby names website: for character names
- Google Maps: for cities, street names, travel times, etc.
- IMDb: for movie buff characters, or to research films to watch while you write
- A news source: for current events. Current events can inform your characters’ surroundings and worldviews, and can even be a good source for plot development.
- And, it’s not necessarily research, but pull up a music player and tune in. It’ll make all that “homework” go by in no time!
I love research and learning new things, but when I’m in the middle of a story, it’s a battle to say “no” to the little devil on my shoulder who wants to throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks, and say “yes” to the pulsing cursor nagging at me in the search engine bar.
Why research? Because without it, you’re just a liar. With it, you’re a novelist.
By day, I work in a cubicle tending to an e-commerce website. By night, I blog, I review television shows and films, and occasionally I settle down long enough to write a novel. I’ve always had a diverse set of interests, which has led me to study everything from ethics to yoga to film, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is my enthusiasm for writing.
Writing is my way of bringing my interests together—I may not be able to speak six languages, pick the lock on a door, or cook a five-course meal without a recipe, but I can write about a character who can, and that’s the next best thing!
Visit me on my website at JessicaLave.com, follow me on Twitter @jessinsists, or check out my other books on Goodreads. My new book, Quiet on the Set, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon.