Sunday, April 24, 2011

Let’s Get Ready to Research: Researching for Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Anyone who’s ever read a TL Morganfield story knows she’s a history buff. The amount of research she puts in is amazing (if a little daunting to the non-historians like myself). Even if you aren’t writing stories steeped in history, doing a little research can save you writing time in the long run.


I’m a fantasy writer, which means I make up worlds for a living. But making up every single detail for every single aspect of those worlds would take me longer than writing the book. So when I create a world, I start with research and give myself a foundation on which to build. For example, for my trilogy, The Healing Wars, I wanted a tropical-style island city on a lake. I did a little looking and found Lake Victoria in Africa. It fit the climate I had in mind and provided me with a geographic area that had all the built-in details I could need.

If I wanted to know what crops grew in my fantasy world, I had that information on hand. If I needed to know weather patterns, or when the rainy season was (if they even had a rainy season) it was right there in my research. Art, fashion, history? I had notes to draw from. Even better, I found real life details I was able to incorporate into my story that gave it a deeper sense of realism. Problems commonly found in that region that I adapted to fit my made-up world and cause my protagonist trouble.

But don’t think this is just for genre writers.

Even if you write in the real world, a little research can go a long way. Take a few hours and research the town or area you’re setting your story in. There are probably a ton of details you can find out on the Chamber of Commerce site or the local visitor’s bureau. These details can add local flavor and help you create a deeper and more realistic world.

How to start researching
Search engines are your friends. I just plug whatever topic I’m curious about in and start reading. Titles will jump out at you, other links will be provided, and you can just wander around and see what inspires you. For my lake city, I typed in “world’s biggest lakes” and started reading up on each lake and the surrounding area. I crossed some off my list because they didn’t fit the vision I had for my tropical city, but several were interesting and could have made great foundations to build my world upon. I read more on them until I found my perfect lake and setting.

You don’t need everything
You’ll probably find a lot more information than you’ll need, so don’t feel compelled to use it all. And don’t worry if you want to change anything to make it fit your story better, As long as you aren’t writing an accurate historical novel, you can pretty much do whatever you need as long as it doesn’t violate the facts (like claiming a city is in a different state or the like). The more fantastical your world, the more you can get away with. The goal here is to let the research inspire you and fill in some gaps, not just find “stuff to put in to the novel.”

Choosing what to use
For me, I did my research, made my notes and then pretty much let it all simmer in my head. Whenever I came across something in the story that, A) required a detail I could easily find in my notes, or B) could be made better by using something in my notes, I added it. This worked wonderfully for all those background setting details, because I didn’t have to stop to make things up that may or may not have gone well together. Like mixing two foods that never would have grown in the same region, or having something growing that wasn’t indigenous to that area.

A little research can provide a wealth of information with not a lot of time spent gathering it. It’s like having pages of inspiration ready when you need it.

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at The Feathered Serpent's Nest.


  1. Great tips.
    Lucky I like research because I love it.
    The trick with writing is to not include it all.

  2. great ideas! I love research too! But I'm a huge history buff!

  3. Great advice. I just did this myself, and altho I didn't use all the details I dreamt up, they were ready if I needed them and just knowing them helped me flesh out the story.

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  5. I forgot a part from my inital reply, so I deleted it and I post it again-

    I so agree with this, Janice.

    Too often I've dealt with writers who think just because I mostly write fantasy stories that rarely take place in the "Real world" that I shouldn't be the least bit concerned with things making sense or not plausible.

    But I think that's a bit narrow minded, and speaking as someone's who's guilty of this myself during times of writer's woe, it's not always easy to spot in yourself, until a fellow writer friend brings it your attention, hopefully in a way that doesn't make you feel worse, but for the betterment of my craft, it's better I know and be a bit ticked at how I was informed, than never know at all, which would hold me back if not addressed.

    You've shown through example and from previous posts that research does matter, even when your novel or story isn't a traditional historical.

    Some things need to make clear, logical sense, or readers won't go along with the story because not knowing why this deviates from the norm or that you have some shred of fact to back up what may otherwise seem farfetched or unfairly keeping the reader in the dark to avoid over-telling/showing everything.

    For example, if you're going to write a thriller involving cannibalistic gravediggers, you'd want to at least learn some of the origins of those practices so it doesn't sound like you didn't take care with what you're writing about, and if you're deviating from the traditions or normal assumptions to keep the give a welcome twist to the reader, knowing a bit more lets you be clever and surprising without playing unfairly with reader.

    The only danger in research for me, other than knowing where to find the info I need to research, is letting it cripple my ability to deviate or tailor it to fit the book or story I'm writing, so it doesn't sound overly scholarly, or messes up the voice or stop the action, even though without those bites of info, no one will believe nor understand what you're setting up.

    If nothing else, I hope my difficulties with this issue helps other non-historical novelists feel less alone in this.


  6. I think that while research can help with keeping facts straight, even in a fantasy novel, it also can help lend a sense of place and setting to a work. Knowing a place's weather patterns, crops, customs, dress, etc. -- even if they're the weather patterns, crops, customs, and dress of a world you've completely invented -- will help you add sense details, like what the place looks like, smells like, sounds like, and so on, which will in turn bring your world to life for the reader.

  7. Al: Exactly. That's one reason I read and highlight, but don't make as ton of notes at first. Only the really cool stuff sticks in my head so I'm less tempted to add a lot.

    Cautionary Tale: Thanks!

    PK: That's how I feel, too. They there when I need them.

    Las Vegas Writer: Thanks!

    Myne: Thanks, I'm glad :)

    Taurean: That happens to a lot of folks. You do all that work and feel you need to be true to it. And you don't.

    Rachel: Totally. That's why I do so much of it. NO matter what or where your world is, it needs to feel real.

  8. Well Janice, I don't either, but I wish every writer/parent/teacher who get on me about this would read what you said here before reading me the riot of act and accusing me of overtaxing the kids I'm trying to reach in the first place, I think they need to hear it much more than I have in recent years, and why I attract these teachers and parents, who're no less serious about books and writing than me, who is neither of these things, is beyond me. LOL!


  9. In the end you need to be true to the story, and if you need to fuddle something to do that (and it's still plausible) then the story is served best by doing that.