4 Essential Rules of Research for Fiction Writers
The old adage goes, “Write what you know.” That’s all well and good for a deeper understanding of theme and experiences, but what about the little things? What if you want to set a story in the Regency era? Or if you want to visit faraway lands? Or if it’s speculative fiction and the world might not exist? Research can help you know how to write that, too.
Research is a powerful tool transform a story from “pretty good” into “wow, that story was so real, I could taste the muffins!” Research is also a powerful beast, and it could ruin the story with minutiae. One example would be using big fancy words that no one cares about in an attempt to brag, “Look how smart I am,” when you’re really only saying, “Look how good I am using thesaurus.com.”
So in the interest of helping authors everywhere use research wisely, here are 4 rules all fiction writers should follow in the planning phase of their next project:
1. Don’t Skip the Research.
A lot of times it’s tempting to simply not do the research, saying to oneself, “I’m here to write a story, not read a bunch of stuff and make notes for junk that’s not going to be in the story!” But plenty of stories have been ruined by not doing the research ahead of time.
Science fiction is particularly notorious, as buzz words often take the place of genuinely understanding the created world. Plenty of superheroes gain their powers through exposure to gamma rays or radioactive spider-bites, but the more realistic result of this would be death. A starship captain says, “Quick! Reverse the polarity!”, and suddenly the enemy is vanquished. Reversing the polarity is rarely a good idea: it’s what happens when batteries are jammed in backward.
It isn’t just sci-fi and comic books with this problem. Goofing in real-world settings can make a reader roll his or her eyes. Like watching a plane fly over a medieval battlefield, getting details wrong kills the suspension of disbelief and leaves the reader thinking, “That’s not right.”
2. Research Early and Research Often.
Instead of just making details up as you go, you need to study them before sitting down to write to maximize realism. People can talk about the “spicy marketplaces of Istanbul,” but it’s so much richer it is to discuss what is actually there: curry from India, saffron from Iran, all the teas of China. Use the actual wording of the day, and show why it takes almost a week to travel to get from Bath to London before trains. Paint a picture of the hardship of riding a coach with its bumpy springs for days on end. Readers who don’t even like commuting in air conditioned cars will marvel at your character’s endurance.
Before I put together “Where is Captain Rook?”, my short story for the Kindle All-Stars anthology for charity, Carnival of Cryptids, I read a whole stack of articles about the Amazon. I read about orchid hunters in the 1800s, the rise and fall of the city of Manaus, extinct mylodons, the monsterous mapinguari, newspaper articles about mapinguari attacking cattle in 1937, race relations in 1930s Brazil, and on and on.
Not everything was necessary for the story, but it helped develop the world of a city on the brink of the jungle, which threatened to destroy the temporary wonders of man. The opera house of Manaus, for example, rivaled that of Paris in its heyday. When the Rubber Boom crashed after British industrial espionage made off with rubber trees, it fell into disrepair. As cool as our own imaginations are, the crazy epic of history has all the more magnificence to add to our stories.
3. Let Research Change Your Story for the Better.
Not only does doing research help your story’s realism, it might very well help its plotting and theme. One of the myths about mapinguari I came across spoke of its magical powers in controlling the weather. Another said that the monster doesn’t like to be around water, which makes sense if it really is an extant mylodon, clumsy and not wanting to get its thick fur wet.
Being the curious type, I looked into historical weather listings for the Amazon. Lo and behold, there was a drought going on in the 1930s, significant enough that a creature would need to expand its hunting grounds. It was more than a little eerie to see meteorological evidence to coincide with eyewitness reports. Maybe the magic of the jungle knows more than civilization about the world’s secrets.
4. Don’t Let Research Run Away with the Story
Research is a powerful beast. It can be a tireless workhorse helping to build our stories, or it could be a wild stallion that carry the author way. When dealing with wild stallions (or Wyld Stallyns for those of us eagerly anticipating Bill & Ted 3), the best way to control them is to remember who’s boss.
I personally have a bad habit of pausing and thinking to myself, “Oh, we should see if there are any historical details here.” A few trips around the Internet later, I’m nowhere near my word count for the day. Keep research roped in by remembering deadlines. As awesome as research is, the story comes first. If need be, leave a blank line in the document, finish the scene, and come back later.
According to legend, Sinclair Lewis had three pages of notes for every page of his novel Babbitt. On the one hand, that might seem a little extreme. On the other, it helped him win a Nobel Prize for Literature for his realism in depicting the Roaring Twenties. Taking the time to do the research really does pay off.
Struggling to find ideas for your work? Check out our free e-book, “A Year of Inspiration: 52 Writing Prompts from the Renegade Word.”