Research plays a huge part in my fictional writing process. I couldn’t write my books without it.
Here are some tips for carrying out research to help with writing your novel.
As writers we should all be reading as much as possible. In his Memoir On Writing, Stephen King famously wrote:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
That is so true.
I read all the time. I always have a novel on the go and I also slot in non-fiction books, especially non-fiction history.
If you’re setting a novel in a particular time or place then you’ll need to read about it. In the Acknowledgements section of my Berlin novel Oranges for Christmas, I reference eight books that I used extensively for research. In her 1940’s novel The Night Watch, Sarah Waters lists a grand total of forty books, and they were only the ones she found “most useful.” I’m clearly a bit of a lightweight in the research department. 🙂
But I also read non-fiction books without an agenda in mind. This gives me ideas which I may or may not use at a later date in a novel.
In the past I’ve borrowed books from the library and typed up notes on anything of interest. This is very time-consuming but it gives me a condensed version of the book that I can refer to later when writing.
Recently, I’ve been reading non-fiction on the Kindle and making use of the highlight functionality. When you’ve finished reading you can transfer your highlighted passages to a Word document or PDF.
I think it’s also important to read as much fiction as possible when you’re writing a novel. If you’re writing genre fiction then this is essential because you need to be familiar with the tropes of the genre and the expectations of readers.
But reading fiction has a number of more intangible benefits such as:
- It inspires me to want to create something equally enjoyable.
- It teaches me what makes a good story and how stories are structured.
- It introduces me to characters and situations beyond the scope of those I meet in my everyday life.
- It atunes my ear to good prose so that I can tell when my own prose is out of kilter.
There is so much good drama on television these days that it would be a crime not to watch it. I think there’s great value in treating a TV series like a novel and watching an episode a night much as you would read a chapter a night.
I’ve found YouTube to be a great source of documentaries and clips. Here’s a British Pathé clip I watched whilst writing Scarborough Ball which is set in the 1920s:
Travel is a great way to get ideas for a story. If you want to set a novel in a particular location then it helps if you can visit the location.
Travel doesn’t have to be expensive or exotic. When I was writing The Sleeping Angel, I went into London for the day and did a tour of Highgate Cemetery. I also wandered around the vicinity and strolled around Hampstead Heath.
Try visiting a local museum, or church, or country house.
It isn’t always practical or economical to travel to every location in your novel. I’m a big fan of Google Street View and will often take a virtual walk around a city, honing in on buildings and landmarks. You can save the images to your computer by taking a screen shot.
And don’t forget the humble map. When writing Oranges for Christmas I invested in a large, fold-out paper map of Berlin which was so much more helpful than trying to understand the geography on a laptop screen.
Whether you take your own photographs or find images on the Internet, you can gather them together on Pinterest boards.
Should you stop writing to research?
In my experience it just isn’t feasible to do all your research up front before you start writing the first draft.
The research you do before the first draft will be more general in nature. This is part of the idea generating stage. You won’t use all this research.
Once you’re actually writing you will come up with more specific questions to which you will want to know the answers.
Some writers will say, don’t stop writing, just make a note for yourself and come back to it later. But why later? Why not now?
I suppose it’s a question of knowing yourself. Can you stop writing to quickly look something up and then get back into the flow? If so, then go ahead and check whatever it is you need to know. I’m always flitting backwards and forwards between my manuscript and, say, Google Maps. I don’t find it a problem.
Don’t bombard the reader with your research
You have to be really careful when writing fiction that you don’t make the research too obvious. In writing Oranges for Christmas I deleted big sections from my first draft because they made the book sound like a history textbook.
Whatever you do, don’t do an info-dump of all the fascinating material you’ve dug up, particularly when it comes to historical facts.
Remember – you’re telling a story, not writing a tour-guide.
Do you have any favourite research methods? What works best for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.