Research Tips for Fiction Writers: Where to Find Information and How to Use It Effectively
And how to store it so you can find it again
If you’d asked me fifteen years ago how much research I did for my fiction writing, I probably would’ve said “Not much at all”. I guess back then a lot of what I wrote was based on my own experiences, or my imagination, and what I didn’t know, I made up. Then I got hooked on a pirate story which was based on a real person who lived back in 1717, and research became my new passion! Over the next few years, I think I gathered more material on pirates than I ever thought possible, but the supporting information I needed in order to write strong historical fiction was as detailed, if not more so.
Some of the things I researched include: money in the southern US — what currencies were used, how they were compared for value, what one guinea or one shilling would buy; sailing ships, with a particular interest in brigantines; clothing, food, houses, drinks; medicinals and diseases; what books were published back then; what language was used — I’ve had a great deal of fun with all 13 volumes of the Greater Oxford Dictionary! Along the way, for other novels and stories, I’ve researched horses and horse riding, ballet, tunnels and underground houses, country policemen, city homicide detectives, remand centres, and various types of head injuries, to name just a few topics.
The thing is — even if you’re writing a novel set in the contemporary world, in your own suburb or city or town, there will be many things you will need to make sure you get right. One reason for this is because readers now are very well-informed, and they can simply Google to see if you are wrong. When they know you’ve made an error, even a smallish one, it can pull them out of the story, make them think you don’t know what you’re talking about, and put your book down.
Another reason for good research is that you are creating a fictional world, no matter what time or place you’re writing about, and the more you know about that world, the more easily you can weave information about it into your story. You can imagine your characters there, interacting with their environment, and avoid info dumps. Far better to have your character wrestling with the long, skinny gear stick in a Morris 1000 car, and bumping along the overgrown country lane on its narrow tyres, smelling oil burning from the old engine, than giving readers a paragraph describing the car. If you know enough about a Morris 1000 (or have driven one), using it in your story comes much more naturally.
So the tips I’m offering come from experience, and are aimed at fiction writers who need to obtain good world-building information that is as accurate as it can be.
No matter what information you find or where it is, record the source. I keep a big notebook and I put book titles and authors in it, as well as websites and journals. You never know when you might need it again, or might need to verify where you found it. You can also use note apps such as Evernote to record where you found the information. I’ve been in the position a number of times where the original website or blog has disappeared or moved — sometimes it’s worth printing out vital information you will need again later.
Don’t rely on the internet for everything. Yes, it’s handy and you can find heaps of things there, but it should only be one of your sources. Wikipedia is a starting point — I look at it because these days it comes up first in a search half the time — but from there I branch out and look at at least ten sites. There are many, many websites that are created by people with a specific interest in a subject. That doesn’t mean they’re an expert. I’ve found many sites with inaccurate information, or pushing a certain point of view. I like to find sites maintained by government departments (in the US many states have a department of history and/or conservation, for example), universities and/or academics with specific knowledge, and local history sites.
But as well, even books can be wrong, often because new knowledge or evidence has been discovered. Check the publication date, and compare with other books. I try to verify important information I want to use in my book by finding two other sources that confirm it. Not always possible, though. Remember with history that it’s usually written by the victors, and by people of authority. Look for collections of oral history, local histories and things such as letters and diaries. Those will give you the voice and experiences of ordinary people of the time.
Interview people, if you can, and if it’s relevant (no one who was alive in 1717 was available for my first historical novel, but historians focusing on the era were). But I have done interviews that have enlightened me on ballet, horse riding, frogs, injuries and country policing, for example. Prepare good questions beforehand, tape the interview, and take good notes. I’ve had two occasions where the tape recorder has died halfway through. You would be surprised how open experts are to being questioned — they often love the opportunity to talk about their passion. (Don’t forget to acknowledge them in the back of your book.)
Collect anything and everything. I particularly love stories about the people who lived in the era I might be researching, and how they lived at the time. For example, electricity to the home is less than 120 years old. There are people alive today who can remember life before TV, the destruction and deprivations of World War II, health care before antibiotics. Again, look for collections of oral histories and family histories and the memoirs of ordinary people. A great example is the book by Jennifer Worth that became the TV series, Call the Midwife. Odd little snippets can become part of your novel and add more interest — and sometimes more humor. You never know when a tidbit can come in useful. Again, I keep all this kind of stuff in my notebook, either as notes or pasting it in.
Try to go to the places you are writing about, or something similar. I have a friend who writes fantasy for whom a particular beach is the beach in her novel, and walking along it helps her to write those scenes with more authenticity. I was excited to go to South and North Carolina to research more about pirates, and visit the museum where they displayed all of the artefacts from Blackbeard’s ship. If you can’t go there, print out a map and use Google maps to look at the streets and buildings, as well as do an image search for photos. If your setting is made-up by you, it’s even more important to draw a map for yourself so you can envisage your village/town/suburb and where it is, and more importantly, where your characters go.
Use the libraries all around you. Not just your own public library but all the others. For example, I went to the public library of the suburb I was writing about to look at some things in their local history section, and the librarian informed me that as long as I lived in the state, I could join their library for free and take out books (it may be the same where you live). We also have State libraries with huge collections, often accessed online (especially their photo and image sections), and often you can access the collections at university libraries. You may not be able to borrow but you can sit and read. And don’t forget that libraries these days have more than books — they have newspapers on microfiche, photographs and ephemera.
Don’t think that if you’re not writing historical fiction then you don’t need to research. I think every book benefits from good background research. My horse stories really came alive for me (and, I hope, the reader) after I’d had a riding lesson. The same with the archery lesson I had. I’m about to go to Finland, where my character will go, and I intend to pretend I am him, seeing this new country and landscapes through his eyes. You can do the same with your own city. Pretend you haven’t been there before and try to see through fresh eyes.
Don’t forget movies. Yes, for my pirate novel I watched all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies! But I also watched a lot of old pirate movies, all the Hornblower TV series, and anything with old sailing ships or set in my era (for the clothing and houses). A lot of movies aren’t exactly accurate with their costumes and architecture, but they help to give you the ‘feel’ of the time, at least. You can also Google the question, “What are the best movies set in xxx?”
You can also read published novels set in your era, or in your genre, to see how other writers deal with inserting the fact into the fiction. It’s a skill, to weave the setting and background and historical information in without lapsing into info dumps. We can learn by reading the best and the worst. When I read crime novels now, I’m always looking to see how the writer weaves in setting and description, how much detail they give the reader on things (military-type thriller writers spend a lot of words on weapons!) and adding information to my own collection of facts.
World-building of any kind is an art that sits alongside character and plot building. This article by Patricia C. Wrede on fantasy world-building is a classic now, and I’ve used it with my students many times. There are others like this as well — all you have to do is a search.
Finally, I’d suggest you keep a “bible” of all of your research and world-building information. For each novel, I have a notebook where I jot down everything I might need later. Programs like Scrivener also provide ways to do this on your computer. My notebook includes characters and their backstories, even down to the dog they had as a child, settings and details of all kinds. If you ever write a sequel or a series, your notebook will be worth gold to you!