When you think of research for fiction, you’re probably inclined to think of historical novels. After all, if you’re writing contemporary fiction, you live in that world, so how much is there to research? Perhaps not very much if you base your fiction on your own experiences. But if you take on other identities – characters quite different from yourself – you may need to do some research – perhaps a lot.
Let’s say you situate a character in a part of the country you’re not familiar with. Can you provide a good establishing shot the way filmmakers do? What are some geographical markers you should capture and describe well? Can you give a believable sense for the culture of this place? This may take some research into print media, especially visual media, but better yet, if you have the opportunity to visit, do so. Nothing beats firsthand experience, which allows you to absorb both sights and sounds. Research enough to effectively put the aura of a place on the page.
Setting isn’t the only thing you might need to research. Any number of things come into play when you’re writing fiction. How do you perform certain tasks at a given job? What are the job responsibilities of that particular position? What’s an ordinary day like? To achieve verisimilitude, you need to get these things right. With fiction, you have some latitude, but you still don’t want to be so off that you jerk your reader out of the story. If your protagonist is on the wrong side of the law, say, a burglar – perhaps a safe cracker – find out how to crack a safe. At the other end of the spectrum, if your protagonist is a law-abiding citizen – let’s assume she’s an electrical engineer – be sure to find out what an electrical engineer does. How might an electrical engineer think? If your protagonist is strongly tuned into the sights, sounds, and rhythms of nature, which animals and their behaviors will your character notice? Can you name and describe numerous varieties of flowers and their seasonal appearances?
Research may help you achieve verisimilitude, but in some cases, it does more than that: it’s crucial to the story and its basic themes. In that case, your research serves a key contextual purpose.
Managing your research
Research generally involves three major resources: print media, interviews, and firsthand experience. When you see the need for research, how should you go about it? Should you do it all before writing your story or novel, or should you write and research as you go along, filling in details as you see the opportunity?
If the research is crucial to your story’s character, plot, and theme, you may want to do much of it before you begin composing. Imagine the following: Let’s say your protagonist is a traveler to France, fascinated by the country’s major cultural icons: the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles. Let’s say he is especially captivated by Mont Saint Michel, haunted by its architectural splendor and medieval past. Imagine a story centered on this rocky tidal island. You would need to describe it vividly, its location in Normandy, its imposing beauty. How to do this? Watch YouTube videos, look at Google images, read about it, but you must also go there, take pictures, and spend some time if you wish to capture this place in all its grandeur. You need to be fully immersed in your subject before you begin. Think of it this way: you can’t write in a vacuum. You must know your subject well – whatever that subject is – before starting to write. (Of course, you can do further research as you compose.)
If the research isn’t crucial to the story as a whole, however, you can do it as you write. For instance, let’s say your protagonist flips houses. But your story isn’t centered on the work itself, but rather on your protagonist’s personal struggles off the worksite. Still, you’ll need to give your reader a good sense for what your character does at work. How do you hang drywall and mud it? How do you install insulation? How do you make everything meet code? You can take your time with your research, first focusing on character and plot, and then introduce details about the work site as you get a strong sense for them.
Selecting research details
Your research must be incorporated in the story so that it doesn’t call attention to itself. It must feel just right. You may end up accumulating a lot of research material, but even so, it must be carefully selected: just enough, not too much. It has a clear function in the story. This function can naturally vary from story to story, novel to novel.
For mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig, author of Quilt or Innocence, research aided her in adding “texture to scenes.” She spoke with quilters and consulted books and periodicals to accurately portray the hobby. In her use of research, she was careful not to get off track, not to risk “overloading readers with details that didn’t further the plot.” She explains: “Quilting activities as well as a quilt shop provided opportunities for the amateur sleuth to more naturally interview the mystery’s suspects and witnesses.”
For Jennifer Tseng, research was important in fleshing out the plot of her debut novel. Her work in an island library, like her protagonist’s in Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, helped her pick up plenty of good material from colleagues. “Every shift, I would ask the ladies questions: ‘How do people meet people on this island?’ ‘If two people were going to have a secret affair, where would they rendezvous?’ ‘If the main character were to sleep with a 17-year-old, would you hold it against her?’” From this informal research, Tseng chose stories that helped her develop both character and plot. Tseng states, “The librarians’ answers to my questions changed the course of the book. I learned that more townspeople than I ever could have imagined were committing transgressions on a daily basis; on any given day, the town was absorbing innumerable secrets.”
Short story writer Robert Garner McBrearty’s many menial jobs helped him develop research materials for workplace stories. As a mental hospital attendant, says McBrearty, “I locked in visions of the smoky dayroom [with] patients gazing at an old non-functioning TV set, observed patients lined up sticking out tongues to receive a cascade of pills, and participated in ‘seclusions’ when patients were rushed to padded rooms.” He used this workplace research in his story “The Acting Class,” when lovers meet at the hospital. “A mental hospital,” says McBrearty, “is the perfect setting for the doomed lovers, who are trapped in their own delusions.” For McBrearty, it was important to select from his many experiences the ones that captured the setting but also related closely to character and plot.
- Check facts carefully, but keep in mind that as long as the world you create has a strong air of reality, you can get away with not being completely real-to-life.
- Decide on what needs to be researched and the resources you have. Do your research at the most convenient time. The needs of your story or novel will determine the best approach.
- Don’t let the research overwhelm the work. Choose what you can use and let the rest go. If something’s truly irresistible but doesn’t belong in a work, pocket it for other possible stories.
Jack Smith is author of numerous articles, reviews, and interviews, three novels, and a book on writing, entitled Write and Revise for Publication.
- Research in historical fiction
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