How to research before writing your book
If there’s one word a writer probably never wants to hear, it’s research. If you’re like me, it’s one of the fun stages in the writing process. But, we all know the truth; for some, it’s almost worse than editing.
So here’s the question: Do you have to research your novel?
Maybe. Although there are many reasons you would need to conduct a bit of research before writing, this is a short list to start you off. Does your novel:
- exist in a real geographical location
- incorporate historical events
- use historical/modern figures
- take place in a recognizable time period
- require knowledge of specific disorders, diseases, symptoms, biological or anatomical information, etc.
- stimulate thoughts about possible future events/creations
- stimulate possible conspiracies/coexistences
Again, this list could probably grow and if you know of anything that should be on the list, comment below and I’ll gladly add it. But, for now, here it is. Does your novel have or follow anything listed above or anything similar? If you answered yes to any at all, you need to do some research.
The best time to research your novel is before you pick up the pen or open the Word document. You’d be surprised how much inspiration research provides. Right now, I’m working on a novel about someone with dissociative identity disorder. I used to tell myself not to write about something I know so little about or use a character I can’t understand, but this character and story definitely chose me so I plan on doing it right. Because this novel requires more research than anything I’ve ever written, I’ll mention it a lot. Just a warning.
So, I’ve started writing it and I’m on the fourth chapter. I am still doing a ridiculous amount of research on the disorder, but I’ve learned a ton and I have other things to research, too. Since I didn’t start researching until the idea spilled on the page, I had to do a lot of backtracking to correct things or rewrite things where new knowledge provided inspiration. This is why I will say “before the pen.” If you write first, you’ll be revising before you continue writing and your entire novel will stop progressing while you fix everything.
How do I begin researching?
This can get complicated. In Rescued, my work in progress, I have geographical research to conduct because it takes place in and out of the mountains, I have to research DID, and I have a bit of research to do on climate and animals and how weather and temperature effects a child’s body. Many, many things. So, where did I start?
I started with Dirce, Katherine’s alter.
1) Main character
Your main character is more important than anything. You can place your character in any plot or setting, but your story is nothing without your character. Whatever research you might need to conduct needs to begin with that MC. Or those characters. Whatever the case is.
If your character has a disease or disorder, look up scientific articles. The Wikipedia definition is not the answer. If you want to do things right, don’t be lazy about it. Otherwise, you should probably choose a different topic or move on to your next project. Research isn’t a game. It’s a process. Don’t skip steps and don’t slack on the work. If it’s scientific, use more than just the definition or WebMD. Use those to understand basic definitions of things, but look up scholarly articles to find the juicy stuff. Look up case files. Those are the best.
2) Research the setting
If you know where your character is going to be, your brain can work out the details in the background. You know who they are by now, so now you need to figure out where they are and why they’re there. What is the place like? What obstacles will block their path? Do they like it there? Are they staying there? What is the time period and how will that affect their goals?
If this is your hometown, you’ll need to think of something else: How is this place different from any other place?
I live in Corpus Christi, Texas. People walk into a store in swimsuits during the summer, trucks with lift kits are probably in the majority of vehicles driven, metal roofs are not a thing unless the person asking for one . . . no comment. Salt water and metal. Country music is played in stores, frizzy hair is normal, Texas pride is like a religion, we have things called homecoming mums, bluebonnets are illegal to pick, “you all” is a weird, sophisticated way of saying “y’all,” and yadda yadda yadda.
There are tons of things about your hometown that you take for granted. You don’t realize they’re different, but someone who reads your book who isn’t from your hometown or state might wonder what something is, especially if you’re trying to write a different state. If I talk about a mum in my novel, which takes place in Wyoming, it might not be understood. It’s not just a flower in Texas; it’s a high school tradition. I don’t need to discuss mums in my novel, so I don’t know whether Wyoming residents know what that is; however, if I were to do this, it would be obvious I know nothing about Wyoming. To me, this is normal. But, since I’ve done a little research, I recognize this as a south characteristic, so it doesn’t belong in a novel that takes place where this isn’t familiar.
3) Any other research
Like I said, I still have to look up things about climate and its effect on the body because my novel uses a lot of outdoor events and mountain weather, which I know nothing about. I live in Texas where winter is a week of 50-degree weather. I need to know how different altitude changes things and what animals live out there. What don’t you know about your story? That’s what you need to research. What will happen that you need to know?
Yes, this is a little like an outline. But, even if you don’t write an outline, you need to do research. If everything about your novel is made up, research is your decision. You know what you don’t know, and only you can decide how much effort you’re willing to put into the thousands of words you’re going to write.
Where do I look?
Google and Bing are your best friends, but again, don’t use Wikipedia or WebMD as credible sources. Don’t use urban dictionary, either. Use credible sources. Some of those sources might even live right next door or be your friend on social media. Yes, I’m talking about your friends and family. I talked to a retired private investigator about Rescued so I could ensure the plausibility of the kidnappings that occur before the book starts. People you know, and even other writers, will be incredible sources of information (Thank you, Cynthia Treis, for reminding me of this valuable tip.)
Google Maps or the Apple Map (Is it iMap?) will help with geographic locations, dictionaries and a thesaurus can help you create new words or find old ones that aren’t used. Local college students can help you see through the eyes of those who are their age (if you’re writing about a college kid), and your sister’s best friend’s daughter’s friend will be a great source if you need . . . whatever they know that you don’t. Use your resources both animated and virtual!
Here are a few websites that will help you out for other types of research:
Scholarly sources with access to journals, articles, etc.:
Free access to books/information about books:
Use of public information:
This list is not a place for all information. You’ll find websites I’ve never heard of, and you’ll need information that isn’t located as a site on here. This is just a good place to start. These are places with reportedly credible information, and I encourage you to check some of them out or even add to the list in the comments below. If you don’t like clicking on links, you can easily right-click on any link and copy the link address. Just as a side note.
Hopefully, this helped out a little. I know research is difficult and time-consuming, but you’ll learn so much in the process, and it will benefit your novel more than you can imagine. If you read this article all the way through, you definitely have the means to do what you should to make your novel incredible, and even if you skipped through some of it, doing research is what matters. Some of the most incredible novels I’ve edited have been well-researched, and I hope one day I edit yours!
Good luck, happy writing, and have fun!