Fiction isn’t just imagination: researching your novel

Today’s guest post is by the amazing Nicole Evelina, whose dedication to research is awe-inspiring. Don’t believe me? Check out her blog!

I’m a historical fiction writer, so I do a lot of research. But you don’t have to be writing in another time period to find research necessary when writing a novel. Sure, you can make up a lot, but chances are good that unless your characters have the exact same life experiences as you, you’re going to need to do a little fact-finding along the way.

Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Why research is important

Research can be as simple as getting the details of your character’s occupation right or accurately depicting a route through a city. Sometimes it’s providing realistic descriptions of places that your readers may have lived or want to visit after reading your books. Things like that may seem trivial when we’ve got plots bursting from our brains but, trust me, someone out there will know when you’re making things up, and they will call you on it, especially in the age of social media. Of course, no one can get everything right, but it’s up to us as professionals to try.

Research can seem daunting, but I look at it this way: you start broad and then narrow in on the details that will make your book ring true to readers. Usually this means doing background research first. This is the broad information that allows you to feel like you understand the world in which your character lives. For me, this means culture, history, politics, religion, law, dress codes, prejudices, etc. But in other genres, it may just be reading about what a private investigator does or how the myth of vampires evolved over time. Only you will know exactly what you need.

With my basic information in mind, I plot my book. Sometimes I do more detailed research before I write a first draft, focusing on those things I know will play a major role in my characters’ lives. Once I’ve got a draft that makes some semblance of sense, I fact check my details – usually even up to the last minute – because it’s those little things that make fiction feel like reality.

More than just going online

So, how do you go about doing your research, especially if you haven’t done any since college? Well, thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever. Sometimes all you need to is search Google Maps or Google Earth to get what you need. Other times, you can find the information right on the web. But I recommend verifying anything you find online in some sort of established reference material, just to be certain it’s accurate. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

I’m not a doctor, but I play one in my books

Nothing beats in-person research. Sometimes that means visiting a place in person to get a feel for the area and see its nuances for yourself. Or you could interview an expert or two. If you’re a method writer, you could take a class on your subject or even ask if you can shadow someone who does what you’re curious about. People are amazingly willing to help, especially if they know you’re doing research, so don’t be afraid to be honest with them.

Between the pages

But not everything requires you to go this in-depth. Sometimes good old fashioned book research will do just fine. Amazon’s catalogue and Google Books are great ways to see what books exist on your subject. Some you will want to buy, but don’t worry if you can’t afford or don’t desire to amass an entire collection. Your public library will quickly become your best friend. And even if your city doesn’t have the book you want, they can probably get it through the interlibrary loan system. You’d be surprised what obscure titles will come to you from colleges all around the country (or even the world) if you’re just willing to wait a few weeks.

It’s worth it

Research may seem like a pain, but most of us became writers because we love exploring other worlds, other lives. That’s exactly what research is. If it helps, think of yourself as an actor taking on a role—you’ll have to live your characters’ lives even more in depth and for a longer period of time than you would if you were playing them in a movie. Your readers will be inhabiting their lives for the duration of their time with your book, so you owe it to them to get things right. If you go into research with a positive attitude, you’ll not only come out with a better story, you’ll be a little wiser, too.

Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction writer from the Midwestern United States, represented by Jen Karsbaek of Foreword Literary. She’s currently writing an Arthurian legend trilogy. Her first book, Guinevere of Northgallis, is complete and she’s working on the sequel, Camelot’s Queen

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9 Comments on “Fiction isn’t just imagination: researching your novel”

  1. Thanks for having me on your blog, Cassandra!

  2. Reblogged this on Through the Mists of Time and commented:
    In case you haven’t heard enough about research from me here, this is a guest post I did over at Cassandra Page’s blog,

  3. I agree…research is quite important. SLOWS down writing but it’s a necessary evil

  4. C H Griffin says:

    Great post. My current WIP is based in Chicago in the late 1800s. Two things which I knew nothing about. In fact, I still have a lot to learn. The internet can only take you so far. I plan on visiting Chicago this year to do some in person research and hopefully make some great contacts that might help me take the details about my setting to the next level.

    • That’s a great idea!

    • Great choice! Chicago is a wonderful city and they are very in touch with their history, so they’ll be lots of resources for you. You may want to ask around at the tourism office if there are any tours you can take or museums dedicated to your time period. There’s an old library building just off Michigan Ave across from Millenium Park that I think now has a visitor’s area in it that would be another great resource for you.

      • C H Griffin says:

        That’s great. Thank you! I really wanted Chicago to be the setting because of its rich and detailed history, especially around my timeframe. I can’t wait to go.


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