The benefit of research in fiction writing

This post is the twenty-fourth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

As you write your novel, you want to make your reader feel the world you created, whether it is a whole new world or just a neighborhood in San Francisco, is real. You want them to believe your character is a scuba diver, firefighter or tango dancer. The best way to make these places or activities real if you don’t already have first hand knowledge about these items is to do research.

Research

In the days of e-mail and the Internet, researching for novel is easy. You can get in contact with specialists via email (or go old school and give them a call). There are tons of documents on the internet and videos on YouTube that can help you with all sorts research. But as with all things found on the Internet, remember to take everything with a grain of salt and verify and re-verify any “facts” you read.

If you are writing a court drama, you should have an understanding of how the court system works. Do not rely on TV shows or movies to clue you in on the justice system. These do not always give an accurate view of how things are. Speak to lawyers (or at least law professors), judges and bailiffs. Go watch court proceeding and make sure you understand what happens and how fast (or slow).

But whatever you do, don’t skip the research. It can help your story’s realism as well as help you with plot and theme. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity.

If you are going to write about a certain city or region, it obviously would be best if you have visited that region. But if that isn’t possible, you can still find maps, photos and first-hand accounts of those areas on the Internet. Knowledge of the area will help make your story believable to those who know the area.

Stereotypes

Now speaking of locales, make sure you are not stereotyping the region. People think of Texas as a place with people wearing cowboy hats and riding horses and saying, “y’all.” But for a majority of Texas that is not how things are. Here again, research can be a big help. Take the time to understand the area before you write about it.

And of course the same goes for people. Don’t generalize people because they are poor or live in a certain region. Not everyone is exactly what is expected, and the same should hold true for your characters. Consider doing the opposite of what is expected. Instead of a big, burly black man as the bouncer to a nightclub perhaps your bouncer is a woman or an old man.

Too Much Info

Researching the careers and locales is important but remember that there is such a thing as including too much information in your book. I remember reading a book by a well-known romance author. The story was about the people who handle forest fires. It was clear that she had done her research, but she also included WAY TOO MANY facts in the story that I found myself skimming over those descriptions.

You can weave in your knowledge of the person’s career or location without whopping the reader over the head with it. No reader likes a data dump. Again, it is the little details that can make it all believable.

Different reactions/thoughts

The last thing I wanted to comment on doesn’t necessarily have to do with research exactly. It is remembering that everyone doesn’t react the same way you would to a situation. What is logical for you (and your character) may not seem logical to someone else. Really all you have to do is look at the news stories on the TV or the Internet to understand this. (People leave young kids home alone; they kill someone over a petty argument; they beat or burn dogs, and many more things that I would never even consider doing.)

When you are writing a scene, try pausing and playing out different scenarios. Think of different reactions, even if they seem far-fetched to you. Of course if you know your character well (and you should), then your character’s reaction will stem from who they are and not from who you want them to be.

By taking time to reflect on your character’s actions and decisions or researching their jobs or where they live, you will improve your writing. Your characters and setting will become believable to your readers, and that is a good thing.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

#16 – Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

#17 – Hinting at what is to come with foreshadowing

#18 – Tips for writing different scenes in your novel

#19 – Dealing with Writer’s Block

#20 – Killing a Character in your Novel

#21 – Keeping things realistic in your novel

#22 – Establishing Writing Goals and Developing Good Writing Habits

#23 – Using the five senses and passive voice in your novel

Technology’s effect on writing

laptopWriting a book today is not like it was twenty or thirty years ago. Technology has brought us a long way. No longer are authors writing their novels out in longhand on notepads or typing them on a typewriter. Nowadays, most writers use a word-processing program on their Mac or PC.

Actually, you don’t even need a desktop computer. You can write your novel on a laptop or tablet which allow you to write not just at home but anywhere.

Having your novel in a digital format makes it easier to rewrite chapters or to edit. No longer do you have to type the whole thing over or use correction tape. You can just click your mouse and delete or add whatever you need.

In many ways, technology has helped authors.

If you have problems typing, there is voice-recognition software where you can simply dictate your novel. (Of course, there are companies that will transcribe your dictated work but to me this isn’t the same thing as being able to rewrite or change something right when you think of it versus waiting for your transcribed document to be returned.)

I even have used a voice recorder to take down ideas for my novel as I am working around the house or driving in the car.

But the biggest advancement (besides the word-processing programs would be using the Internet for research. Yes, you can still go to the library to do your research, but the Internet lets you do it quicker and from the comfort of your own home.

Simply type a few words into a search engine, and you can find huge amounts of information on pretty much any subject. So now instead of sifting through heavy books, you can spend hours reading different sites on the various topics.

This of course brings up a problem. There is a lot of misinformation out there. There is no filter for what is published here. You will have to decipher what is the truth about what is posted on the Internet.

But if you want to know how something works or view pictures of videos of a foreign location, it is quite easy to find these things on the Internet.

E-mail also is a big help with being able to converse with experts in the field quicker than sending a letter and without being as intrusive as a phone call.

The Internet through websites and social media outlets also allows readers to better connect with their readers. This allows for greater communication and feedback than ever before.

But being connected, also had its disadvantages. There are so many things that can distract you from writing – Facebook, web surfing, shopping, Twitter, Instagram, e-mail and YouTube. Each of these can be a huge drain on time.

Overall, I think technology makes an author’s life easier as long as you can stay away from those time-sucking other activities.

 

 

Using “Write what you know” as a starting point

“Write what you know.”

This is an often heard phrase in high school English classes and a great tip, especially for new writers. This does not mean that you need to write about YOUR life. It simply means take things you are familiar with and use these as a springboard into your story.

Use your fear of snakes and how it makes you feel as inspiration for a novel. Or if you grew up on a farm, it will be easy for you to write a story set on a farm or ranch.

Now that isn’t to say you have to set your story here. You can easily set it in New York City. But then you need to visit or at least research it well enough to write intelligently about someone living there.

I often write about how the little details are important and how getting these details wrong can jar the reader out of the story. This is where writing about things you know can help.

Now there is nothing wrong with writing a story about some line of work you don’t know or some location you have never visited. Many writers do just that. To write about a serial killer doesn’t mean you need to go kill someone, and you can write about space travel without ever living Earth. It is all about researching and imagination.

You can certainly interview a police officer to learn their procedures and investigation techniques. You can take classes on using a gun or use the Internet to research any number of topics. I am all for research.

But there is a level of authenticity that outsiders just can’t match. Someone who has lived in the mountains and braved a cold winter, someone who has done archery or competed in a beauty pageant will be able to bring a little extra realism to their work than someone who only did research.

Many people hear the advice to use what you know and panic. They think there is nothing in their lives to write about, or that they lead a boring life. But this advice is not about that. There is no way you want to limit your writing to just those events. But take your experiences and allow your imagination to go wild. Take things that you have experienced as a starting point and let your characters make it their own.

Writing what you know can mean putting it into a different world or a different time. I am not saying to write about your life. I am talking about taking your experiences, your fears, your dreams, and your knowledge – whether it be or a location, a hobby or a profession – and put those things into your story.

Writing is a mixture of these things – our experiences, our research and our imaginations. The right mixture make up a good story.  So next time you hear “write what you know,” don’t panic. Realize that you already know a lot of what matters to a story’s success. It is just waiting to be shaped by your imagination.