Posted by: Jodi | August 14, 2013

Know Thy Stuff – Why Research is Important

research-studies_000Has this happened to you? You are reading a book and starting to enjoy the story.  Part of the reason you chose this book is that it includes a subject that you are especially interested in.  The further you read the more you realize that the author has some major flaws in their understanding of this subject.  You find errors.  Some are minor and easy to overlook but a few are so bad that you wonder if the book is worth finishing reading.

This is what happens when the writer doesn’t know their stuff.

In every book there will be elements that you as the writer are already familiar with.  The great overused adage, “Write what you know” stems from this. You know about day to day struggles, conflicts with other people, and so forth.  You know how it feels to be betrayed or loved. However, there will also be elements that you have not experienced.  Your character will knows things that you don’t, like how to use a shot gun, drive a clutch, or bake baklava.  Maybe in the course of the story must do things that you haven’t, like survive a house fire, or fall off of a cliff.

Knowing your stuff makes it easier to add realistic touches, making your story much more believable.  And trust me, you’re goal is to make a story so real that it grabs your reader and doesn’t let them go.

There are a few ways you can go about gathering research for your writing.

Get actual experience

Above all, going out and getting real life experience is the easiest and best way to learn about something new, and it’s also the most difficult. When possible, visit the cities where your stories take place.  Your city doesn’t exist in real life?  Find somewhere similar and go there.  You have a character who uses a pottery wheel? Go find an art studio and give it a try.  Your characters use swords?  Take a class and see what it feels like to swing it around.

Getting actual experience too tricky, cost preventative, or downright impossible? Then try the next step.

Find someone who has

In your story your character must rush inside a burning building.  This is where relying on the experiences of others is worth it’s weight in gold. Seek these people out and interview them and find out what it is really like.  In most instances they are as willing and eager to tell their stories as you are to hear them.  They can tell you in great detail what it feels like, and how they felt.  They probably have anecdotes they can share that you can draw inspiration from.  If you choose to interview someone, be professional and be sure to thank them in your acknowledgement page.

Know where to get the facts

If you haven’t been able to experience one of the elements of your book, or find someone else who has, then you must lean on what others have written about it.  This is especially useful when it comes to learning correct terms for different items. The internet can be both your best friend and worst enemy.  There are many terrific sites that teach about anything and everything, if you can find them.  Searching the internet is the easiest way to find facts, but it can also be a monumental waste of time.  I’ve found that at times it’s more efficient to visit the local library and finding specialty books about key subjects.

Try a combined approach for difficult ideas

Is your main character off to fight a dragon?  You won’t be able to get real world experience here or find someone who has either.  You can, however, find the correct terms for describing reptiles from books or online.  You can do the same to learn about whatever weapon you might use.  Use your imagination.  Go visit a reptile house, or even a pet store.  Touch an alligator or a snake. Explore a cave.  Mix all these elements together to assemble one awesome dragon fighting scene.

Sometimes you have to wing it

At times you will encounter parts of your writing where you are going where no man has gone before.  At times like these you must use your judgement and hope for the best.  Unique magical systems, alien technology, and futuristic settings that are created by you, the author, are all things that rely on your own creativity and ingenuity. In instances like these, I hope that you already have a solid background in real science and have a good feel where you can bend reality and where it’s okay to break it.

 

Needless to say, the most important part of writing a book is the time spent pounding it out on the keyboard.  It can’t be called a book until it’s written down.  Writers who choose to research must always keep the end goal in mind, finishing their stories.  It’s easy to get too obsessed in making sure every fact is perfect and lose sight of actually writing the book.

There is a balance between knowing about what you are writing about and being able to tell a good story.  The story should always come first. Your readers won’t be impressed at your knowledge if you spend scene after scene cramming their faces in it.  Instead, pick a few of the most interesting or most intriguing aspects and use them to propel your character forward and add some spice to the scene, it can really pay off.

Happy Researching, and as always –

Happy Writing

Advertisements

Responses

  1. This is great advice for writers to provide accurate and/or believable settings and situations in their stories. I started writing my first novel, Sojourner’s Dream, in 2002 and completed it in 2006. Part of the reason (other than being a working mother) that it took me four years to complete Sojourner’s Dream was the extensive research that I had to do on Rwandan history, which this novel absolutely required. In reference to Rwandan history and culture, I read dozens of books and newspaper and magazine articles. I watched many documentaries, and I interviewed a Rwandan person whose family was brutally murdered during the 100 days of this genocide in 1994. I travelled to three African countries prior to writing Sojourner’s Dream, yet not Rwanda, so, yes, my research was critical. I enjoyed your article, Jodi. Thank you so much.

    • Wow, what a great example of putting great research into your book. I bet it made worlds of difference in your experience writing it and also in your readers experience reading it. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I will often research an idea and after doing so find it doesn’t fit. It’s time well spent, rather than writing first and having to delete later. Great post and one I’ll look at again.


Categories

%d bloggers like this: