How to Do Research for Your Novel
When does research become a bad thing? When writers use it as an excuse not to start writing yet. I’ve seen writers spend ten years researching a novel that not only didn’t require such exhaustive background research; it would have been better off without it. Still other writers love doing research so much—or at least they say they do—that they never write at all. It’s like being a perpetual student, staying in school and earning degree after degree to put off venturing out into the real world.
Research has its rightful place in the novel writing process and is in fact vital to many kinds of stories. The keys to keeping it under control is to understand that there are two kinds of research for the novelist; know which kind should be done when and know when not to do research at all.
The first kind of research, the kind in which some writers mire themselves as a means of putting off actually writing, is background research. Background research is exactly what it sounds like: investigating an era, a subject, an industry, or whatever is necessary to come up with a believable plot for your novel.
Background research is necessary when you have an idea for a novel that is either set in an unfamiliar time or place or is about a subject that you know so little about, you can’t even begin to construct a story until you know more.
Imagine, for example, a writer with an idea for a novel set in the field of nature preservation. His lead character is a forest ranger. Though he has the vaguest notion of a story idea, he hasn’t a notion of exactly what forest rangers do all day. And he must know this before he can start putting a story together, before he can start stringing actions together for his lead character.
This article isn’t about how to research. You know what the various methods are, from consulting books and other printed materials in libraries to surfing the Net to conducting informational interviews. This article is about how much research to do.
How can you avoid falling into the perpetual research trap, yet still learn enough to work with? By setting out concrete questions for yourself before you even begin. In most cases the writers who mire themselves in research and never get to writing the novel itself use what I call the “immersion approach”. They read book after book, fill notebook upon notebook with notes, in an effort to insert themselves as deeply as possible into their subject. There is no real plan to their work—all books on the subject are fair game; it’s impossible to go too deep; no detail is unimportant. It’s all in the name of immersion.
If, on the other hand, you force yourself to compile a list of questions you need answers to before you can build your story, you’ve already gone a long way toward limiting the research phase.
Let’s take our forest ranger example. Our hypothetical writer has a vague notion for a thriller set in the world of nature conservation; his premise is: “Suppose a man [the forest ranger] discovered that his best friend, a fellow ranger, was murdering animals and selling their [what?] on the black market.”
Our writer must ask himself what basic information he needs to begin devising his story. Here are some likely questions:
- What animal products are sold on the black market? (Fur, skin, tusks, etc.)
- Around which of these products is there likeliest to be violence/danger?
- In what countries does this illicit selling occur?
- Are the animals that provide these products protected? Where? (Protected forests, jungles, savannas, etc.)
- What are the people called whose job it is to protect these places?
- What are these people’s primary activities in performing their jobs?
- Do these people work from any sort of headquarters on or near the land they protect, or do they move about, with no central headquarters?
- If they do work from a headquarters, where would it be?
- What would the headquarters be like? (Building, cabin, tower, etc.)
- How many people would work in one facility? On one protected area? Are there shifts so that protection is constant?
- If there is more than one person, how do they communicate?
And so on. Questions lead to more questions. When the actual research begins, yet more questions inevitably arise. But the research process has been shaped into a finite project. Each question is tackled, one at a time, and when it’s answered, the novelist moves on to the next one. If the novelist resists the temptation to be sidetracked, which can lead to dangerous immersion, then the background research process has a definite end, and the plotting phase can begin.
When Not to Do Background Research
More than once I have advised a writer faced with extensive background research to reconsider her project entirely. In these instances it was clear that although the writer had a strong interest in the subject she was about to research, her absolute lack of knowledge of this subject made research impractical; the learning curve was too steep. To conduct the research necessary to achieve even a rudimentary knowledge of the subject would take so long that by the time the book itself was written, too much time would have passed, causing too long a time span. Publishers want books good and fast—usually no more than a year apart. In terms of career strategy, sometimes a project simply isn’t practical.
When I decided to write my own fiction, I knew I would write amateur-sleuth mysteries, because what I most enjoy reading is amateur-sleuth mysteries, both contemporary and historical. I was torn, however, between two ideas.
One idea was to write a mystery series featuring a sleuth who was a literary agent in a present-day New Jersey village and who was helped in her detecting by her cat. The other idea was to feature as my detective an alchemist in medieval London. On reflection, I realized that despite my extensive reading of novels set in the medieval period, I would have an enormous amount of research to do—research that would probably have to be added to for each novel in my series.
On the other hand, I am a literary agent, I live in a small town in New Jersey, and a number of cats have owned me. For this idea, there would be no learning curve at all. Because I’m an agent, making my living selling books, when it comes to decisions such as this I’m practical if nothing else. My choice was clear. I would follow the age-old adage “Write what you know.” Thus, Jane Stuart and Winky of Shady Hills, New Jersey, were born.
Think hard about any project you’re considering that will require too long a research period. Sometimes, in terms of your career, the learning curve is just too steep.
The other kind of research is what I call spot research. It’s the small piece of information you need at a precise moment in the plotting or writing of your novel. What’s the actual name of rat poison? What kind of wood would that table be made of? What’s a town about fifteen miles south of Stamford, Connecticut?
As with background research, writers often use an item of spot research as an excuse to stop plotting or writing and start searching. Entire days can be spent looking for a tiny item of information—days that will likely spoil the flow and momentum of your work.
Items that require spot research are items that matter but can wait until you’re done. When you’re plotting or writing your novel and one of these items arises, don’t stop; signify that you’ll have to research this later by typing “[????]” or “TO COME” or the old journalist’s expression, ‘tk” (to come). At the same time, jot on a piece of paper that you’ve headed “Research” and place it near your keyboard. Thus, in your manuscript you type:
If Gail had headed south on Route 17, she’d definitely have passed through Paramus and then [????].
And on your Research sheet you write:
Town south of Paramus.
When I’m plotting or writing a novel, I force myself never to stop to do spot research. I do all of that when my first draft is completed and printed out. Since I don’t let myself stop to research, I have no excuse to stop writing. I counsel the novelists I represent, especially the ones on tight deadlines, to follow this practice, and I counsel you to do the same.