Five Things About Research

J. L. Harland • January 31st, 2021

With thanks to Element5 Digital on Unsplash for their photo.

Research is something all writers need to do. Even if you write fantasy or sci fi there will come a time when you will not have the answers to all your questions. There’s also the research needed to place your work with a magazine or an agent; researching media influences and so on. The big question we keep asking ourselves is - how much research is enough?

1. Reading as research

If you are a writer, the best way to research is to read in the genre you are working in. You learn about the way other writers structure their novels, or stories; the rhythm of the prose; the style of the writing; length of chapters/sentences; characterisation and much more. Basically, what works for the reader. This is probably the best grounding for writing. Some writers read anything but the genre they are writing, afraid of influence or plagiarising by mistake. Whatever your thoughts are on this never stop reading.

2. Avoiding the internet black hole

Perhaps the first thing people do is to go online to google or another search engine and type in the keywords or the question they need the answer to. Sometimes this works and you find the answer quickly but often it leads to asking other questions. It’s easy to lose a sense of time and get sucked into researching things you didn’t even think about in the first place. One solution is to set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself of time passing and to ration time.

3. Ask an expert

Often one of the best ways of finding information is to ask someone who is an expert. So, if you want to know what it’s like to work in a funeral home find someone who does and is willing to speak to you. They might think you are a bit weird and could even offer you a view behind the scenes, but all that research will give an authenticity to your story.

4. Social Media

What if you are writing a scene set in a different country? How can you add authenticity to that, especially as your work may be read by people who live there? You may be able to use Google earth to walk those streets but what about the extras? How does the pavement feel underfoot? What sights and smells at different times of the day? This is where online forums may be useful. Speaking to people on social media can provide you with more realistic footing. If you want to know what it’s like outside in Winnipeg in November, for example, then ask Twitter or Instagram for help from your writing friends. Like the internet, social media may become absorbing so set time limits.

5. Dream on

Of course, the best way of researching different places is to go there. It’s not possible in everyone’s budget but you can always dream. In fact, dreaming up your destination may be a very good way to research. Setting your story in the future may need some background information on planets or technology but then again, no-one has been to the future to be able to argue with you.

How much research is enough? It’s the how long is a piece of string query. You may research for days or weeks and end up using very little of that research in your final draft. Is that time wasted? Probably not. It’s surprising how much knowledge we store away in our brains and everything will have a use at some point. If not for your work in progress, then possibly in a story you haven’t even thought of yet.

What are your thoughts about research? Essential? A necessary evil?

Keep writing.