In this post, we talk about how writers can get the most out of research.
“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” Albert Einstein
How Writers Can Get The Most Out Of Research
Unless you are a doctor like Robin Cook and now write medical thrillers, or a lawyer like John Grisham, and now write legal thrillers, you will probably have to do your homework. If your story has a historical setting, research is crucial for bringing a forgotten era to life with authenticity and vibrancy.
Research is more than opening Google or opening Wikipedia — although that is a good place to start. Often we don’t know where to start when it comes to research. And because it can be an unending labyrinth, we don’t know when to stop. If you’re curious, if you’re obsessive about your subject, if you care about the details, you won’t go wrong no matter what method you choose.
Three Places to Begin
- Six degrees of separation. This is a good place to start. If you’re going to write about a murder in a hotel, your sister-in-law’s stylist will know the boyfriend of the night manager at a swank hotel—and you will get a great interview. Ask around.
- Societies and Associations. A friend who wrote a novel set in the pioneering wild of early America contacted historical societies via email and received a wealth of information. Similarly, librarians are also experts in pointing you to the right shelf, especially at university libraries.
- Shadow the real thing. If you can, try to shadow or interview a person doing the same job as your character. Remember people love to talk about themselves and welcome questions from writers—the idea of being a model for a character gives them pride in their career, however humble or exalted. Confess your ignorance and ask them for how things really happen.
Whether you chose to visit locations and experience settings first hand, or prefer to pore over documents and books, research is an important step in the creative process.
Six Hot Tips
- Keep your focus on your research topic – don’t go off on a tangent. If you do stray into another fascinating topic, jot down a note and save it for a later time.
- Don’t use only one source material, rather cross-check the information as much as possible. Double check your facts.
- To save time, create a central list of the reference material, interviews, and websites – you can keep it electronically or in a file.
- Use Google maps, Pinterest, and related blogs to create visual references.
- Try to find a fresh and intriguing angle to the research – just think how many times World War II has been re-imagined.
- Research is often the fun part of writing, but it can be a form of procrastination. At some point you have to get stuck into your actual creative project.
Finally a word of caution:
Once you’ve done all this research, you will be tempted to cram it all in to your memoir, novel or screenplay. Remember to use only enough to illuminate the story and bring it to life—no reader wants to feel like sitting through a lecture. Simplify the material as much as you can.
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