November 27, 2012

Writing Research: A Pain or a Gain?

Microscope with text: Research: Pain or Gain?

Readers often think that fiction writers just make stuff up. And that’s quite true—when it comes to most stories and characters. However, the supporting details of settings, props, jobs, and plot events are another matter.

Whatever genre we write, we usually have to do some research in the course of drafting and revising our story. Those who write historical books obviously have to know the time period, but other genres can require us to go into research mode too.

Fantasy authors might need to research medieval weaponry or building methods. Science fiction authors research what’s theoretically possible. Authors of contemporary stories need to make places and events match reality, or at least seem real enough.

Anything we write about in any genre might require research: a setting we haven’t visited, a character’s career we haven’t shared, a plot event we haven’t witnessed, etc. Or even if we think we know something via “common knowledge,” we might want to check that our information is, in fact, accurate.

(Google really shouldn’t try to learn about writers through their online searches. I’m sure their results would show that I’m planning on buying a new car, exploding a house, and attending a funeral with unique traditions. The answer would be ‘no’ to all of those. My characters, however… *smile*)

I enjoy using my “Google Fu” to research online and learn new things, but I know other writers find research a pain. And sometimes, we can’t find the answers online.

When online research doesn’t cut it, we might have to do real world research by calling in an expert to help. Like most introverted writers, I hate talking on the phone to strangers. In my mind, cold-calling is somewhere up there with going to the dentist. Or worse.

This past weekend, I went one step further and did in-person research by *gasp* leaving the house. Okay, I’ll admit—it was actually kind of fun.

While my brother and his family were in town for Thanksgiving, we all went to the Phoenix Auto Show. I’m not a car person, so this activity would normally hold no appeal for me. However, I latched onto the benefit of being able to see all of my characters’ cars in person.

In particular, the hero of my current story wants a very specific car, and as he’s almost six-and-a-half feet tall, I had no idea if he would actually fit into this car. Online research was no help, so I was planning on bungling my way through the issue until this opportunity came up.

Okay, they had the same car at the Auto Show, now what? Oh look, that sales guy is tall. Really tall. Not quite as tall as my character, but within an inch or so.

Cue my random babbling while I ask him to sit in the car so I can see if he fits. Yay! He does fit—with a few inches to spare. My problem is solved.

So once I got over the burning embarrassment, it was rather entertaining. My family helped me out by kicking off the initial request. The sales guy played along, complete with goofy smiles as he got embarrassed. And I got the answer I needed.

I certainly won’t give up my safe and non-embarrassing online research methods anytime soon. But it’s nice to know that complete strangers often are willing to help answer our research questions when we need more information than Google can provide. (Thanks, Chris!) (And no, he looks nothing like the hero of this story.)

Do you like doing research for the opportunity to learn new things or do you avoid researching topics as much as possible? Do you prefer online, phone, or in-person research? What would your Google search history reveal? What’s the weirdest or most entertaining research you’ve done?

P.S. This past weekend I also crossed the 50K word count mark for my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project, so I “win” NaNo. Yay! Now only 15K or so more to go to finish this story. *sigh*

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Angela Quarles

I love research! Sounds like your first in-person research was fun!! Yay! I’m going to have to do some too, mainly with fire and police in town to see what the normal procedure is here for things.

And congrats on NaNo! I’ve got about 6K to go and not sure how I’m going to end this. Going to do some brainstorming today…

For my first NaNo, I did some online research on slow-acting poisons, which I’m sure raised some eyebrows. At the same time I was looking up Trotskyite plots in the 1940s

Taurean Watkins

You’re so right that on average some research is necessary for fiction.

That said, I do think unless you’re writing about a real place, a historical event, or a specific career or social event like a local fair or scandal-type situation: fiction writers have a fair amount of leeway.

I do lots of off-and-on research on various animals since I write a lot of animal fantasy, but contrary to what a few teachers/parents/nonfiction authors would like to believe, I can’t use all the research, both for plot and character reasons.

Because it will read like a documentary otherwise, which is fine for television (You have visuals and ideally an engaging narrative), or a nonfiction audiobook or podcast (Where passionate experts can relay authenticity in a conversational way), but NOT for reading on the page.

Most of us non-academics don’t typically read big and dense textbooks in our spare time.

Jordan McCollum

Congrats on winning! And that’s a hilarious story. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone that far for research (and my stories about writing that involve cars in the real world . . . uh . . . well, the endings are happy :\ ).

I do love research. It always seems like I find these awesome unique twists to add into my story. For example, in my Nano novel, I was referencing a traditional fable with an applicable moral. I used the example of a frog and a scorpion (getting a ride across the river). I went to look up the origin of the story, and found that Aesop’s version was about a farmer and a viper. That fit even more perfectly because the MC/good guys lived on a communal farm and the bad guys’ name even started with a V.

It sounds too good to be true, but that sort of thing happens to me all the time when I research!

Juli Page Morgan

I really enjoy research! I’m pretty sure my internet browsing history would raise a few eyebrows, though, since it includes heroin addiction, natural gas explosions, locations of hospitals in New Orleans, and a map of the London Underground, just to name a few! No, I’m not strung out and planning anything (nor are my characters!) but it sounds sinister. 🙂 I’ve also researched British automobiles in the 1950s and 60s, “adult” stores in New Orleans, a reputedly haunted hotel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and football stadiums in and around Birmingham, Alabama. It’s been fun! One Sunday afternoon I took my doctor to lunch and interviewed him about the effects of heroin addiction and we both had a blast. Unfortunately, my story took a turn and I ended up not using any of it, but I have all the info in case I ever decide to use it in another book.

J. Thomas Ross

I do most of my research online or in books, but you’re right — sometimes those sources just don’t have the answer for your questions, so you have to seek out an expert.

So, is that the sales guy in the photo? He looks like he’d make a good hero in a story!


Hey Jami,
I do most of my research on the ‘net and hash out possible story plot holes with buddies. So far, I only seem to be a science geek with cloning, natural lakes with reddish colour and acid rain, so you can’t even tell that I’m doing a fantasy…but maybe you could tell that I’m also doing a dystopian.

Congrats on reaching 50K! I still have at least 8k to go with the story with the clones, but the acid rain one might have to make up the word count on the NaNo website – since they are both written in November. (Yep, that’s right, I’m such a rebel. The fattest plot bunny ever sat on my bed until I typed out at least 8 out of the 73k.)

The sales guy in the photo looks like a protagonist… or a villain.

Buffy Armstrong

I love doing research!

A lot of my research comes in the form of books on folklore. I just keep adding to my collection and my wish list on Amazon. I’ve had to move a few items like Greek and Roman Necromancy to a private wish list so that my in-laws didn’t think I was a complete weirdo, not that they didn’t already know…

Weirdest thing I’ve done in the name of research is sprawl out in the hallway and try to move along the floor just using my arms. At the exact same time I get on the floor, my husband decided to go upstairs. The man thought I had hurt myself. It was quite the scene with a concerned spouse and two cats that kept climbing all over me.

Congrats on finishing NaNo! I have about 8,000 words left to finish.

P.S. It is harder to drag yourself across the floor than you’d think.


My dislike of research goes all the way back to college and my history minor. Not my favorite way to pass the time.

I’ve gotten lucky so far, in that I’ve been able to find enough information online to make my stories plausible (all my fantasy is grounded in reality) but I belong to a Yahoo loop run by a practicing witch, in case I need magicks help, and the big bonanza-my sister and brother-in-law both work in the medical field, and my dad in the legal field, two areas where getting it right is necessary. I’m not keen on cold-calling either, but I’m not above exploiting my friends and family to get the information I need 🙂 Fortunately, they’re used to getting random questions by now, and they’re always happy to help.

Laurie Evans

Wait…you mean we have to actually go out and *gasp* talk to REAL people?!?! lol

I write contemporary, but there are a few (local) places I need to go visit to help w/ research. I like to use books and online resources. I don’t hate research, but I can’t imagine doing all the research necessary to write a historical, for example. I like reading historicals, but I don’t think I would ever have the patience to write one.

Fiona Ingram

I love research because all my MG fiction is set in unusual and exotic locations. So far, so good, I have managed to go to these places. Next stop is Mexico for The Temple of the Crystal Timekeeper. NaNoWriMo was an interesting experience. I crossed the 50K mark on Tuesday 27 Nov. I want to add more to beef it up a bit. It made me think and write in a completely different way. Always good…

Jennifer Barricklow

Great topic! I know a writer of erotica who proudly proclaims that she does all the research for her novels personally. Sometimes research is its own reward…

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I’m like you, Jami. Cold calling stinks.
Last year I got in contact with a geologist from California, researching earthquake zones for my novel. Talk about an awkward conversation. Geeky introverted (yet very nice) scientist, speaking with geeky, introverted author. It was like pulling teeth.
I love that you went to the car show even though it doesn’t interest you. Sometimes we writers need to bite the bullet and get out in the fresh air to make our stories sing 🙂
From the pic the sales guy looked kinda cute, too. Glad he played along.
Have a great Wednesday!!

Lisa Hall-Wilson

I love research. My introverted self will even venture outside the house on occassion. I was working on a romance novel with a firefighter, and wanted to be authentic about the hero’s hands – how they felt. *can’t believe I’m sharing this* I had a two-hour long tour of the local firehall which included the chief sharing war stories, and me asking one of the firemen to let me feel his hands. *still blushing* He didn’t seem embarrassed at all though. They’re very smooth, btw – not rough at all. 😛

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Oh, and CONGRATS on your NANO word count!!!!

Susan Sipal

I’m one of those authors who love research too much. Sometimes I have to just force myself to stop and get to the actual writing. I recently researched a car topic too, a concept car that I’m using in a WIP. I researched it so much that now I want one! 🙁


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Julie Glover

Congrats on winning NaNo, Jami! And I did something very familiar. I attended a boat show with a friend. I needed to know about setting boats on fire, though, so my conversations with the salespeople sounded more like, “Hey, how could you get one of these babies to go up in flames?” LOL. I did explain that it was novel research, and the people were great.

Plus, I figured out that if I ever get incredibly rich, I’m TOTALLY getting a yacht!


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