November 11, 2014

6 Steps to Researching a Story — Guest: Tracy L. Ward

Scientist mixing chemicals with text: 6 Steps to Research Our Story

How are all my fellow NaNoWriMo writers doing? I started off behind in word count because various pre-November projects kept me busy until November 1st. That meant my first NaNo day was mostly filled with… *sigh* Research.

I probably wasn’t the only one spending precious writing time researching ideas, settings, or other details. No matter what genre we write, we’re likely to have to research something.

If our stories take place within the real world, we might have to research historical figures or events, small towns or big cities, or diseases or personality behaviors. If our stories take place outside the real world, we might have to research warp drive or time travel theories, evolution ideas, or cultural or mythological concepts.

In other words, today’s guest post about how to research our writing projects will be relevant to most of us. And Tracy L. Ward is just the person to help us out, as she comes from a journalism and historical fiction background, so she’s an expert at researching topics.

Many of her examples below are specific to researching settings, but the steps themselves encompass far broader ideas that we can apply to any kind of research we need. Please welcome Tracy L. Ward! *smile*


Researching the Write Way

Any writer who has been pounding the pavement for a while knows there is a lot more to this author gig than simply writing. There’s revising, editing, promoting, and a whole lot more. It all takes time and energy beyond stringing words into sentences, and sentences into stories. But before all that comes the research, and in my historical genre, I accept that research makes up half my overall project.

Research is vital to every writer, not just the historical ones. The contemporary writer may not realize it, but they are researching a book every day.

Every new place discovered and new person met is an opportunity for better, more descriptive writing. Everything you read is another lesson in vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot development. There is no such thing as an “off” button for a writer, and research is no different.

But beyond accepting that the world is one big research project, there are different techniques and tips for the average writer. In this article, I want to highlight a few of the techniques that I learned while working as a journalist and writing novels in my Peter Ainsley historical mystery series.

Step #1: Keep a File Folder for Ideas

Every journalist has a set of files where they stash clippings of articles on specific topics they feel will come up again, or will one day make great stories. Creative writers can make use of this organizational tool as well.

Later these clippings can be used as prompts or story generators. How many times have you heard something on the radio or saw something on television and thought “That’s better than fiction”?

Story prompts can be anything that catches your eye, anything you find interesting, anything that relates to your genre or area of writing interest. For me, that means anything that relates to history and crime, but because my books are character driven, I also tend to be drawn to articles that talk about the human condition (i.e., why we do the things we do).

Lucy Maud Montgomery, writer of the Anne of Green Gables series, said that the idea for her famous novel came from a hand-written prompt she found in an old hat box she had used once to stash away her stories. Montgomery was going through this box when she found a note describing a story of an orphaned girl sent to an elderly couple by mistake. Some of the best feature stories I have written for newspapers came from prompts I left for myself in my file folder.

Step #2: Complete Story Premise Research First

When you start a new project you must make some decisions straight away. What is the theme of your book? (Jami’s note: We might also think of this step as “what is the premise of your book?”) The answer to this question will guide your starting research.

My third book, The Dead Among Us, focused a lot on the living conditions and societal attitudes towards Victorian London’s pauper children. I already knew orphaned children were a dime a dozen on London’s streets at the time and poverty was every where, so to begin, I had to find out why. Why were there so many unclaimed children living in those conditions.

Before I wrote a single word, I looked into this, and the answers I found are what I formulated my plot points around. I needed this first layer of research to create a convincing plot, otherwise I would become stuck, have to back track or try to force something that just would not make sense.

Poor research in the beginning has resulted in a number of manuscripts dying halfway through. Having said that, research should not stop you from writing for too long. Think of this step as a primer coat. At some point you just have to start your masterpiece.

Step #3: Gather First-Hand Accounts

You don’t have to go to a place to get a feeling for it. Some lucky writers get to go on research trips (on their own dime), where they jot down endless notes and take countless photographs.

This works for writers who are handy to the places they intend to write about (or those with unlimited budgets), but counting on this kind of first-hand research can limit the scope of your book. Just because you haven’t visited a place doesn’t mean you can’t write a story set there.

Online Resources for First-Hand Accounts

Travel sites, local blogs, and YouTube all have a place in a writer’s arsenal. In particular:

  • Travel Sites often have detailed maps and downloadable audio walking tours (sometimes historic in their content) that can give you context for notable buildings and directional substance for urban areas that you wish to include in your book.
  • YouTube is a major resource, often underutilized by writers. It feels like everyone has a video camera and will take videos of the most mundane things, but those seemingly normal videos are great for providing local terminology, dialect, visual perspective and even minor details like the amount of traffic at a particular park or on a particular street. You’ll be surprised what you come up with.

Step #4: Dig Deeper into the Details

For my second book, Dead Silent, I needed to find a neighborhood for a typical 19th century surgeon. Remembering surgeons were the ‘tradesmen’ of their day and not compensated all that well for their life-saving and often distrusted work, I knew Dr. Jonas Davies would not be living alongside the upper crust. He was from a very poor family and had just started out with a career in medicine.

  • Using Google Search, I was able to find a color-coded map detailing neighborhood classes. From there I was able to select a neighborhood within his social class and income level, not far but not close to the hospital where he works (St. Thomas).
  • Using Google Maps and Streetview, I was able to get a street view of that area and I could ‘walk’ the streets as they appear now. The Streetview feature setting on Google Maps plops you down right at street level and gives you a 360 degree view of everything including traffic, crowds, and architecture.

Step #5: Reach Out for Additional Assistance

It’s important to note that settings are more than just trees and buildings. No matter where you decide to set your story, I can bet the land and its people have a long standing history that has shaped the city, the culture, and the people. It’s important to know when a rural area was once a mining town or a gambling mecca.

These tidbits will have an impact on your story and could give you a new angle from which to base your plot. There’s no need to go crazy finding this background out, but you should have a general cultural knowledge of the places where your book is set.

Local archives and historical societies are great places to get local and even not so local information. Often run by volunteer history enthusiasts, these groups are packed to the gills with information and, in the very least, research knowledge. They can point you in the right direction, if not join you in your search.

I once had a historian call me four weeks after our initial contact to tell me some new information she had found about a neighborhood I was researching. I was humbled by her willingness to assist and her matched enthusiasm.

Step #6: Don’t Forget to Write

It’s easy for research to become a distraction. Many writers get so caught up in the research they never get around to writing the story.

You could always find more details, but the details may never find their way into the final draft, so it’s important to:

  • research the big stuff,
  • write the book, and
  • fact check the smaller things later as part of the revision process.

When I was writing Chorus of the Dead, I used symbols on both sides of a word or phrase I found suspect. When I write, momentum is my best asset and stopping that momentum to research what kind of remedy Dr. Ainsley would suggest or what type of dress Margaret would wear would be tantamount to shooting myself in the foot.

If I am on a roll, I stop for nothing and put ***research treatment*** or ***fashionable dress*** and keep writing. When I go back over the book during a second, third, and fourth readings, I cannot miss the highlighted parts, and then I will have the time to look more in depth into that detail.

Research need not be cumbersome. If you are interested in your subject matter, then it’s not work. It’s just another part of writing a book. It may not be your favorite part, but trust me when I say writing a book that is rich in research helps to separate the writers from the authors.


Tracy L. Ward pictureA former journalist and graduate from Humber College’s School for Writers, Tracy L. Ward has been hard at work developing her favorite protagonist, Peter Ainsley, and chronicling his adventures as a young surgeon in Victorian England. Her books, Chorus of the Dead, Dead Silent, and the newest series addition, The Dead Among Us, can be found on Amazon, Kobo, and other ebook retailers.

Tracy invites you to visit her at her website or follow her on Facebook. She lives near Toronto, Ontario with her husband and two kids.


About The Dead Among Us:

The Dead Among Us book coverLondon 1868 – The newspapers call him The Surgeon, a killer targeting pauper children in Limehouse district leaving their bodies discarded in death as they were in life. Discouraged by the lack of physical clues Dr. Peter Ainsley joins Scotland Yard’s Inspector Simms as he scours the city to learn where the children came from and how they fell into the clutches of one of London’s worst criminal minds.

Frustration mounting, Ainsley decides to approach his number one suspect with or without Scotland Yard’s blessing. Nothing during his medical training could have prepared him for what he finds, and when Ainsley finally catches up with the child killer neither of them will ever be the same.


Thank you, Tracy! This is a great summary of the steps we need to go through for researching a story.

Like many writers, I have clippings (both physical and in OneNote) of various story, plot, or character ideas. But I want to reiterate Tracy’s point that we might need to complete big picture research before we even start drafting.

In one of my stories, I’d written an escape scene that couldn’t actually work the way I planned. Luckily, it wasn’t a major part of the book, but that’s a danger if we don’t do a sanity check for our major plot or story ideas first. *smile*

YouTube, Google Search, and Google Streetview are definitely some of my go-to resources, but I hadn’t thought of several of Tracy’s other suggestions before, like travel sites or local blogs. In researching my NaNo story, I found several interviews with people who had gone through similar experiences as my heroine, so that was a great source of first-hand accounts as well.

For my introverted self, reaching out for additional assistance is always the hardest step. But sometimes, as Tracy said, we can find some real gems of information by talking to people directly.

And her last tip about putting off until later the research that won’t impact the story is one we heard from Courtney Milan as well, in her advice for slow writers. We often hear that we should use only 10% of our research knowledge in our story, so it’s more efficient to make sure we really need to know something before dedicating a lot of time to figuring it out. Sometimes good advice is helpful for many different reasons. *smile*

Do you keep clippings of story ideas? How much research do you do before you draft? What are some of your favorite resources for getting first-hand accounts or digging deeper into details? Do you struggle with taking the step to reach out for in-person help, or do you enjoy the opportunity to talk to others? Do you have any other research tips?

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Comments — What do you think?

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NaNoWriMo is on its way to being a complete fail for me, this year. I… Suffice to say that I have reason to fear for someone’s life.

How much research I do depends on what I’m writing, but I generally do what I need as I need it. That looks different on different stories.

Tracy L Ward

Absolutely Carradee. The story always dictates your approach. I am a firm believer that research only carries a book so far (or sometimes not at all). The real meat is the story, without that the research is superfluous. Thanks for reading!

Karalee Greer

Hi Jami and Tracy,
Thanks for the wonderful advice and helping to put into perspective the sometimes vast job of researching for a novel. I work best with somewhat of a (flexible) checklist so this works for me.

Tracy L Ward

Thanks for stopping by Karalee! I’m glad my article helps you.

Lana Short
Lana Short

Hello Jami and Tracy,
I found the article informative, I have utilized a few of the suggestions from the article in writing my first (hope to be published) novel. I used the Google map and street views. A trip to Durness, Scotland would be wonderful, but not in the budget now. I have also used the travel sites and information on local hotels and restaurants in the area. The most helpful for me in the article is how to delay the research, when you’re on a roll writing. I will be trying the trick, of using ***research whatever***.
I also find it hard to reach out to others, for information. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. Being a new writer, I worry about not being up to snuff. I try to tell myself that every writer had to start somewhere. Thanks for the information.


I use underscore blanks, like this: _________; I think it’s a holdover from when I did most of my writing longhand. Another author uses square brackets [] instead of asterisks and then searches for them when it’s time to fill in. You’ve got to use whatever technique is most comfortable for you, and just be consistent with it.

Tracy L Ward

Hi Lana,

I’ve worked in museums, libraries and newsrooms. Trust me when I say archivists, historians and librarians love new projects because it’s something they can do between mandatory assignments. Make sure the question you are asking is part of their facilities focus and be open to the possibility of being re-directed to a different source or venue. It may take a few phone calls or emails before you find the contact you need. Thanks for stopping by today!

Ember Leigh

Excellent tips! For my current NaNo novel, I did zero research beforehand, which has crippled my progress a bit at around 12k words right now. Though to be honest, I wasn’t really sure *what* to research, since this story idea was very vague from the start, one I thought I’d pursue and see what happened. Luckily, some of the research points you mention above had been established without realizing (like my setting, which is based on a city I used to live in, thus lending lots of rich detail I didn’t have to go looking for). I’m pushing forward, though! Thanks for the article!


[…] cultures, nationalities, or abilities. Yet as we discussed earlier this week, we often write about settings or jobs or situations we haven’t experienced, and it’s simply part of our job as a writer to do our research to make our story and […]

Gil Miller
Gil Miller

When I began my upcoming novel for my Rural Empires series, I’d actually been holding off writing till I could do more research into the meth trade and the Mexican Drug War, but the story SCREAMED at me to start writing. Since I write seat of the pants, I decided to strike while the iron was hot. The result was that I researched while I wrote and things I learned influenced and enriched the story as I went along. I’m not saying this would work every time–in fact I’d guess it won’t–but it certainly worked for me. I ended up with enough manuscript to split into two novels around ninety thousand words long. I’d also like to point out that we often learn more than we may have wanted to know about a given subject. For instance, I copied meth recipes to my documents just to refer to, and learned grisly details of how the Mexican cartels do business that I could have done without and not felt deprived in life lol. Still, so much of what I learned seasoned the story and made it more authentic–and allowed my protagonist to be shocked and bothered by the things he was seeing and thus remain human and appealing to readers. So it’s not always just the facts you get but the way they influence your characters that make research not only important but vital.


[…] imagination, and research. We’ve discussed before the role research plays in writing about settings we’re not familiar with or characters different from ourselves, so there’s no reason to avoid writing about things we […]


[…] matter what type of stories we write, we often have to do research. Maybe we have to research the setting, the characters, or a situation, such as legal information […]

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