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How Writers Research, part 1

6 August, 2009

What does it mean to research fiction? To explore this question, I draw on ideas from three authors: Jean Saunders, Maree Giles, and Janet Evanovich. (Details at bottom of post.)

In this post, I cover general research resources and researching historical fiction. The next post will cover research for settings and characters.

Research and fiction

According to, research is a ‘diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation’.

For nonfiction writers, research usually involves collecting the facts relevant to their topic, be it  weather patterns, politics or travel.

For fiction writers, research is a bit more complicated in that the aim is to find information that can breathe life into their stories, making them seem believable. Even when a story is set in other worlds, research can help the writer shape the characters and their milieu.

General research resources

  • Web
    The Web provides much data—at times, too much. To avoid getting sucked into its information vortex, be clear about what you need to know and when you need this.
  • Libraries
    Leafing through books provides a good overview of your topic and can lead to serendipitous finds. Helpful librarians can make research easier by cutting through the glut of resources to find ones most relevant to your needs. If you join a university library—this may involve an annual fee—you can access a wealth of digital and hard-copy material.

  • Chats and interviews
    Talking to people can be informal (a chat) or formal (an interview).

    • Informal chats. Giles says that writers can often be too introspective; they should get out more and talk to people. By discovering others’ views, experiences and memories, you may find new ideas  that can improve your story. Always verify that any anecdotal material important for your story is accurate. Saunders tells how anecdotal material helped her when writing a novel set in a region where willow baskets were made. Her research included  absorbing the area’s ‘rich flavour’, watching basket-makers at work, and consulting library resources. But the highlight was finding a friend who was able to reminisce about her father, a basket-maker.

    • Formal interviews. Interviews are useful when you need specific, often technical,  information to make your story ring true. Giles suggests interviewing people engaged in the work and activities found in your story, e.g., professions, trade or professional unions, and companies. To create her popular Stephanie Plum crime series, Janet Evanovich interviewed law enforcement experts to understand what her character should know and do within the limits of the law.
      When you interview experts, do not waste their time asking basic questions. Do your homework first, gathering as much information as you can from other sources. Then use the interview to check if what you have found  is accurate.You can often find people to interview if you broadcast your needs. Your friends may not have the expertise you are seeking, but they may know someone who does. Or you can ‘cold call’ experts and explain what you need.  Many specialists are only too willing to talk about their passion.
  • Build your own research library
    There’s nothing like having reference books or websites at hand. Suggestions:

    • General references. Think about owning your own copy of an encyclopedia, biographical encyclopedia, atlas, general history, comprehensive dictionary and a thesaurus.
    • Websites–Bookmark helpful ones that you want to return to throughout your writing.
    • Story-specific material. Look for materials relevant to what you are working on now. Browse second-hand bookshops and stalls for books and magazines that may help you. To create a past era for her historical romances, Saunders collected books on costume and fashion, historical slang, marriage customs, folklore, crafts, cultures, and biographies.

  • Other research sources
    Giles suggests getting in touch with organisations that could have information relevant to your needs. Examples:  oral history associations, public records offices, archaeological societies, genealogical associations, parish records, governmental departments.

Researching the past

Historical research can be time-consuming because readers expect accurate details.

If your story includes a famous battle, it is not enough to know the date, the two sides, and the outcome. What about the commanding officers’ names and personalities, the battle strategies, clothing, equipment, time-frame and the weather?  Saunders believes that extensive research gives your work the ‘true ring of credibility’. Even if you don’t use all the details, knowing them helps you write confidently.

The age your characters live in will shape their beliefs, thoughts, and ways of talking and acting. Research the era via the movies, magazines and newspaper from that period. Do not neglect the advertisements, which offer a fascinating insight into a particular age. According to Evanovich, everything in your story’s time-frame must be accurate. If your story is set in the 1970s, your character cannot have a mobile phone.

Saunders has a good idea for starting your historical research. Her first research involves reading children’s books on the subject. These simple books provide an overview. Their  exciting illustrations help to bring the historical event to life.


Janet Evanovich, How I Write: Secrets of a bestselling author. 2006.

Maree Giles, notes from her writing workshop,Varuna Writers’ House, 2009.

Jean Saunders, The Craft of Writing Romance, 1995.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sherri permalink
    17 September, 2009 3:08 am

    Re: bookmarking websites – do yourself a favor and organize them into folders when you bookmark them so that you don’t have to go to a jazillion websites looking for that description of a hat or whatever.


    • 22 September, 2009 7:33 am

      Yep, that’s what I do. Plus I sort through what I have in the folders after a few months and delete links that I no longer need. Doing so keeps bookmarks workable instead of overwhelming.


  2. 14 August, 2009 5:56 pm

    I love the research phase. For one thing there’s no pressure to get anything right and so it’s full of wonderful possibilities! But also researching facts for a novel gives me inspiration that I wouldn’t otherwise have had – to take your example of historical fiction, the weather conditions might suggest a scene that I simply wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Also it’s amazing what you can ‘fake’ with a bit of research – while ghosting I’ve managed to convincingly write about a lot of things I’ve never, ever done, and then readers have praised the authenticity of my books! Great post – research is one of the writer’s best friends!


    • 17 August, 2009 8:50 pm

      That’s fascinating about ‘faking’ research and being praised for your authenticity. You must have a powerful imagination! If you feel like doing a guest ‘how to’ post on this topic sometime, let me know.


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