Research and Fiction

When it comes to writing a fiction novel, not everyone may realize the amount of research that goes into it.

While a fiction story is made up, it is based on a common world we share. That means that while the plot may be fictitious, the world in which it takes place is not. There are exceptions, sci-fi and fantasy usually take place in worlds that are created by an author; however, even those genres have to establish rules. And some of those rules have already been well established by famous writers in that genre. If you are creating a new rule, you have to establish the rule and make it believable in the world you’ve created. While the research may be different in those genres, it is still important. And as outrageous as something may be in sci-fi and fantasy, it still has to make sense to a human reader. It has to connect with their knowledge and understanding of how things work or could work in order for them to connect with the story and visualize what the author is telling them.

A reader is willing to suspend their disbelief (believe the unbelievable) for a book, but this suspension is helped along by a carefully crafted story that resembles the real world so the reader can easily believe the story could happen. This is done, in part, through research.

One of the worst things that can happen for a reader is to be pulled out of a story, to become aware that they are reading. This can happen through poor editing, where the piece is written so poorly that the reader has to re-read a section to try to make sense of it. It can also be done by putting something in a book that a reader readily knows is not accurate.

Let me give you an example from a TV show I watched. I won’t give the name, because I generally like to speak positively about other people’s work. But this will illustrate my point. The episode of a police procedural involved the kidnapping of a small child in a major city, in a district with apartment buildings. One of the detectives said that there were five registered sex offenders within a five-mile radius of the location where the child was kidnapped.

I was so thrown off by the inaccuracy that I stopped watching the show. I’ve worked in law offices where I have become familiar with sex offender registries. In rural America, you could throw a pebble from your window and hit five registered sex offenders regardless of how nice of a neighborhood you live in, and I can tell you that I can’t even throw a pebble one mile, let alone five. You could look up registered offenders in your neighborhood, but I don’t know that I would recommend it. You may never be able to sleep again. My first thought was that it would have taken the writer less than two minutes to research that and made that number more believable. As a result, I never finished that episode and I’ve actually never watched that TV show again. That’s how far out I was pulled from the story. And it was really a minor detail, but could have easily been fixed.

It’s not to say that every little detail has to be researched in your novel, but there are plenty of instances where a little research will help make a story believable. You may have heard of the phrase “write what you know.” While many people may take objection with this idea, the cure is simple. If you don’t know what you are writing about, research it. You don’t have to be limited by what you know, but you need to look into things that you’re not certain about. Don’t just assume that your guess is good enough.

Let me give you a few examples of things that I’ve researched for my current novel, which may give you ideas of what you could research for the novel you’re working on or thinking about writing.

My novel begins in 1785 and progresses through time to the present day. The section of my book that takes place in the past provided several things that I could research, and information that was easily accessible. For instance, there are several passages that take place at night. So I researched things such as the time the sun rose and set, the phase of the moon on that date, and the time the moon rose and set. I also researched different historical events that coincided with things taking place in my story.

In the present day part of the book, I researched things like the plant hardiness zones of the area where my book takes place to determine what kind of trees and plants would grow in my fictitious forest based on the location I claim the forest exists. In one section, I have the parents of my protagonist flying from Japan to Seattle, WA and then driving to my made up town. I wanted to know how long the flight would take, and then how long the drive would take once they left the airport.

There are dozens of other things that I researched for the book, some of the things don’t even have that big of a role in the book, but their accuracy is important to making the world around the story as real as possible.

In a future post (I don’t yet have an exact date of when I’ll post this), I’ll share some of my favorite sites I’ve used for research, and some of the pitfalls of researching for fiction.

 

Until then, what types of things have you researched for your stories? Are there any areas that you’ve attempted to research, but have found it difficult to find information? If you haven’t ever done research for your stories, what do you think about the idea? 

13 Comments


  1. // Reply

    I agree, research is essential at the most basic level, to keep readers engaged, so that you don’t pull them out of the story. The thing is, depending on the world you are creating, I don’t think you have to necessarily be accurate, but it must be grounded in its own logic. That stuff about sex offenders is fascinating mind.

    I wrote a bit of flash fiction the other day set in Cape Town, where I’ve never been, so most of my research was courtesy of Google maps and a couple of local blogs. Everything is there for a writer to research. There can’t be a thing on earth, or off it, that hasn’t been written about and likely had photos taken of it too.


    1. // Reply

      Exactly, Ben. There’s a whole lot in a novel that will be made up as part of the story world you’re creating, but as you say it has to be grounded in logic. One of the things that I really enjoy about fiction though, is that you can learn things about the real world. For example the protagonist might be a doctor or archaeologist and through the story you may learn about their profession and tools they use or how they go about their business as part of the story.


  2. // Reply

    Number of sex offenders in a radius sounded a little nit-picky to me, but I can’t fault you for it because I do the same thing. My knowledge of computers, space, and science make a lot of movies tough for me to watch without getting so distracted that I become bored, even when things are blowing up. I’m also not a fan of “every character is a super ninja,” but for most people it makes the story fun. I concede for most things. I was discussing the movie Gravity with someone yesterday, and while I enjoyed the story, I would have thought that someone writing a whole story that’s essentially about an EVA in space would take the time to learn one or two things about how stuff works in orbit. Good post.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you. And you’ve hit on some good points. There is the danger of having people who are quite knowledgeable in an area picking up on inaccuracies that the average reader will not. A writer won’t be able to make everything in the book accurate or please every reader. But when the information can be acquired through a quick search it’s worth the effort. If it’s something that’s integral to the story, more extensive research is important.


  3. // Reply

    I’m currently working on a sword and sorcery fantasy novel and I research all kinds of things. Plants, animals, astronomy, etc. I also tend to use artists’ works to inspire my own creations in terms of flora, fauna, architecture, and other things. I also use other tools from the internet, like name generators and Google translate.

    While there are a lot of “standard” guidelines in fantasy, they’re not fast and hard rules, which makes it easier to write, in my opinion. It’s much less complicated, for me, to write a much more…fictional…world. Because fantasy readers tend to give more leeway to the authors than readers of historical or contemporary fiction.

    I also have the problem of being what many people I know call “snobby” when it comes to fictions, whether it’s written or performed. If the writer tries to sell me on something that I know is wrong, I start to pick apart everything. However, I am much more nit-picky about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and composition, in general.


    1. // Reply

      I love reading about all the things you’ve researched for your fantasy novel. I’m not sure if other writers enjoy the research part as much as I do, but I love learning about these little elements that fit into my story. Although there have been times when I get really frustrated trying to track down information on something.


  4. // Reply

    I’m sure I research MORE for sci-fi than I do even for a contemporary piece of work. I wanted a railgun at one point and ended up spending several days designing believable gizmos in order to provide sufficient energy, make it portable, and handle recoil. Then I had to know what it might sound and smell like when shot. Etc., etc. I watched youtubes and stalked weapons forums haunted by engineers, physicists, and veterans and learned much more about experimental military armament than I ever needed to know!

    This month I’ve been working on a ghost story set in a swamp. Do you want to know about the mating habits of alligators? I can tell you!


    1. // Reply

      It sounds like you get as consumed by research as I do, Kecia. I only allow myself to perform limited searches for something while I’m writing or editing. If it’s something that needs more than sixty seconds I make a note and go back to it later. I know myself, and I’ll get lost in research a whole day without realizing it and then I’ve accomplished nothing in the form of writing or editing.
      Your description of your research is interesting, it reminds me that sometimes writers have to have the mind of an inventor, not because we’re creating worlds, but because sometimes we have to create devices and figure out how to get the reader to visualize what we’ve created and believe that it works.
      The mating habits of alligators, very funny. Now I know who to go to if that question ever comes up. 🙂


  5. // Reply

    Oh, gosh, I should absolutely mention Quora. If you have a technical question or need to know something very specific, there are experts on that site willing to answer very thoroughly and usually very quickly. Sometimes you’ll get more than one answer, and they will disagree, then you get all kinds of interesting details as the experts (and wannabe experts) go back and forth.


    1. // Reply

      Thanks for the tip! I’m bookmarking it now. That site sounds like it will be useful.


  6. // Reply

    For the ongoing story on my blog, I’ve looked up some pretty eccentric things for research.

    Things like: trying to find the right kind of wedding rings/ wedding dresses for two of my female characters. You can’t even imagine how many wedding dresses I stared at online. For my one character, I knew I wanted her dress to have warrior like elements to it, but I couldn’t find anything that quite matched up with what I had in mind.

    Trying to figure out the name of this old fashioned suit jacket. I could totally see the jacket in my head and how it fit snug around the gentleman’s chest. I just didn’t know what it was called. I finally found what I was looking for on Pinterest.

    How to put out a television fire. 😀 Yes. I seriously looked this one up.

    How to toss pizza dough. Just because my one character felt like making homemade pizza the hard way. 😀

    There have been a whole lot of other odd researching I’ve had to do for this story (including dancing videos), but those up above were the top of the listers.


    1. // Reply

      I enjoyed this comment, because I spend a good deal of time searching for things that I’m visualizing for my stories. Sometimes it’s for specific names or details, and other times it’s to solidify what I’m picturing. Things like galoshes and boots, rain coats and hats, trail markers, neck ties, and jute twine.
      Thank you for sharing the things that you’ve researched. I really love hearing about the process of other writers. Many of which I share a common experience, and others which I just find interesting.


      1. // Reply

        You’re totally welcome!

        One of these days, I should write a full list of the weird things I have researched for my story and post it for the fun of it. 😀

Leave a Reply