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?