Character Building, World Building

Treasure Hunt! 5 Things to Know About Researching for Your Novel


I’ve talked a lot about research already on this blog. That’s because I’m an International Relations and Anthropology major, and research is pretty much a definitive part of my life at this point. I also write about present-day cultures, religions and social topics in my series, so it’s imperative that I have looked at every topic from every angle that I can think of to provide an accurate representation of what I’m speaking about.

When we’re young, we tend to groan upon hearing we have a research project due. When speaking to writers, I always hear how long and laborious the research portion of the story is. While this is very true, the research for the story is my favorite part of writing. Not only does it make me feel much more confident about my writing, but it also tends to lead me to other points of inspiration for my story and new ways to weave different storylines together.

Despite the daunting task that it always seems, research isn’t really all that difficult. It takes a lot of time and patience, but with the Internet, we have nearly every resource we need available to us. To help facilitate the most crucial part of writing a story, here are 5 tips to help get you organized.

  1. Research Before Writing

Research is essential in every portion of your writing, but the preliminary research is what will help you make a solid foundation for the beginning of your story. You wouldn’t believe how much research goes into even the highest fantasy that you can imagine, and most certainly into any sci-fi story available.

The most helpful is to get yourself ready with research keywords. When writing Hubris, I had a whole list of these keywords I knew I would need and some even that I wasn’t sure of, but could be useful if I took the story in any of the millions of directions I was envisioning. Because the story is loosely based on the Sirens of ancient Greece, I, of course, had those as keywords, but also things like ‘Greek epics,’ ‘ancient Greek themes,’ and ‘ancient Greek landscape.’ These things helped me narrow down key points and theme-building ideas that I thought would be great to use in a story based on ancient Greek creatures, even if very loosely so. I also was still uncertain as to how my theme would play out, so I researched ‘steampunk,’ ‘dystopia,’ ‘paranormal’ and ‘gothic.’ All these coincided with any route I was planning to take the story and helped narrow down the theme, the mood and the base of my story. This also helps with world- and character-building tasks; a strong theme helps you enter in the mindset of your story and begin to see it as a real, tangible event and not a flat, dimensionless cutout.

To find the best keywords for your preliminary research, think about the very basic theme of your story. For mine, it was, “the youngest Siren tries to save humanity from her father.”  From there, I decided on popular ancient Greek themes. “The youngest Siren, in prideful arrogance, defies her father to save humanity.” At that point, the questions that came with the research helped me build my theme further. Questions such as, what is prideful and arrogant about her defiance?  Who is her father that he poses a threat to humanity? Why is she saving humans? How is she connected to them? Pride and arrogance, in ancient Greek, were often about a person feeling they could change fate that was ordained by the gods. I could begin to build the main character, Telese, by answering these questions and keeping in mind what my research had told me about what the ancient Greek themes regarded as important lessons. Soon, Telese went from “the youngest Siren tries to save humanity from her father,” to “the youngest Siren defies her all-powerful, god-like father and develops a plan, in her pride and arrogance, to change the fate he has laid out for her and humanity.”

Telese’s pride is continuously brought to attention by her older sisters, who try to convince her it’s better to obey their father and hope for mercy. She’s always reminded of three significant events in her life when her pride took over, and she suffered unimaginable consequences. Other characters respond to her with either standing by their own ego or pushing it aside. Even her father, Alexandros, can be somewhat blinded by his personal pride and arrogance. Though there are many different themes that I’ve used, the theme of the consequences of pride is the underlying theme throughout the entire series. It acts as a compass for the whole of the story. Researching your keywords before you begin writing helps you to plan a basic path. Even if you deviate from that path eventually, it will help you take the first steps on your writing journey without wandering aimlessly and giving up.

  1. Research Your Genre

Now that you have the basic theme of your story, it’s best to research other stories like it. Researching the genre in which you are writing helps to flesh out some of the vaguer plotlines, and especially helps you to find some inspiration when your writing falls flat.

This isn’t to say that you should try to copy the voice and style of your favorite genre writers; you always want to develop your own, unique style. There are often essential genre structures, however, that help to build your story and can be counted upon to make a story stronger. In a horror story, you probably aren’t going to have long, complicated sentences that explain every single detail of a scene to the point where the reader has no need for imagination. An imagination running wild, after all, is what helps make a horror story a horror story. Easily the most famous horror writer of our time, Stephen King uses small sentences, jumps from a description to add a disjointed thought of a character during a scene and knows what details to focus on and what to leave a mystery. Whether he’s your cup of tea or not, there’s no denying that he’s one of the first names mentioned when you ask, “who are some popular horror authors?” On the other hand, J.K. Rowling uses long, detail-heavy paragraphs to describe every single step of the Harry Potter series. She uses so much exact description that Hogwarts becomes real to the reader. This lends itself exceptionally well to fantasy stories, where you are creating an entirely new world, or even just augmenting the one we live in with new natural laws.

Sci-Fi is a little bit more challenging. While currently reading The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey, there are obviously details that are entirely made up (the aliens themselves), but also features that are based on involved and well-developed scientific research (the effects of natural disasters, the impact of surviving natural disasters). There is also some basic knowledge of what would be likely in the event of a significant, unheard-of catastrophe such as an alien invasion. Particularly, Yancey uses Wright-Patterson Airforce Base in Dayton, Ohio, as an important location in his story. Having grown up 10 minutes from Wright-Patt, I can tell you that it’s a very important, very large, very well-guarded military research base. Such a small detail as that gives a reader that is familiar with it such a clearer picture of what this new world looks like. Sci-Fi will always be about balancing fantasy with science, meaning there is not always a lot of room for error or liberties when it comes to laws of nature and space. The research that the author does should focus on what aspects of science they would like to incorporate into their story and building the fantasy details around those aspects. It should never be the opposite, in which scientific research bends to fantasy rules. While this seems to limit your writing, there are no shortages of themes you can choose. Space-related topics will most likely always be the most common theme in sci-fi, but other possibilities are time travel, cyberpunk, biopunk, natural disaster stories and epidemic stories.

  1. Pay Attention to Where Your Research is Coming From

Unless you’re writing a scholarly, academic journal entry, you’re probably not going to solely use academic journals, and that’s fine. But just using any source that you find isn’t going to give you a solid base to work with. Just because it’s at the top of the search engine doesn’t actually mean it’s completely trustworthy.

For starters, make sure that the references you’re using are solid references. Does it seem like a website that anybody could have put up, or is it from a recognizable person or group? Does it have recognizable sources? Does it give further reading options or does it rely solely on the author’s word?

Speaking of further reading, I was given excellent advice by a professor one time. He said that when you see “further reading” and “works cited,” those are not optional when researching. A great source to start with is Wikipedia, but it shouldn’t be your only stop. Wikipedia asks that people cite any claims that they make on a page, marking a page as needing verification if it is not up to par. Take advantage of those citations. Follow the links and read through the information.

Another favorite source of research information is the podcast. These can be both informative and entertaining. Just be sure to check the credentials of the host. Again, you aren’t necessarily looking for a Ph.D. to qualify them as knowledgeable. It can be as simple as making sure that if the person is discussing common traits of a German Shepherd, they own one or two German Shepherds. Making sure that the host is familiar with the subject that they’re speaking on will help keep your information on track.

  1. Build a Resource Center

Not necessarily a physical one. Having some sites bookmarked in your browser, however, can help you grab some information quickly when you’re writing. Aside from special topics related to the theme of your novel, there are some crucial resources every writer should look for.

One of my favorite sites is The Creative Penn, run by Joanna Penn, a New York Times Bestseller and a very knowledgeable author. Her website has tips on improving your writing, but also tips on being a writer, such as how to handle self-doubt, how to set aside time for your book, how to write productively and how to market. She also hosts a fantastic amount of resources, from finding an editor to finder a cover designer. While you would like to believe that the only things you’ll be researching are your story themes and details, the other logistics, such as your cover, aren’t going to fall into your lap, and self-doubt and finding the time to write are stumbling blocks that every author faces. You will want to include in your research, not just how to write, but how to be a writer.

Explain It Like I’m Actually 5 is a Reddit channel dedicated to explaining complex ideas in straightforward terms. This is useful to look through if you have technical information that you might need to clarify in your novel and still don’t quite understand it yourself. The questions usually revolve around science and technology, but things such as tax questions, currency questions and a plethora of other topics are covered on this site.

Believe it or not, Adam Ruins Everything is actually a very informative source of information on just about any topic. The videos are often short and always entertaining. They’re also very easy to follow and can give you a lot of details that you can research further to build your knowledge. With videos, animated shorts and podcasts with expert guests, there’s no shortage of information that you can find on the site.

These are just a couple of useful sites, but you can see they aren’t necessarily built by people who have seven or eight degrees and a mountain of scholarly achievements per se. They make excellent sources to help clarify some details and give you further direction in your research, which is what you want to build your resource center with.

  1. Get Out More

I grew up in a tiny farming community. I never really had a chance to walk down the street and see events. We had no public transportation, and nowhere it would have even gone, anyway. Now, I live in Washington, D.C., and everything is metro accessible. During the summertime, we have the Smithsonian Folk Festival. During the spring, we have the day that all the embassies open to the public to walk around and view in person. We have a museum for everything. We have the National Archives and the reading rooms in the Library of Congress. It’s absolutely amazing, what research becomes when you have access to resources beyond your imagination.

If you’re in a town like where I grew up, you may not have everything right outside your door. But if you’re in a city like I live in now, you may be missing out on some of the potentials of the places you might brush off as “too touristy”.  If you live in a small town and have access to transportation, try to make some events in a busier area. To see things directly is the best way to research.

Have you had any stumbling blocks in your research? What topics are you researching now? Leave a comment and let us know.

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