We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dominique
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 17:19:59

    I can’t believe I forgot. While commenting on Nail Your Novel, I was reminded of something very important. Reading other books can be a great way of researching. Of course! How could I forget?

    Reading books can be beneficial to your craft as well as your topic. If you’re looking for a certain style to mimic or if you’re looking for a particularly well structured plot line — turn to a book you’ve read or ask around for books that may be helpful to you.

    Short stories are great when you’re researching your topic, because reading the full story will reap more rewards and it only takes an hour or two to finish the whole short story.

    Reply

  2. Jane Kennedy Sutton
    May 03, 2010 @ 22:31:19

    If you belong to a writer’s group, you can always tap them for resources—perhaps even finding someone to interview who has gone through something your character faces.

    Reply

    • Dominique
      May 04, 2010 @ 20:13:21

      Jane, what a great idea! I might just do that. But first I have to get back into my writing group… I kind of stopped going :(

      Reply

  3. Maribeth
    May 04, 2010 @ 03:29:29

    Hey Dominique, it’s Maribeth over at Writing Like Crazy. Will you send me your info again, I cannot find it in my inbox.

    Thanks,

    :)

    Reply

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