You know that really annoying saying out there that says – WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW? And as creative people, we kind of HATE THAT? Because we write mythical creatures and experiences and things we’ll never actually KNOW? This is why research is so important.
I spend a lot of time thinking about a novel before I actually sit down to write – usually between a month to over a year. This isn’t ALWAYS the case because the book I wrote this July I thought of at the end of June. But USUALLY, an idea solidifies in my mind for quite a while before I tackle it. So, just know that there’s no perfect formula for anything. No one thing that works every time, but thinking about a book for several months gives me a lot of time to get some research in before I draft, which means my drafting goes much faster.
I want to preface everything I say below with the idea that I have zero problems leaving unfinished details in my manuscript as I write. If I’m not positive that Chevy had a convertible Camaro in a certain year, I just say INSERT CAR HERE, and continue writing. But I do know that if an author doesn’t do a certain amount of research about a place in the world or a time period, or a culture, chances are very good that the author will end up with a plot point (or many) that don’t work with that time period/culture/place in the world, and the changes after draft one will be major re-workings or re-writes rather than regular edits and revisions.
EXAMPLE: About five or six years ago, I wrote a love story set in the WWII time period that takes place over several years from several points of view, and I LOOOOVED it. Since my granddad fought in the war as a young volunteer, I asked him to read it. After talking to him, I had to make an enormous fundamental shift in which person did which job – and as you know, someone’s job can (and in both cases did) define much of who a person is. Only just now have I been able to redefine those people in my head to get the story right. The point of this mini-Jo-history? DON’T MAKE MY MISTAKE AND BE PUT IN THE POSITION TO RE-WRITE YOUR NOVEL.
- I cannot imagine writing a story that takes no research, and so far, I’ve written a LOT of contemporary novels.
- Don’t assume that because someone else used a specific thing in their fiction, that they got it right. LOOK IT UP. (I see rampant mistakes about the criminal justice system, but that’s because I know the CJ system. My guess is that doctors would say the same thing, as would any professional).
- You may not know all the little things that are going to come up in your novel, THIS IS OK, you don’t have to research every detail. You have to research enough to know your subject, and to know what will and won’t work for the overall plot. We’re not talking about micro-revision here, we’re talking about drafting. Just learn enough that you’re not pausing to go to google because we all know what can happen when you leave your MS to check something online……….
- BONUS: If you have drafting days when you’re not really feeling it? You can look over the notes you’ve left in your MS and fill in those blanks with research.
- WHEN RESEARCHING SOMETHING TOTALLY NEW TO YOU – start with a children’s book. I’m not kidding. You’ll get a general overview of the subject, and then you’ll know how to ask questions about the bigger stuff, and know what specific parts of that topic you’d like to focus on or learn more about. I’ve done this with cancer, history, ghosts, oceanography, mechanics and architecture. Also, there are usually pictures 😉
- Everyone has their own way of keeping notes on things – I keep mine in google drive and there are always LOTS of links. Find what works for YOU and use it to death.
- If you’re going to write someone in a wheelchair, PLEASE ACTUALLY TALK TO SOMEONE IN A WHEELCHAIR. If you’re writing someone with wings? Feel free to spend a lot of time imagining that person.
USE WHAT YOU LOVE to do the research for what YOU WANT TO WRITE.
EXAMPLE: I have a friend (Jennifer Moore) who is in to history and old ships and nearly all of her vacations take her to places she’ll use in her historical novels. She gets to research while also doing something she loves = WIN. (Yes, I realize we can’t all travel, but we do have a million travel sites that can still help).
Use WHAT YOU KNOW, to write what YOU DON’T KNOW.
EXAMPLE: My Alaska writing friend, AdriAnne Strickland, is a commercial fisherman. She used the idea of casting nets and “fishing” in a space opera (Shadow Run) that sold at auction and comes out this fall. She used something she knows (fishing) as part of something she doesn’t know (what it’s like to live on a spaceship, though, she does understand life on a boat).
I want you to honestly think about the things you’re passionate about, your feelings, the way you see the world… ALL of that will end up in your books. I’ll never write a book that includes a setting or a hobby that I have no interest in. Most people won’t. So, keeping all this in mind – happy pre-writing research!