Facts for Fiction Writers: The Importance of Doing Research
While there is a joke among journalists, meant ironically of course, suggesting they should “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”, the opposite is true for fiction writers.
Errors of fact can really get in the way of your good story, annoy readers and ultimately dash your attempt to write The Great Novel.
Research, and the bedrock of reality, is the essence of all great works of fiction. Science fiction writers may be creating a brave new world, but the science should be right. Crime or mystery writers should understand police procedure, courtroom protocol, the psychology of criminal minds. Historical romance writers should know details of daily life in the period of interest. Fiction must “feel true” in order to work.
“As writers, we are building worlds and these worlds need to feel beautiful and organized and “true”—even if that truth or authenticity is bizarre and fantastical,” says Kyo Maclear, author of several books including Virginia Wolf, a charming children’s book based on the relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. Maclear recommends decent research and a light touch. “Facts, loosely arranged, create a degree of plausibility that allows the reader to place faith in the writer.”
Writers will have different approaches, and most suggest a good bit of research is important at the beginning of a project. “Early research can garner facts that will enhance the story as the writing progresses,” says Suzanne Pitner, contributing writer for Suite101.com. “If the writer waits till later to research, it may cause a situation where parts of the book are inaccurate and need to be rewritten.
“Worse than that, without proper research, a writer may find that he has written a story into a dead end, with no plausible way to resolve the issues. It could be a waste of days or perhaps even months of hard work, if the story fell through because research didn’t support it.”
Maclear recommends beginning with some exploratory reading. “I read quickly and lightly, looking for scintillating information and interesting sparks. I need to be careful not to go too deep. The problem with research, as many writers know, is that too much of it can bog a writer — and reader — down. In my own experience, research is best pursued on a need to know basis or as a writing prompt.”
Here are some tips on the “how” of research:
- Start online. This is pretty obvious, and the internet is perfect to give you an overview of your subject area. A search for academic materials will turn up a lot of archives that have been placed online now which makes it even easier to do good documentary research.
- There’s nothing like a great library, and librarian. Research librarians may be able to point you to databases hosted by universities or government bodies, which can offer a treasure trove of info.
- Talk to people. Pitner says interviews with experts are invaluable, in that they may give you tips and pointers not found in written resources. “They may also be able to tell the writer personal anecdotes that breathe life into a story,” she says.
- Keep your research in a file. Not only will it be easier for you to dig up that detail hovering in the back of your mind, but an editor, publisher or fact checker may want to see your sources.
“The trick is not to try to obsessively reproduce the real world or real person you are exploring,” says Maclear. “Too much verisimilitude is boring and if done clumsily will just create skepticism in the reader.”
Remember that your role as a writer is “show, don’t tell”, so use the research you’ve done to create backstory, setting and plot, sprinkling details throughout your scenes in a way that keeps the plot moving forward.
“Research thoroughly but lightly. Don’t confuse research for writing. Unless you’re writing a manual, your job is not to “instruct” the reader,” says Maclear. “When it comes time to write, let most of the research go. You will discover that only what remains in your head and heart will be pertinent.”
Read Suzanne Pitner’s article on research for fiction writers:
Books by Kyo Maclear on Kobo: