Skeptical about research? These 4 benefits will change your mind

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By Julie Tyler

Research is a hard and serious task. It takes considerable time just to find the info we need. Then we still have to figure out how to use it to enhance a work of fiction.

So. Daunting. But if we’re gonna write a novel, we have to research, no matter the genre or subject matter. And with enough practice, the research process becomes second nature and–can you believe it?–enjoyable.

In this series, Research Methods for Novelists, we want to demystify the research process and make it as straightforward and systematic as possible.

Feeling skeptical? These four benefits will convince you why research is so important:

#1 – You write a more believable story

cricket, children's books, fiction, believable stories
Cover art for Selden’s The Cricket in Time Square, a beautiful children’s novel about friendship between a cricket, a mouse, and a cat.

Every work of fiction, which is imaginative by definition, contains some analogue to the real world. As readers, we think we want to escape from real life, but when we arrive in a fictional world, what we’re really hoping for is a dose of what we already know … just, with different details.

Conducting research, then, helps you superimpose the FAMILIAR on top of NEW fictional elements you create from scratch. Here are examples of what should seem familiar:

  • Characters: Even talking animals and aliens from galaxies far, far away, must exhibit human-like traits–thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Otherwise, readers don’t care enough about them to turn the page.
  • Circumstances: In your novel, these must seem familiar, like the political systems at work in Star Wars or the medical procedures in Grey’s Anatomy. Otherwise, readers have a hard time latching on.

#2 – You write a more authentic story

At the same time that we want fictional worlds to be believable, we also want reading to deliver an authentic experience. Authenticity in fiction can come in many forms, including, but not limited to:

  • representations of a culture or community
  • representations of an occupation
  • representations of a moment in history

Many writers, scholars, and artists today differ on what constitutes authenticity in fiction:

Can we write convincingly about cultures other than our own? For that matter, are we even allowed to make such an attempt?

While there are no simple answers to these questions, we gals at FromNothingToNovel believe that (attempts at) authenticity in fiction should combine writing what you know and researching the heck out of what you don’t know, all with a goal to raise questions about the human condition.

artist, sculpture, discovery
A funky art installation in my hometown. While visiting my parents recently,  I set out on a junket to discover new sights.

Let’s say you set your novel in your hometown. No novelist is gonna know it more than you, right? Your novel couldn’t be any more authentic, right?

Wrong.

Even when you know a city, a community, a culture, a practice backwards and forwards, you still have much to learn.

Imagine what you could find out by going on a research-minded tour of your hometown or interviewed people on neighboring blocks you’ve never met. You’d gather multiple perspectives that would enhance how your novel depicts this place.

#3 – You educate your audience 

No matter your genre, conducting research helps you write a novel that educates your audience on something they didn’t know beforehand. They walk away from your novel having been entertained and enlightened. And that’s a powerful combination for authors and readers alike!

Imagine a psycho-thriller that terrifies you on levels you never knew existed and yet sharpens your sleuthing skills. Silence of the Lambs, anyone? Or a work of meta-fiction that breaks your heart, the heart that believes in love, and, if that’s not enough, thrusts you on the front lines of WWII. Seriously, Atonement will change you forever as a reader.

Those are the kind of books that have the longest shelf lives. Research will help our novels achieve longevity.

#4 – You navigate your genre with ease

Amazon, research, genre
Amazon.com searches can speed up your genre research.

Fictional genres themselves constitute a vast body of data. Books are marketed as belonging to particular genres, so that readers can easily find what they’re looking for in bookstores.

So guess what that means for you? Ya have to research your genre, just like you do the historical periods, cultures, communities, and subject matter you want to write about. Researching your genre will help you navigate it as well as STAND OUT from other books:

  • Who are the established authors in your genre?
  • Who are the up-and-comers?
  • What themes are currently prevalent?
  • What types of characters appear in these novels
  • What types of people actually read in your genre?

You’re ready to research!

Now that we’ve established the WHYS of researching, our next installments in this series will go over the WHATS and the HOWS:

Don’t know what topics to research? We’ll go over ideas like historical events, social customs and rituals, scientific facts, fashion from a different era, common tropes in certain fictional genres, and the list goes on.

Not sure where to start? We’ll go over a variety of methods, step by step, that are most effective at getting you the information you need. In no time, you’ll be perusing library holdings, making the World Wide Web your oyster, conducting interviews, and combining methods to get the best results.

Nervous about sifting through data? We’ll help you narrow down research questions, so that you stay focused on finishing your novel.

Before you get started, make sure you have these basic tools:

  • a library card, the most powerful card you’ll ever carry
  • access to reliable, high-speed internet
  • an audio recorder app on your smartphone or handheld recorder
  • a writing buddy (or two or three) to help you make sense of it all

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more on research, and as always, comment with your ideas, questions, and experiences!

2 comments

  1. […] As Julie wrote in our series intro, research can be intimidating. I know that even as a graduate student, research felt vast and never-ending. It was a pit I could fall into–no flashlight, no harness or ropes; just miles of dark tunnel to fall down and a lot of time to think. And if I managed to escape from said research pit, there was always the nagging question: would I have learned enough while I was down there? […]

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