The benefit of research in fiction writing
This post is the twenty-fourth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
As you write your novel, you want to make your reader feel the world you created, whether it is a whole new world or just a neighborhood in San Francisco, is real. You want them to believe your character is a scuba diver, firefighter or tango dancer. The best way to make these places or activities real if you don’t already have first hand knowledge about these items is to do research.
In the days of e-mail and the Internet, researching for novel is easy. You can get in contact with specialists via email (or go old school and give them a call). There are tons of documents on the internet and videos on YouTube that can help you with all sorts research. But as with all things found on the Internet, remember to take everything with a grain of salt and verify and re-verify any “facts” you read.
If you are writing a court drama, you should have an understanding of how the court system works. Do not rely on TV shows or movies to clue you in on the justice system. These do not always give an accurate view of how things are. Speak to lawyers (or at least law professors), judges and bailiffs. Go watch court proceeding and make sure you understand what happens and how fast (or slow).
But whatever you do, don’t skip the research. It can help your story’s realism as well as help you with plot and theme. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity.
If you are going to write about a certain city or region, it obviously would be best if you have visited that region. But if that isn’t possible, you can still find maps, photos and first-hand accounts of those areas on the Internet. Knowledge of the area will help make your story believable to those who know the area.
Now speaking of locales, make sure you are not stereotyping the region. People think of Texas as a place with people wearing cowboy hats and riding horses and saying, “y’all.” But for a majority of Texas that is not how things are. Here again, research can be a big help. Take the time to understand the area before you write about it.
And of course the same goes for people. Don’t generalize people because they are poor or live in a certain region. Not everyone is exactly what is expected, and the same should hold true for your characters. Consider doing the opposite of what is expected. Instead of a big, burly black man as the bouncer to a nightclub perhaps your bouncer is a woman or an old man.
Too Much Info
Researching the careers and locales is important but remember that there is such a thing as including too much information in your book. I remember reading a book by a well-known romance author. The story was about the people who handle forest fires. It was clear that she had done her research, but she also included WAY TOO MANY facts in the story that I found myself skimming over those descriptions.
You can weave in your knowledge of the person’s career or location without whopping the reader over the head with it. No reader likes a data dump. Again, it is the little details that can make it all believable.
The last thing I wanted to comment on doesn’t necessarily have to do with research exactly. It is remembering that everyone doesn’t react the same way you would to a situation. What is logical for you (and your character) may not seem logical to someone else. Really all you have to do is look at the news stories on the TV or the Internet to understand this. (People leave young kids home alone; they kill someone over a petty argument; they beat or burn dogs, and many more things that I would never even consider doing.)
When you are writing a scene, try pausing and playing out different scenarios. Think of different reactions, even if they seem far-fetched to you. Of course if you know your character well (and you should), then your character’s reaction will stem from who they are and not from who you want them to be.
By taking time to reflect on your character’s actions and decisions or researching their jobs or where they live, you will improve your writing. Your characters and setting will become believable to your readers, and that is a good thing.