Researching a Novel

Doing research on a novel is one of the most crucial aspects of creating a winning story. If we don’t get our information right, we damage, if not destroy, our credibility.

For pantsers like myself, research can be a huge interrupter of the process if not handled right.

When I get an idea for a story, I do what I call a free write. This is a one-to-two page single-spaced document of the main characters, story world, and major plot points. After I write this, I go back over it and ask myself what do I need to know about each aspect.

Now comes the initial research, particularly of the story world. If it’s a fantasy, I narrow the genre: steampunk, urban fantasy, a blend of sci-fi and fantasy, medieval, etc.

One of the joys of writing is creating the world my characters live in whether its contemporary, historical, sci-fi, or fantasy. What I enjoy most about fantasy is creating a world without limits.

But—and this is a huge but—it still needs to make sense. It needs to have a logical and understandable foundation. Even if we use magic or dragons or unicorns, it still needs to be believable and consistent to itself.

As a pantser, I’ve learned that I can’t plan everything in advance. Nor do I want to. Many times I discover aspects of my story world only after I start the actual writing. My characters show me parts of the setting I couldn’t have imagined ahead of time. I need to follow them as they interact with their world. Then I make new discoveries about the world and my characters, discoveries which enrich my stories.

How do I this research?

I don’t want to stop my creative flow to chase down some research point. So I make notes in the manuscript where the question arose. I write the question in all caps, red and boldface. Then I keep writing.

On Saturdays, I’ll print out what I wrote that week and edit it. When I come to a research question, I’ll find the answer. If I don’t do it then, it can create problems down the road in the story.

Many answers I can find online (with careful cross-checking). Others require a field trip to a museum, library, or a special event like a Renaissance Faire.

One of my unpublished contemporary stories has a female police detective in Oklahoma City as a major character. I had a blast talking to the public relations officer for over an hour learning how she would go about doing her job.

Another time I took a series of horseback riding lessons to learn the details of caring for these beautiful animals.

What’s the most fun research you’ve had to do?

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