Posted by: Matt Q. McGovern | September 18, 2012

Researching for fiction

Research is necessary for a writer. In any fictional story, there is a science, magic, type of business, and many more types of subjects, all of which require knowledge of to write about it. The writer behind it all has to do the research to cover that subject. If a character is skilled with a camera, then the writer has to be able to write about that skill. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

The first way is to write about what you already know. For myself, any of my characters can talk about what happens with most computer jobs, or using a computer in many ways since that’s what I do for a living. I’ve played some music instruments in my time so I could have my characters do that as well. There’s no better research than to be the expert yourself.

For most other subjects, I just use the internet and look everything up. Nowadays, it’s easy to use Google and Wikipedia for information to get you on your way. Chances are, somebody has already done the research (or part of it) and put up a web page about it. Google is also good with maps (including satellite view) where you can do your research about where your characters are adventuring.

For those who love libraries (I don’t know many writers that don’t), there’s definitely something to be said about going to the library for the day and just concentrating on research. It does require a skill to get the information you want, and it takes a little time to go through the books as you collect and go through them. One benefit that I’ve found is the productivity that comes from designating the time for the library and research. There are no distractions when you’ve made it your goal to do research and you physically go to the library to do it.

If you know an expert, pick their brain. A number of books I’ve read feature a special thank you section where the author showed their appreciation to their research source. If you want to know about police procedure and you happen to know a police officer, ask away. They may even point you to others that would love to talk about the job. You can get your research from friends but you’re not limited to only those you know. It’s fun to ask for interviews on some subject. A friend of mine got a tour of the local zoo because they needed to write about it. After I was told that I wanted to write about the zoo next so I could do it!

Research is not just confined to subjects in the modern world. One of my favorite subjects to read about are the ones that the author made up. Subjects like magic and fantasy are a whole world of its own, requiring a deep knowledge of the subject. Sometimes it pays to do research on the subject you’re making up as you go along in order to keep up with it. This can be fun in and of itself. A lot of the time, magic and fantasy are just reflections of the real world that we live in. It’s fun to think of what the author must have been thinking of when they invented some new magical ability, etc.

One last point to bring up about research and writing: when to do it. If you’re beginning a new story, the research can get in the way of writing it. The best advice I’ve seen on this is that you need to write the story first, and then do the research later during revision. It’s a good idea to commit a whole phase of revision to just research and getting your facts straight, etc. For other writers, especially those who’ve done this many times, they like to do all the research first, and then do all the writing. When they’re in revision, they may have to check up on some stuff if necessary.

For myself, I like to do the research as I need it, but I must point out that it’s a great distraction to the writing itself. It’s more important to get the story written and fill in the facts later.

At least, it’s something I tell myself. 😉

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