Everything starts with research. In fact, you might already be doing research and not know it.
From the moment an idea for a story or non-fiction book is conceived, the research phase is automatically underway. It is almost second nature.
We dream up ideas, start hashing out character profiles, come up with chapter titles, etc. But how do you turn this passive research into active research?
Fiction or Nonfiction?
What kind of book you are writing will severely impact how you go about research, so sections of this article will be divided up if they apply to both, or you can skip the sections that don’t apply to your book.
Fiction books tell a story, so the overall plot arc is something you should know ahead of time, and is done during the planning phase.
Most importantly, researching should be thorough enough for a novel that you, as a writer, can draft the story quickly without getting sucked into wasting your writing time looking stuff up.
The first thing to consider is the setting. Anachronism is a horrible thing to have appear, so getting the daily life correct is important. No pirates with cell phones if they are on 18th century sailing vessels. Likewise, futuristic novels should strive to be free of contemporary ideas and technology, unless this is a post-apocalyptic near-future thing, of course.
If you are going to have magic, then make a coherent system and stick to it. Major rules, spells, and more need to be nailed down before you start writing, or you might end up with the reader wondering why the whole plot couldn’t have been solved in chapter one with the magic used in chapter 25. Make it consistent.
The same goes for technology. The easiest way to figure out the normal tech is to match your story to a known time period and learn as much as you can about the daily life of the period. It can also be helpful to write a few random chapters detailing the day-to-day routine of a random character to get a feel for things.
With non-fiction, ideally, you should be an expert on whatever you are writing about, but even then it pays to put a little extra time into research.
For topics that are constantly changing, such as modern theory, it’s best to find the most current articles available and be aware of all the approaches to your topic, not only your own.
If there are bogus ideas floating around the internet about your topic, these should be identified for the reader when necessary, and that means being familiar with them and able to clarify exactly why you think they are incorrect.
Know Your Audience
One overlooked feature of research for fiction writers is this idea that you should write for yourself and not worry about the audience.
Always worry about who the audience is. Horror fans like to watch horror movies, enjoy morbid humor, and love collecting dragons and gargoyles. You could even subdivide the group based on how dark they like their stories. Don’t write a Gothic horror for an audience of tech nerds, please.
This may sound complicated, but I’ve found the easiest way to get the pulse of your story’s audience is first to identify the genre specifically, and then join forums, Facebook groups, and other gathering places on the internet that are specific to that niche. Interact with them directly, and look for parallels in the group.
For non-fiction, this is also super important. School books need to be structured to a very specific curriculum, where as self-help books should be a bit lighter and looser with the wording.
Non-fiction books should solve a problem, and the people with that problem are your audience. The advice from there is the same as above. If your book is about depression, you had better know not only the signs and symptoms, but also the daily habits of people who are both struggling with the disease, and also the ones likely to pick up a book for help.
In both cases, you can do a lot of research by reading books in the same category as the one you wish to write. Seeing how another author tackles problems or sets up a story can help you tremendously to know how you will get your audience’s attention and hold it.
Don’t Trust the Internet
Just because you read it, doesn’t make it true.
The internet is based mostly on a link economy, which means that the most popular idea is the one most likely to be showcased everywhere, whether or not it is accurate or correct.
Find good sources. Professors at colleges rarely get asked for book advice, and they are often the most knowledgeable on your topic. A visit to the local college can gain you a lot of friends who will be more than happy to be your “expert.”
Research articles are great too, when you can find them. You don’t need an expensive subscription to read them. Some are accessible for free from libraries. Good articles tend to have loose PDFs floating about the internet.
While it’s best to subscribe to journals that you read frequently, it isn’t a necessity if you need help on something simple.
There are also tons of lectures available on YouTube these days, as well as documentaries.
Forums are often the best place to search if you want real experiences from real people. You can search them by typing the forum name and your question into a Google search, most times without ever needing to sign up.
Most importantly, you are going to find some conflicting information. Do your best to source good information, then lay it all out in front of you, and pick the answer you feel is best.
You might have to cook some of the data through your own BS detector. If something seems off, it probably is, so look up some more ideas on the topic before accepting random information.
Experimenting on your own is another great way to do research. You want to know if it works? If that recipe tastes good? If horseradish smells like vinegar? Try it at home. Do the thing and see what you find out. Always trust your direct senses first and foremost, you might be doing your audience a favor if “everyone on the internet is wrong about it.”
Keep Your Sources Organized
Nonfiction authors often need to list their sources in the back of the book, for various reasons. Sometimes it isn’t even a need, but simply good form.
But everyone should keep their research handy.
Even if you are just brainstorming ideas about characters in your novel, the notes should be organized in your notebook or on your laptop. If you are researching a historical novel, then you will want to keep close tabs on where you found the information so you can refer back to it later if needed.
Write down the names of not only the websites and books where you found stuff, but also the author or presenter’s name. You can Google them later and even email them if you need an answer to a specific question.
I find that the best solution is often a quality three-ring binder to keep everything in order. Those little full page tab things are nice, too. But hey, there’s thousands of ways to skin a cat. White board, post it’s on the wall, or simply dividing up a regular spiral-wound notebook, giving so many pages for each research topic.
You can also keyword your notebooks, but that’s a story for another time.
Hope this helps. Remember, if you aren’t sure you’ve done enough research, then do some more. But don’t use research to procrastinate on the writing part. Once you have the details nailed down, start writing, or at least make an outline. You might have to skip a thing or two, making a note that more research needs to be done when you finish the draft, but that’s perfectly fine.
Keep the research to a minimum when you’re actually writing.