Saturday, March 19, 2011

Research: Giving Your Novel Depth and Authenticity

A lot of writers hear, “research” and become excited-- agent research!! But there’s another kind of research, where a writer does research for the novel he or she is working on. Yeah... that kind of research. The kind that involves investigating a topic, a place, an event, even jobs and hobbies. Research isn’t strictly limited to those writers working on historical fiction. The truth is, research is crucial for nearly all novels.

Whether you’ve chosen a real place or are creating your own world, the more you know about your setting, the more real your world will be to your readers. But suppose your novel is set in another world altogether? You can still draw parallels from actual places, for example, if you’ve created a world set on a desert planet, and your characters live in caverns, you can do research on caves and deserts. And even if your novel is set in a small town or somewhere you’re familiar with, drawing from memory is only one part of research; taking a walk through a small town could trigger more memories, or reading about the place you’re already familiar with might bring your attention to something 
Plot Cafe had a good tip for those writers researching far-off locations: try renting travel documentaries about your novel’s setting. Often, these documentaries have a “walk-through” feel, and the visuals will enhance any book/internet research you’re doing. Fiction Factor also has a nice article devoted to setting.
Details bring a story to life. Unless you’ve worked in the same field your characters work in, research is important for authenticity. Whether your character is a teen who works weekends in her parents’ bicycle shop, a student nurse working nights as a phlebotomist, or a submarine captain during the Cold War, a person’s job is usually a big part of their life. Author K.M. Weiland has a great post on choosing your characters’ careers, and I agree with her on how a character's career says a lot about who that character is.
Although writers tend to be a reclusive lot, one great way to research a given career is to talk to people who work in that field. In an interview with AMC, Tom Clancy states that “most of his research involves talking endlessly to the types of people he wants to write about.” He’d never been in a submarine before writing THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, but he talked to submariners and obviously, it paid off. (Tom Clancy gave an excellent interview, and a motivating one as well).

Children’s author Sherryl Clark has a list of 10 Research Tips for Fiction Writers, and in it she mentions how one of her books about horses benefited from her taking a horseback riding lesson. Reading about-- or trying-- your characters’ interests is another way to add depth to your story. After all, I can assume what it feels like to ride a horse, or draw on that time I rode a pony when I was seven, but I bet a horse-lover would recognize the lack of authenticity if I didn't research properly.
Research can involve internet searches, reading books, interviewing people knowledgable in your subject matter, or a variety of other methods. The point is, taking the time to do the research not only makes your book a more fulfilling experience for your reader, it can also spare you the embarrassment of erroneous assumption... someone who does know might just shake their head in dismay at what you've written. There have definitely been times when I’ve read a book or watched a movie, only to roll my eyes at something I know for a fact is absolutely wrong. A little research might’ve kept me from thinking, “That’s so not true! San Jose, Costa Rica is nowhere near the beach!” *cough* Jurassic Park *cough* 

Before I go, I just want to urge you to consider giving to the Red Cross, or another disaster relief organization, for the victims in Japan. There are still 430,000 people in shelters, and although initial donations are incredibly important, sustained relief is crucial for helping victims get out of shelters and onto recovery. It's only been eight days, and the people of Japan have so far to go. If you haven't already, do think about making a donation!

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Diana Paz is a web content writer and aspiring YA author. She grew up on Miami Beach, moved to Los Angeles in high school, and went to college in San Diego. Basically, she's a beach bum, but she did graduate from California State University, San Marcos with a Bachelor's Degree in Liberal Arts. She loves old movies, epic fantasy, all kinds of music, and heading to the beach with a good book. Preferably sipping a caramel frappuccino. Find her at her blog: or on Twitter @dianapazwrites


  1. Great post, Di. You almost made research sound exciting. LOL I agree, though, I had to do a little for my current WIP. Kind of a must have, eh? Thanks for the links!!


  2. I have to? *kicks dirt* And that was about research, not giving to Japan, BTW. Thanks for all the links. This post rocks my sock, lovey :)

  3. Erica- Thanks!! And, the thing is... *whispers* research IS exciting!!!

    Tina- Thank you! And I knew you didn't mean Japan <333 And I'm glad you liked it... you know I'm a research nut. :P


  4. Great post, love!!! I adore research. *nerrrrd* =D

  5. Awesome post! Thanks so much! I love your blog. :)

  6. Great post, Di. I love researching and learning new things that I have to stop myself before I get to involved. :D

  7. Natalie- I love research too!!! *nerd high-five!!!* :D

    Amy- Thanks!!

    Brenda- Thank you! I have to stop myself too... I get completely lost itn it!


  8. I write fantasy, and I read a blog post somewhere (wish I could remember!) that pointed out the very improbable things that fantasy writers typically did with horses. They may gallop all day without food, water, or a chance to pee. They were watered after a lengthy gallop, which you never do, and other things that made it apparent the authors never worked with horses before.

    My personal pet peeve is inaccurate psychopathic characters. There are a lot of pervasive myths about psychopaths that authors regurgitate without checking, like the idea that psychopaths are created through abuse. Not so!

    I try to be as accurate as I can, but I know I still make mistakes. I hate making bonehead mistakes, so thanks for the resources above!

  9. In Phlebotomy training you should learn two aspects, the first is the psychology lesson on how to deal with the patient’s condition during the phlebotomy session and the other is dealing with the phlebotomy techniques itself.

  10. Scooter- That's so true about fantasy novels. Relentless journeys on horseback bug me too! I don't know much about psychopathic behavior (which is why I would research if I were writing a book about a psychopath!), but I agree that authors use the same ideas again and again with this type of character. I appreciate accuracy as well!

    Hangrt- Hm. Thanks!

  11. One of the nice things about enrolling in an accredited phlebotomy training school is that you will be able to apply for financial aid programs offered by the government, you’ll find it easier to begin your certification process, and it may make your job search a little easier.