As an agricultural journalist (my full-time writing gig), I am researching all of the time. It’s actually one of the first steps I take when laying out a new piece and I truly enjoy the process. I sometimes even pretend to be a sleuth-solving detective who can’t rest until she finds the exact piece of information she’s looking for. The harder the better; I like a challenge.
That being said, I don’t have a tonne of experience researching as a fiction writer so when I was up to host the May 2017 Ascribe Writers meeting, I chose to do a little more digging on the topic.
Here’s what I found.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of research is:
- careful or diligent search
- studious inquiry or examination
- the collecting of information about a particular subject
The words ‘careful’ and ‘diligent’ stood out to me, as did ‘collecting.’
Scott Francis of Writers Digest wrote an article on research for fiction writers where he describes what needs to be researched (your market, place, time, character, technical professions, etc.) and how to get started.
I considered Francis’ information and added his thoughts to the techniques I use as a journalist to come up with a list of research methods to present at my meeting. I’ll share a few of them with you now.
Research Method #1: The Internet
The easiest and quickest way to get started in today’s digital age might be checking in with Dr. Google.
Pros: most writers have access to a computer and Internet so it’s convenient. Meanwhile, there’s an endless amount of information on the ol’ WWW including newspaper articles, scholarly journals, and first count anecdotes on blogs.
Cons: with a black hole of information at your fingertips, it can be challenging to decipher between a reliable source and online garbage.
Research Method #2: Social Media
This is a relatively new method but one I use regularly in my journalistic writing. Send out a tweet or Facebook post with a short and simple question.
Pros: Response time can be within minutes and if you belong to a specific online group you could have access to thousands of sources at the click of a button. The Dairy Girl Network Facebook group I belong to, for example, has almost 4,400 members in it.
Cons: You might not be on social media or you might be but do not know how to use it to its fullest potential.
Research Method #3: The Library
The steadfast, old school method of hitting the stacks.
Pros: The library is full of reliable sources such as journals, history books, old newspaper articles, rare collections, and more. Plus it has trained and experienced staff that can guide you in the right direction.
Cons: The library is not in your home so you actually have to get dressed, leave the house, and plan the visit into your day.
Research Method #4: The Interview
Speaking with people who have lived your characters’ experiences or are experts in the topic your novel is exploring.
Pros: An excellent way to get a first hand account or technical information. Sources aren’t usually hard to come by and you can interview more than one person on the same topic to widen your research.
Cons: You have to know which questions to ask to get valuable information and sometimes your source can turn out to be a dud.
Other ways fiction writers can research for their next great novel include going to a museum, reading other works of fiction, watching documentaries, and/or watching videos on YouTube. Listening to music from different generations can also immerse a writer into a time from years past.
When all is said and done, the goal is to create a fictional piece of work that feels real, a piece the reader believes so much they won’t want to put it down! The term ‘realistic fiction’ might sound like an oxymoron but it’s something that comes out of solid research. Keep it in mind when working on your next piece.