Doing Your Research
The story and characters are arguably the most important parts of a novel. However, research is just as important. Getting indisputable facts wrong can jolt readers from the narrative, no matter how well written.
Initially, your approach should be similar to writing a research paper. Decide what you want to write about and what you need to know to write about it. The big difference is that when you write a novel you may need to do more than one research project, depending on where you’re going with the story. Historical novels are in some ways the most challenging. You don’t want to inform your readers that George Washington invented the light bulb. Careful research is required to make sure references you make for a particular time period are accurate.
Writing a mystery or crime novel requires a slightly different approach to research. When you get into crime-related or forensics topics, research is especially important. Even those who only occasionally glance at some of the seemingly endless forensic dramas on TV will know you can’t get DNA from fingerprints. This doesn’t mean you need to acquire an online PhD in forensics, but especially careful fact-checking is called for. Many community colleges offer basic introductory classes that will give you enough information to write about criminology and forensics in any reasonable depth. For most writers, a basic knowledge and some background reading should do just fine.
Information available online isn’t always totally solid, of course, and it may show in your writing if you rely too heavily on internet materials. Online research should not be discounted, but it should not be all an author does to prepare for writing a novel. Some real-life forensic experts will be willing to entertain questions. Their insights will not only provide you better information, but might even help you fill out your characters’ authenticity as well.
For a better perspective on specific locations, visit travel websites and read descriptions and comments. Some of the little details travelers add to their accounts may come in handy in your writing. When recent visitors mention out-of-the-way restaurants, distinctive markets, or little-known scenic spots, you can mention or even make them settings to give your novel more specific and realistic depth.
Alternatively, there is a simpler way to approach doing research: pretty much the other way around That is, write your story first. Don’t do any research. Make note of places where you need to know something in detail, and the questions you need answered. When you are finished writing, go back and research the questions you wrote down. This way you’ll only do research directly relevant to what you’ve written.
Of course, this strategy has major downsides. Most basically, leaving the research till after the writing means you’ll probably face heavy-duty revisions to incorporate what you learn and fix whatever may need touching up in light of your fact-checking. On a more subtle level, if you don’t begin with research you may write without realizing you don’t know something or are misinformed. If you don’t know to make note of questions about something as you write it, you may well not even discover your error later. Writing first and asking questions later is really only suitable for when you already have a fair grasp of your subject matter.
It’s tempting to jump right into the writing process, but getting facts about setting, location, time period, or techniques used in your characters’ professions incorrect can quickly distract readers and detracts from the quality of your work. Think of solid research as the icing on the cake. A well-researched, well-written novel can transport readers into another world with characters and settings so real they come to life in the reader’s mind.