Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy

This post originally appeared on Let The Words Flow, but research seems to be on a lot of writers’ minds lately. In the past week, I’ve found myself discussing research with at least three different writers! So I thought the timing might be right to revisit this topic.

Unless you’re writing a book about your own life, chances are you’ll have to do some sort of research before you can say your novel is finished. (Even if your book IS about your own life, you’ll probably have to refer to your family albums, at the very least!) Historical settings, legal proceedings, and medical conditions are just a few examples of story components that would require research. The object of this post is to suggest a strategy for research that will provide the authentic details you need without bogging you down in the process.

Step 1 – Make notes about the factual issues that you will need to research.

What will you need to learn to ensure that your story is authentic and appropriate for its genre? (I mention genre here because some genres have higher standards for accuracy than others. A “police procedural” mystery will require far more exacting details than would a contemporary fiction that includes an arrest in the plot.)

Once you’ve made a list of topics and facts you will need to research, divide it into two categories—“big picture” and “important details.”

“Big picture” knowledge is the information you need as you create the over-arching idea behind your novel and start your first draft. Examples would be:

  • In pre-Columbus North America, were horses a part of daily life?
  • Would a heart transplant be an option for a pregnant woman?
  • How long does DNA evidence last at a crime scene?

What qualifies an issue to be in the “big picture” category is the fact that it is at the heart of your story and essential for your concept to make sense. For instance, if your novel is about a crime that was committed aboard the Titanic, and how it is solved in the present day by the use of DNA evidence, you need to take the time to research these facts at the outset. What you learn about DNA evidence will have a huge impact on the course of your novel.

Step 2 – Attack the “big picture” issues and gain knowledge about the facts that will help form the spine of your story.

If you know that there is an area of study that is a major component to your plot, investigate that area as you form the seed of your story. If your story is set in Vietnam during the war, study up on the geography and the people. If your story is about an astronaut who makes an error that threatens to kill his entire crew, get an understanding of space missions and how they are structured and staffed.

Step 3 – Firm up your concept and dive into your first draft.

This is why you divided that list from Step 1 into two categories. The second category—“important details”—can be put aside for now. I’m not saying that you won’t have to look up those questions and answers eventually.  What I am saying is that you don’t need to know every detail of life in revolutionary France before getting started writing your rough draft. Authentic details will be required before you turn in your final draft, but you shouldn’t let research prevent you from getting started. If one of your characters lights a candle to read by, and you find out later that gas lamps had replaced candles ten years before your story takes place, that detail can be fixed in the revisions stage.

Step 4 – Firm up the details and make your revisions.

This step is where you need to add accuracy. What kind of gun would a pirate have used? Did matches exist or would the main character light a wick from the fireplace? How long did it take to travel from Glasgow to London by carriage in 1814?  Now that you have your first draft down, you can take the time to get the facts straight without interrupting the flow of your writing.

Do you do a lot of research for your writing? What process do you use? Do you have any ideas to add to the above? I look forward to reading your comments.

14 Responses to Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy

  1. Carrie-Anne Nov 26 2012 at 11:45 am #

    I write historical (exclusively 20th century historical for about 19 years, though I used to write 18th and 19th century and hope to go back to those eras someday, and earlier eras). History was always my favorite and best subject in school, and what my degree is in. I love doing historical research for my books, even though at this point I know about my favorite eras (20th century Russian history, the Shoah, the American homefront during WWII, the 1920s, and the 1960s) like the back of my hand. There’s always something new to discover and be captivated by. Sometimes it’s an excuse to read about some of my favorite things, like antique cars and silent film!

    Sometimes my research for a book has even led me to a new hobby or passion. While researching the history of hospital birth in America for Part II of my first Russian novel, I found out about natural childbirth and modern midwifery, and became a complete birth junkie from that point on. That also meant I had to rewrite any previous birth scenes I’d done, since I’d been going by the 20th century American depiction of childbirth, not how it would’ve been for women in Russia or Russian immigrant women in America in the 1910s and 1920s. I also got very into Estonian history, culture, and literature while in the homestretch of my first Russian novel, and really came to a new understanding of one of my Estonian characters, a big-time nationalist and political radical.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Nov 26 2012 at 1:54 pm #

      Carrie-Anne, your research sounds fascinating! I love when I find something so compelling in the background research I do, but yes – it sometimes demands more re-writing than I would like to do. Oh well. Always worth it! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Loie Nov 26 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Ah-maaazing!! Haha…I was just thinking today about how much research I need to do for my second draft of my NaNo project. It’s all a learning process because I initially did bits and pieces of research but as I wrote, I realized I didn’t do enough. So for my next draft, I know I need to do more before I begin writing. It helps me feel more confident in my concept and idea. This draft, a lot of the time, I felt like I was tiptoeing in the dark.

    Loie xo

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Nov 26 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      Hey Loie! I think NaNo may be the reason writers are talking about research right now. I think you have a good plan and it will surely help you fill in the blanks. Best of luck with the revisions! 🙂

  3. Claudia McCarron Nov 26 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    Thanks for this post! I’ve recently been worrying about my research and how I should structure it around my actual writing. This was very helpful.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Nov 26 2012 at 9:14 pm #

      Hey Claudia, thanks for commenting! I’m so glad you found this helpful. Best of luck on your research! 🙂

  4. Karen Inglis Nov 27 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    A great no-nonsense post, Julie. In hindsight this is what I did with my first children’s book The Secret Lake (where the children travel back in time 100 years and meet the children living in their past-time home). I didn’t really study the full detail of dress/furniture/lighting etc until I was at the very end. Which was just as well because the book sat in a drawer for over 10 years which for various reasons meant I htat had to shift time on… from the Victorian to the Edwardian era! (Not to mention Sony Walkmans turning into iPhones!). It was worth the wait though – children who have left reviews on the book website comment about how they love the descriptions of the past time…!

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Nov 27 2012 at 3:36 pm #

      Wow, that must be so gratifying to you to receive those comments! When I was a kid I also loved the historical details in the books I read. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  5. Alexa Y. Nov 28 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    I’m not entirely certain I need to do too much research for my current WIP, as it’s set in a fictional world with fictional rules. It’s more like I have to do a TON of worldbuilding instead… But for the other WIP I have, I definitely think this will be applicable! Though it’s contemporary, it involves a bit more about art than I would know about and so I’m excited to start researching when I go back to work on that one.

    • Juliesh
      Juliesh Dec 1 2012 at 10:17 am #

      Hey Alexa! I don’t know which I find more challenging – research or world-building. I enjoy them both, but they have their own set of demands. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  6. JQ Trotter Dec 1 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    I usually write urban/contemporary fantasies so I’ve never had to do too much research before, but now I’m planning on writing a contemporary YA that I’ll need to do a lot of medical research for… luckily, I love doing research. It was my favorite thing to do in college (which I had to do a lot of to write all my papers). It just realizing all that I need to look up to make my story believable/real is kind of boggling my mind right now.

    This post was still very helpful for me to think about research for a book instead of a 10-20 page paper. I like the idea of breaking it into those four steps and separating “big picture” issues from “important details”. Thanks so much for posting this again!

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Dec 2 2012 at 12:45 pm #

      Hey JQ! I loved researching in college too! (I don’t think there are a lot of people who would say that…) I’m glad you liked the post. Happy researching! 🙂

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