They say write what you know but you’ll never know everything. This is especially true if you’re writing about an era decades past, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, the distant future. Even if your novel is set in a contemporary setting, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to do a little research along the way.
I’m currently playing around with a story idea set in 1877 Arizona. I’ve visited Arizona a few times, but this doesn’t make me an expert. Neither do all all the western books and movies I’ve devoured over the years. (Sadly.)
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a ton of research. And I’m not talking about fact-checking. I’m a firm believer that tiny details can be added after you’ve drafted and that you shouldn’t put your muse on hold to double check something trivial like the color your protagonist’s car was available in. Keep writing. Fact-check later. But for historical novels, and even futuristic ones, there are certain world-building details you need to have an understanding of from the get-go. Otherwise the foundation of your story can fall out from beneath you.
Some writerly resources to turn to while researching:
Non-fiction literature is always a great help, but as there’s so much of it, it can be difficult to know where to start. If you’re looking for a comprehensive history (like I was of Arizona), textbooks are a nice, skim-able resource. Need to know what roads and trails existed? What ponds are natural and which are man-made dams? What about elevation and temperatures and rainfall? Try a historical atlas. Lastly, never underestimate a web search for “writer’s guide to ___” or “how to write ____” on your favorite book-buying site. These keywords will bring up tons of reference material specifically focused on providing the facts but not bogging you down with extraneous information. (This is always the hardest thing for me when researching. You don’t need to know how to fly the plane, but you do need to know how to write it convincingly. Introductory text material will get you there. You don’t need the pilot’s manual.)
Fiction can also be a useful resource. You can learn a ton from how other writer’s build their worlds, just remember there’s no guarantee all the facts are accurate. If you’re writing in a historical era, consider picking up books published in the same timeframe. You’ll get a nice sense of the world/climate, people’s sentiments, common phrases, and so on. (eg: If you’re writing about a New England family’s daily struggles throughout the Civil War era, it certainly can’t hurt to read Little Women)
Specifically for historical manuscripts, archives are a fantastic and often free resource. Many museums and historic societies have some or all of their collections available online. Local libraries are another place to hit up. From photographs and journals to maps and letters, these resources are incredibly valuable because they are a true snapshot of the time. Nothing will help you better capture a time and its people than reading the correspondences of those times.
Piggybacking off archives, museums are another wealth of information. For sci-fi manuscripts and other stories set in the future, I think museums can be especially helpful. Just last week, I saw our very own Amie Kaufman (along with her co-author Meagan Spooner) tweeting from the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. These girls write sci-fi. They can’t take a round trip to the moon just to see how it all goes down. But they can walk through a hangar to get a true feel for it’s size. See a space suit up-close and make note of it’s fabric, coloring, and texture. Stand just feet from spaceships on display. Museums, people. Even if you don’t need to go for research, go to be inspired.
Nothing quite beats standing where your book will be set. You can make note of the climate, the sounds, the smells. Take pictures for later reference. Walk the streets that your characters will. Our own Susan Dennard did this for her Something Strange and Deadly series, and I think the results are obvious. Both Paris and Egypt bleed off the pages. Google Maps is only going to help you capture what your setting looks like, so if you really want to bring it to life, invest in a trip if you can. Think of it as research and a vacation.
Using movies and TV for research is a lot like reading fiction for the same purpose. There’s tons of information and ideas to be picked up, but be sure to fact check everything later. The Hollywood treatment isn’t always accurate. Documentaries, however, tend to be more impartial. Netflix has tons of them. Your library probably has a bunch too.
TAKE A CLASS
Is your protagonist an expert marksman? An aspiring pastry chef? A passionate photographer? If you don’t happen to be the same, consider taking a crash course. Introductory classes to many sports and hobbies are offered at local town halls, libraries, Ys, and even community colleges. Better yet, if you have a friend who is a marksman/chef/photographer, see if they’ll give you a quick lesson. Which segways into…
TALK TO AN EXPERT
When all else fails, find someone who is an expert, and pick their brain. It seems most writers know a doctor or nurse, and check characters’s injuries and illnesses for believability through these friends. (You can often see proof of this in the acknowledgements.) The same strategy can be applied to any aspect of your story. The folks working at the museums and archives would probably love to help answer your questions (or at least direct you to someone who will). Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help. There’s an expert in every field, and if you keep digging, you’ll find them.
That’s all I’ve got for today. Hopefully this list comes in handy next time you need to do some research. If there’s no research in your near future, perhaps it’s given you a few places to turn for inspiration…