Research- Decide, Record, and Cross-Check

A wise user of the internet once said “Writing is a funny thing. At one moment, you’re writing. The next, you’re looking up the average snowfall in Edinburgh.”

Writing research can be a delicate task, especially when you know your Google searches may just get you on some sort of government watch-list, or at least make your parents concerned when they get on your computer.

Effective research for a piece of fiction doesn’t come down to simple steps, but a process of decisions and willpower. You don’t want to try and get the gist of something for a ten-word cameo in your story and end up three hours later on YouTube watching documentaries about the Hatbox ghost of Disneyland or lost in the labyrinth of fan blogs learning how to write “butts” in Tolkien-Elvish.

The point of this presentation is not to tell you how to conduct research because no one person’s methods can work for everyone, but to instill some important bases of research in you.

The three main tips of advice are as follows: decide what specifically you want to research, record information somewhere you can access it later, and check as many sources as possible.

Deciding what you want to research can be hard, trust me, I know. The amount of hours I once spent during an afternoon of NaNoWriMo, on which my only progress was reading half of the Hidden Mickey Disneyland Facts website, is an example that trying to do research can be like falling down the rabbit hole. Deciding specifically what you want to know can help you figure out if you need a map, a graph, a paragraph, or the answer to a simple question. Decide if you want to know the history of the BART system in California, or if you want to know where the station nearest UC Berkeley is. The distinction is important. My advice is that if you know you need to do research, write down a list of what you need to know and the context you need to know it in. Example:

Character: Backstory: General Race/Ethnicity Background

Location: Car chase

Plot Twist: Medical Journal

Once you’ve got this down, you can find whatever you really need, like a map, a video, or an article instead of sifting through Google’s filing cabinets like you’re in the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones. Which brings me to the second basic principle of research: Write your sources down.

Have you ever put something in a safe place so you could find it later and then when you need it later you cannot find it? The same thing can happen with research sources, and three chapters later when you need even further information, it’s convenient to have your source list on hand so you don’t have to go through the same process again as you did before. Even if the sources you’re using to provide buy wellbutrin online canada backstop and buildup in your story aren’t digital, keep track of them. Finding page numbers of books you’ve read months after the first time you see the information is a disaster.

Your source list can even be formatted in the same way as your list of things you need to do. Say, from the example I gave earlier, you found three articles and primary journal sources for the character, maps, and photos for the car chase, and a play-by-play description of the illness you’re planning on throwing into the plot. File these links or page numbers in your previous list next to the context of the needed research and you will never again question why you once searched “how to break into a high-security building” or “bloodstained wood”.  No matter how many sources you find, keep track of them. And be sure to find plenty of sources.

While you may not need all the information multiple sources will bring you, it can also help you cross-check and not use the information from a  faulty source to the point where your entire plot rests on its shoulders, an event in which your entire project could shatter on the ground with one informed review.

Finding multitudes of sources can also help in finding people who know what they’re talking about. If it’s about clothing, find a fashion website, one with lots of pictures, or someone who makes their own costumes. They could tell you any number of facts you need to know, along with stories you could build off of in later situations. They will give you all the answers you need. If it’s about a location, Google Map it, or better yet, try to find it on Mapcrunch.

Through that system, you can actually walk along the streets and see the nearby details. And when dealing in the historical, finding primary sources, or sources from the era as opposed to re-told by today’s scholars, can help keep accuracy and understanding at its peak notice. Being told you’re stepping into wrongly biased territory is never fun.

Through all these principles of efficient research, however, there is only one rule: Research is not more important than story. I believe Stephen King puts this best in his book On Writing when he says, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.” And “Remember that you’re writing a novel, not a research paper.”

Hopefully, these tips and the definition of research as a special type of backstory can help you, and me, to stop getting lost in the metric tons of information available to those who search for it. Not all those who wander are lost….but some of them are.

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