Sunday, February 28, 2010

10 Research Tips for Fiction Writers

If you'd asked me ten years ago how much research I did for my fiction writing, I probably would've said "Not much at all". I guess back then a lot of what I wrote was based on my own experiences, or my imagination, and what I didn't know, I made up. Then I got hooked on a pirate story which was based on a real person who lived back in 1717, and research became my new passion! Over the past nine years, I think I've gathered more material on pirates than I ever thought possible, but the supporting information has been as detailed, if not more so.

Some of the things I've researched include: money in the southern US - what currencies were used, how they were compared for value, what one guinea or one shilling would buy; sailing ships, with a particular interest in brigantines; clothing, food, houses, drinks; medicinals and diseases; what books were published back then; what language was used - I've had a great deal of fun with all 13 volumes of the Greater Oxford Dictionary! Along the way, as well as pirate stuff, for other novels and stories I've researched horses and horse riding, ballet, tunnels and underground houses, country policemen, city homicide detectives, remand centres, and various types of head injuries, to name just a few topics.

So the tips I'm offering come from experience, and are aimed at fiction writers who need to obtain good background information that is as accurate as it can be.

* no matter what information you find or where it is, record the source. I keep a big notebook and I put book titles and authors in it, as well as websites and journals. You never know when you might need it again, or might need to verify where you found it.

* don't rely on the internet for everything. Yes, it's handy and you can find heaps of things there, but it should only be one of your sources. Wikipedia is a starting point - I look at it because these days it comes up first in a search half the time - but from there I branch out and look at at least ten sites. There are many, many websites that are created by people with a specific interest in a subject. That doesn't mean they're an expert. I've found many sites with inaccurate information, or pushing a certain point of view. I like to find sites maintained by government departments (in the US many states have a department of history and/or conservation, for example), universities and/or academics with specific knowledge, and local history sites.

* even books can be wrong, often because new knowledge or evidence has been discovered. Check the publication date, and compare with other books. I try to verify important information I want to use in my book by finding two other sources that confirm it. Not always possible, though.

* interview people, if you can, and if it's relevant (no one who was alive in 1717 was available for me). But I have done interviews that have enlightened me on ballet, horse riding, frogs, injuries and country policing, for example. Prepare good questions beforehand, tape the interview, and take good notes. I've had two occasions where the tape recorder has died halfway through.

* collect anything and everything. I particularly love stories about the people who lived in my era (the tour guide at Como was an amazing resource - thanks, Betty!), and how they lived. Odd little snippets can become part of your novel and add more interest - and sometimes more humour. You never know when a tidbit can come in useful. Again, I keep all this kind of stuff in my notebook, either as notes or pasting it in.

* go to the places you are writing about, or something similar (see my previous post about Ripponlea). I have a friend who writes fantasy for whom a particular beach is the beach in her novel, and walking along it helps her to write those scenes with more authenticity. I'm excited to be going to South and North Carolina in a couple of months to research more about pirates.

* use the libraries all around you. Not just your own public library but all the others. For example, I went to Hawthorn Library the other day to look at some things in their local history section, and the librarian informed me that as long as I lived in Victoria, I could join their library for free and take out books. We also have State libraries with huge collections, and often you can access the collections at university libraries. And don't forget that libraries these days have more than books - they have newspapers on microfiche, photographs and ephemera.

* don't think that if you're not writing historical fiction then you don't need to research. I think every book benefits from good background research. My horse stories really came alive for me (and, I hope, the reader) after I'd had a riding lesson.

* don't forget movies. Yes, I've watched all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies! But I've also watched a lot of old pirate movies, all the Hornblower TV series, and anything with old sailing ships or set in my era (for the clothing and houses). A lot of movies aren't exactly accurate with their costumes and architecture, but they help to give you the 'feel' of the time, at least.

* you can also read published novels set in your era, to see how other writers deal with inserting the fact into the fiction. It's a skill, to weave the setting and background and historical information in without lapsing into info dumps. We can learn by reading the best and the worst.

I'm sure other writers can add to this list, so please do!

11 comments:

Kristi Faith said...

These are some great tips! Thanks for sharing!

Sherryl said...

Glad they were useful!

Bernadette Kelly said...

great post Sherryl. In my own experience there is no subject out of bounds, providing the research is sound. And so much fun learning new things...

忍著 said...
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Tracey said...

Great post as usual. I think it all comes back to the idea of writing what we know, so obviously the more research we do -- even if it's just getting out there and learning things on an emotional level, discovering the emotional truths -- then the more of a feeling of verisimilitude we can impart. The more real it is for us as writers, the more real it will be for readers.

Rajkumar Mukherjee said...

Hi Sherry,
A lovely post. Practical, informative and right to the point.How true it is , that we all want to reach that height without making research and burning midnight oil!
An eye-opener.Let's all learn and thrive in this encouraguing post.
Rajkumar

Sherryl said...

Yes, it is extra work to get it right, isn't it? But worth it if only for the reader's sake (and so you don't get a letter that starts: I am writing to tell you you got something wrong in your story...)

John F Smith Jr said...

Thanks Sherryl, I will put this advice to work.

Sherryl Clark said...

Hope it's useful to you, John. I have other writing and research posts at www.ebooks4writers.com

Cherrone Davis said...

Thank you for these tips! I'm a fresh author who has a small group of readers and they are totally pressuring me to complete a third book and I need to complete the proper research in order to do that. You've helped a great deal in that regard....

Sherryl Clark said...

Great to hear, Cherrone. And often the research sparks more story ideas!