Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Becca Puglisi of The Bookshelf Muse, a Top Ten Blog for Writers.
We all know that fiction isn’t truth. That’s half the reason we read it, to leave behind the real world for one that we know is someone else’s imaginative figment. But fictional worlds still need authenticity, and as everyone likes to say, the devil is in those details.
Research is the key to building believability, whether you’re writing a historical fiction epic set in the Black Plague or a contemporary YA with a ballerina as the star. Resources on effective research tips abound. We’ve all read about how to research using the Internet, and the importance of using primary sources when possible. So instead of covering old ground, I’d like to share some tools from my own bag to help with the research process and bring credibility to your story.
Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, you know well before the drafting stage what topics you’ll have to study to realistically write your story. If you’ve got a lengthy list, trying to research every item on it will invariably drag out the planning stage and put off the necessary drafting. To avoid this, study only the topics that will enable you to write the bulk of your story. Leave the rest and start drafting. As you write, you’ll come across sections that need more research. Highlight those spots, add the topics to your list, and keep writing. Once the first draft is complete, you can finish your research and tweak the highlighted areas of the manuscript to include what you’ve learned. Prioritizing your research in this way ensures that both the researching and the drafting get done.
2. Interview “Unlikely” Experts
I’m not talking about professionals here, though they’re definitely helpful and, in my experience, are usually eager to tell you what they know. I’m talking about everyday people in your life with expertise on the topics you need. In one of my novels, I didn’t know if my main character should use a rifle or a shotgun. The only weapon I’ve ever fired is a pistol, so I contacted a friend who lives in the country. Not only did he help me answer my question, he also provided me with critical sensory details, like how the shot would sound and what kind of recoil there would be. Everyone likes to talk about their passions, so don’t overlook the people around you when you need answers.
3. Start With A Good Book
There are roughly a gajillion Internet articles on pretty much any topic, and if you know how to verify sources, you can sort the wheat from the chaff to get the information you need. But if you’re wary of finding trustworthy info online, start with a good book on your topic. If the source is credible, then work your way through the bibliography. You’ll have to verify those sources, too, but if the author of the original book is an authority you trust, it’s likely you can also trust his sources.
4. When It Comes To Beta Readers, Throw Your Net Wide
Don’t give your finished manuscript to writers only; let people with a variety of interests read it. I asked my dad to read my historical fiction novel and he corrected a mistake I had made regarding crop cycles. My husband read a different story of mine and pointed out an error having to do with target shooting. He has zero experience with this but he reads a lot of thrillers, and my character’s breathing technique contradicted what he’d seen from the sharp-shooters in those books. When I looked it up, it turned out he was right. These kinds of readers can’t give you much feedback on your writing, but their array of interests will increase your chances of finding any holes in your research.
5. Experience As Much As You Can Firsthand
If your character’s doing it, try your best to do it, too. Fly in a helicopter. Eat a puffer fish. Go to an art exhibit or a little league game or a quilting class. I know, I know: we’re authors, not trust fund beneficiaries. But firsthand experience is always the most helpful (and authentic), so whenever possible, do your own research.
Some Great Websites For Starting Your Research
So there you have it. My quick and dirty research tips. And because I do love a good research site, I’d like to share some of my favorites. Happy digging!
- How Stuff Works (Self explanatory.)
- Inventions Timeline (Enough said.)
- Mayo Clinic (For those pesky medical questions.)
- NOAA (For weather and climate information.)
- Internet Modern History Sourcebook (A collection of primary sources classified by historical period.)
- The Internet Public Library (A great online library full of credible resources.)
- Gary Price’s List of Lists (Just for fun.)
Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.