5 Simple (But Surprisingly Effective) Ways To Research Your Story

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.

1. Prioritize

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!

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.

How do you being your research? Any great research sites you want to share with the C2C community? Please share your wisdom with us in the comments below!

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32 comments on “5 Simple (But Surprisingly Effective) Ways To Research Your Story

  1. Arisa says:

    I generally just write for fun, but since I love doing a little research too…
    But since it’s only for fun, I jump to wikipedia and leave it with it.
    I mainly do research to verify information I need, so when something comes up I do research for it.
    But then again I’m not a pro and all.
    Also I ask my dad a lot of questions regarding sci-fi/fantasy for what’s plausible, seeing as he’s read tons of sci-fi/fantasy books. (or for some writing advice, “say dad I’m trying to write something like so and so, but I’m not sure how to go about it?” and dad pulls out one of his books for an example how another author did it)

    • becca puglisi says:

      Arisa, asking someone with interest in the field is a great way to get info. And I like your dad’s method of looking at existing books to find out how an author utilized a certain technique. I do that CONSTANTLY. That’s a great way to improve as a writer.

      • Arisa says:

        Haha it’s actually my method, my dad just knows where to look! He’s not a writer. Neither of my parents are artistically creative….

  2. I find the best way to do any sort of research is ALWAYS to interview people. This is always the fastest and simplest way. Also, with real people, you can check your own assumptions by asking them questions about them!

    • becca puglisi says:

      I totally agree. At first I was timid at the thought of interviewing a real person for information. But I’ve never once been turned down by anyone, even professionals. Everyone likes to talk about their passions. And I think people like being asked, too :).

  3. I really need to get out and talk to people more…for the sake of research!

  4. Diane Turner says:

    What a wonderfully useful post! Thank you!

  5. Strong advice. Research is really important to an author’s credibility. Even with fiction, a wide array of readers will view it, all with different backgrounds and interests. With people reviewing books more than ever before, a cut corner can lead to a loss of sales, not just one’s reader’s disappointment.

    Ollin, thanks so much for hosting Becca today!

    Angela

    • becca puglisi says:

      So true. There’s nothing worse than that feeling I get when someone points out an error in my research. Makes me feel like a total fraud, lol. This is one of the reasons I tend to research far longer than I should (Hello, Tip #1).

  6. Judy Berman says:

    Thank you, Becca, for some great tips. I’m writing about art. While I’ve visited some museums, I have also turned to the Internet for articles about that topic. Plus, I plan to interview some people in that field.

    • becca puglisi says:

      Sounds like you’ve definitely done your homework, Judy. Is your book fiction or non-fiction? (just curious)

  7. Hi Becca! Great tips.

  8. Daniela says:

    This is truly helpful. If story is to keep the reader in its grip not only prose needs to be superb, but the setting must ‘fit’, have that often elusive realistic feel to it. Like you – the reader is transported into the scene/time/place. To achieve that, long and meticulous research is needed; an activity not very popular these days as it requires lots of time and has neither instant nor certain benefits attached to it.

    Regards,
    Daniela

    • becca puglisi says:

      So right, Daniela. I hadn’t thought about today’s instant gratification addiction as an enemy of research, but that’s totally the case. But when I think about the number of times I’ve stopped reading a book because the details were off or overwhelmingly absent, the effort is definitely worth the reward.

  9. These are great tips – thank you. I’m two-thirds into creating a kind of magic-realism novel that rests on historic pillars, so I’m having to do a lot of research. Talking to various people about the same topic (or concept) often helps me to arrive at a thorough understanding—inasmuch as we might all value ‘hope,’ for instance, chances are that we each attach a different meaning to it. So I make sure to listen to the ‘surface’ stuff as well as what exists beneath it.

    • becca puglisi says:

      I think it’s easier, in some ways, to research a time period or career or something concrete than it is to research a concept. Like you said, it’s so subjective, and putting all the varying ideas together can just confuse you more, so good for you for sticking with it!

  10. kittyb78 says:

    Excellent advice Becca. :)

  11. Excellent post, Becca! I am writing a memoir and have to be careful that the details of the time periods I am writing about are accurate. Research is a very important part to the process. if I am sitting in my living room folding baby clothes in 1974 and watching the TV coverage of a tornado that struck Xenia ,Ohio, I need to confirm the date and event as accurately as possible to add credibility to my story. I remember it because, looking at the scene of devastation reminded me of my own sense of devastation about my life at the time. It’s all in the details.

    Thank you for this practical summary.

    • becca puglisi says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kathleen. Best of luck with your memoir. Because of the vulnerability and honesty a memoir requires, I believe they’re often the most difficult genre to write.

  12. Yvette Carol says:

    Wow that was so helpful. Thanks!! I needed those tips :-)

  13. becca puglisi says:

    My pleasure, Yvette!

  14. [...] 5 Simple (But Surprisingly Effective) Ways To Research Your Story (ollinmorales.wordpress.com) [...]

  15. [...] 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.  [...]

  16. Hello Ollin Morales,
    Thanks for the nice article. I am surprised that you haven’t included Wikipedia in your list of sites for starting out on research. Is there any specific reason? I think that it is an excellent source of material for STARTING a search on a specific topic. I agree that it shouldn’t be the only source of material, but I believe that it is certainly a good starting point.

    • becca puglisi says:

      Hi, Indranil. I have no problem whatsoever with using Wikipedia when starting a research project. But I didn’t include it on my list because I was focusing more on sites that meet a specific need, like one for medical questions or another for information on how things work. For a comprehensive list of starter sites, Wikipedia would definitely be a solid addition.

  17. lvoisin says:

    Wonderful post, Becca, thank you :) I definitely got some amazing feedback from a variety of beta readers.

  18. [...] 5 Simple (But Surprisingly Effective) Ways To Research Your Story (ollinmorales.wordpress.com) [...]

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