What does your internet search history look like right now?
There are lots of jokes about creative writers and the (sometimes concerning) things they look up online to aid their writing. When working on stories, I’ve searched “can alligators climb” and “how long can someone survive in a walk-in freezer,” just to name a few. All jokes aside, research plays an important role in the writing process. It makes our writing better informed and more believable for the reader, and can even generate new ideas.
This month we’re bringing you all the advice you need to develop great research skills and bring your writing to life.
Who needs research, anyway?
When you think about creative writers who do a lot of research, you probably think of two types: historical fiction and science fiction writers. Other common research-heavy genres include mystery and legal thrillers. But really, all writers use some amount of research; it just depends on what kind and how much.
Historical and science fiction requires the most “traditional” type of research, the deep dives into specific topics and the constant searches for place names and jargon definitions. But research is simply the collection of information. That can take many different forms.
To research is to “investigate systematically.” That can look like reading books of the same genre to learn the common tropes and story structures, or reading philosophy and theory books to develop the themes of your story, or even having conversations with others to learn about different experiences and points of view.
Research is also a fantastic idea generator if you’re experiencing writer’s block. You can treat it as a writing prompt or challenge. “How can I incorporate [insert niche topic here] into a story?” The ideas are endless!
Research for creative writing is pretty similar to research for a school paper or nonfiction work; the information is just presented differently. Of course, you have much more freedom to embellish facts and bend reality when writing fiction. But if you want to make your work more believable, you need to be using credible sources when researching.
Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Wikipedia.
You’ve probably heard teachers rail against Wikipedia in the past for its unreliable information and easily editable pages. While their concerns are valid, that doesn’t mean Wikipedia is completely off-limits. It can be a great starting place, especially if you’re not sure what you’re looking for.
Most Wiki pages have two sections at the bottom: “See also” and “References.” These give you a list of related topics as well as cited sources that are usually more credible than the Wiki page itself.
For example, if I look up the Radium Girls, the Wikipedia page links to everything from related media, nonfiction books, news articles from the time period, scientific research on radiation exposure, and similar incidents like the Hiroshima Maidens. That seems like a great starting place to me!
Lots of times, the most credible and useful resources are behind paywalls in databases or on newspapers’ websites. But did you know that your library might give you access to these for free? Often, your public library will have subscriptions to databases with nonfiction books and articles, peer reviewed journals, and newspaper archives. If you attended college, there are often resources like this for alumni as well.
Use your research…and know when to stop
When using research in fiction writing, you have to decide how closely you want to adhere to “the facts.” Using research in a science fiction story will look much different from a story about contemporary scientists. In the first, facts are used more as a jumping off point for speculation about the future, but in the second, facts are meant to make your imagined world appear as similar as possible to the real deal.
This accuracy meter will become part of your narrative strategy and the silent agreement you enter with your reader. No matter how accurate or inaccurate to real life you decide to make your story, it should be relatively consistent throughout the entire work. That way, your readers know what to expect.
Now, there comes a time when research stops being helpful and starts to become a crutch or an excuse not to write. Some writers become so concerned with being accurate that they lose sight of the main goal of creative writing–to entertain!
General readers won’t know the difference between Phillips and Griffin beakers, and they won’t remember what the weather was like on June 5, 1985. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get it 100% right. What readers are really looking for is a compelling story, which you will be sure to deliver.
Happy researching! And don’t worry what the FBI agent monitoring your search history will think. (Just kidding!)
About the author: Lindsey has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.