Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 4: Getting To Grips With Research

Goal setting

  1. Start the (fun) process of researching your novel.
  2. Keep a system to track your research.

Breaking it down

First-hand accounts are authentic

Some genres demand a lot of research. Historical fiction, for one, requires a lot of study of past events. Police procedurals, political stories, and so forth always require you to know your facts.

Other stories don’t require that much research. A modern romance, which focuses more on the relationship and sensual tension between the hero and heroine, probably won’t benefit from too much other detail — in fact, it may impair the narrative.

At this stage of our journey, we’re not going to focus on doing all the research at once — rather than a specific and detailed investigation, we should be doing enough to get us comfortable with the story. No one likes to be writing in a vacuum, so some preliminary research is reassuring.

Where is your novel set? My novel is set in Cape Town. Although I’m familiar with the setting — I can see it, feel it, and filter it through my imagination — I haven’t been to the city in almost a year. Fortunately, I have some good friends who live there and I’ve been picking their brains. Where are the coolest clubs? What’s the most desirable suburb to live in? Just jutting down notes as they chat leads me to more defined searches online or gives me an idea of what places to visit when I next go to Cape Town.

Sometimes we don’t have access to familiar worlds. Five years ago, when I was writing a romance for a young adult audience, I had to approach some young women in their twenties to learn about their lifestyles, careers, finances, and fashion. I was amazed at how open, and eager, they were to share their thoughts with me over a coffee.

People love talking about themselves — about their jobs, their hobbies, or their area of expertise. Perhaps you can ask at your local police station if you’re writing a cop story, or talk to a vet if your story features a rescue dog with a broken leg.

Writers are often shy. The most daunting part is stepping up and asking for help — after that it’ll probably be a lot easier. Ask around: there’s always somebody who knows something about what you’re writing, or will point you in the right direction. 

Rendering fiction … not rehashing facts

A lot of research can be done online and there are some great tips you can use to refine a Google search, simply by using different symbols and punctuation, and even ways to search faster when you’re on a website. So these may be worth investigating.

There are excellent DVD documentaries you can stream or order online on just about any subject. YouTube may also be a great resource if you don’t like reading rivers of static text. Just a quick search on YouTube for ‘Cape Town night life’, for example, immediately produced some engaging videos I could use for background in my novel.

You can also visit museums or university libraries, where you can ask professionals to help you. A friend who was writing a story about World War 2 found the official website for a museum of military history. Although it had some information, he emailed the curator of the site to ask specific questions — for the next few weeks, he was corresponding by email with some the best academic minds on his subject. In this way, specialist interest sites can be a great resource for an author.

As writers, our aim should always be to use research to help us render the most authentic, striking details of time, place, people, or an events as fiction. It should never be to impress (or bore) the reader about how much we know about a particular subject. So even though we may uncover a lot of information during our research, it doesn’t mean we should use all of it in the story. (Just another reason to limit it at this early stage of the novel-writing process.)  

Become a fabulist

One of my favourite novels of the late 70s is Scruples by Judith Krantz. In this story, the heroine opens a fabulous fashion store in Beverly Hills. Her descriptions of this store were so lush, vivid, and enticing I couldn’t believe this place didn’t exist. Only years later, while reading a book on fashion, did I realise she must’ve been influenced by Barbara Hulanicki’s cult London fashion store, Biba.

This taught me a powerful lesson about research. As a writer, we may draw from the real world and then mould it, reinvent it, or spin it out through our imagination until it fits the purpose of our story, our characters. We put our mark on it. This could even apply to historical stories or legends. What if James Dean hadn’t died in car crash? What would’ve become of this iconic star? What if JFK wasn’t assassinated — how would the destiny of a country be influenced? Sometimes research is the starting point to spark our own imagination. 

Timelock — 2 to 3 hours

Spend perhaps one afternoon or evening on research — depending on your genre or type of story.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Create a list in a Word document or spreadsheet with headings for your research (Careers, Clothes, People, Places, and so forth). Copy the URLs of sites under each heading for easy reference later.
  2. Keep all your research books, DVDs, or magazines on one bookshelf so that you don’t have to waste time looking for them as you write.
  3. You may want to keep a concertina file or a separate folder for clippings or printed material for the same reason.
  4. Don’t forget to keep the names, dates, contact details, etc., of your sources of information — you’ll need it when you cross-check later on in the process.
  5. Collect maps, images, photographs, and other visual elements that will help you ‘see’ the research as you write your novel.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Although the main part of the research is usually done before starting, a writer can never underestimate how many tiny details need to checked and re-checked during the writing of the manuscript.’  ~ Miriam Halahmy

Watch out for the fifth instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year next week.

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 3: Getting To Grips With Genre And Tone
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 2: Finding Your Red, Yellow, And Blue
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 1: Start Strong, Start Simple

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  1. Anthony Ehlers

    Good luck with this week’s journey!

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