When you’re getting ready to write a novel, background research might not be the first thing on your mind. After all, that’s why you’re writing fiction, right? But even for most novels, some fiction research ahead of time adds a sense of reality to your story that will help readers get immersed in your world. Well researched details can even draw readers who might not be interested otherwise. Your research may have to do with characters, setting, or just plot elements that you want to correspond with reality.
The ring of truth
Even a fiction book can be a learning experience for readers. Let’s say you’re writing a novel with a main character who is a chef. Particularly if substantial chunks of your book take place in a restaurant kitchen, you’ll want to base these scenes in reality. Not only since there could be chefs and cooks reading your book, but also because your other readers may enjoy learning something about the way restaurant kitchens actually work. It also may help inspire plot and character ideas for your own writing process. Taking the time to do your research and get inspired may ultimately save time you might have spent struggling with writer’s block.
But let’s say you’re writing a fantasy novel with little relationship to the real world. Will you still benefit from research for fiction? Absolutely, although your process may be a bit different. For authors doing fiction research for a fantasy novel that doesn’t take place in our universe, your research may focus on getting acquainted with other books in your subgenre. If you’re an avid reader, you may have already completed this research. But you’ll want to have an idea of how other authors are approaching similar content, to ensure originality, gain inspiration, and to learn what readers expect from their favorite subgenre.
And remember, if you’re writing science fiction don’t forget to put the ‘science’ in your fiction. While some sci-fi is more fantastical, much of the genre grounds itself in semi-realistic approximations of what the future may hold for humanity. Whether its space travel or environmental collapse, real science concepts will help inspire and anchor your story.
Hit the books
The most straightforward way to go about this research is to immerse yourself in books and other subject matter on your topic. You’ll certainly want to read plenty of books, including both other fiction in your genre and non-fiction on your topic or setting. In our chef example, the memoirs of celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain would be a great place to start. But movies, documentaries, and other resources can show you what it’s like in a kitchen or in culinary school.
For subgenres like fantasy, your research will focus on reading as many other books in the genre as possible. For mystery and historical fiction, though, you’ll combine that approach with non-fiction resources on your setting and other components of your story. For historical settings, this can involve paying attention the smallest details, to help paint a vivid picture of a time and place.
There are few adages in the world of writing as well-worn as “write what you know.” And there’s no doubt that someone with real-world experience as a chef is uniquely well-suited to writing our hypothetical novel with its chef protagonist. But just because you don’t come equipped with that experience ahead of time doesn’t mean you can’t acquire it. Perhaps you can visit a local restaurant kitchen, especially If you know someone who works there. Or better yet (this may not be an option for most professions) take a job as a dishwasher for a month or two and observe the inner workings of a kitchen first hand. If your book is set in a certain location, go visit that location for yourself. At the very least, have some conversations with someone who has first-hand knowledge of the settings and situations you want to write about.
Getting the most out of fiction research
But quality research also means keeping track of all of this in an organized way. For many authors, this will actually be the hardest part. Before you begin any of this research, you’ll want to decide how to organize and store it. Personal preference is a big factor here, but the main idea is to make sure you can easily access whatever you learn in your research to use it later on. This can mean physical notes in notebooks, digital files organized into folders, or notes in a novel-writing application like Scrivener. Above all, make sure your notes will be easy for you to find and understand, even if you’re accessing them a year or two later. And if you go digital, be sure to back up your files.
Fiction research is a great way to lend the ring of truth to your novel, intrigue readers that want to learn about a topic, location, or historical setting, and find inspiration for your own ideas.
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