Friday, July 13, 2012

Guest Post: Researching For Fiction by Allie B.

A surprising amount of research goes into writing good fiction. I've shared a little bit about the background of my first book, Matriculated Death, and in the months ahead I'll talk about the research for the sequel.

For today, I've asked friend and fellow writer Allie B. to share her perspective on great research methods for fiction. Allie is a writer of Young and New Adult Literature. She currently lives and works in Yukon Territory, Canada. You can visit Allie and read her excellent writing tips here, on her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter, @alliebbooks

5 Great Research Methods and how to balance them in your writing - from Allie B.

Some writers are very particular about the reality or logistics of their work; others make stuff up on a regular basis without a single thought of consequence.

The potential problem with over researching is it could stifle your creativity, making your writing sterile and boring.

The problem with no research is that the story could end up flawed beyond repair and the reader won’t trust or believe the author.

As is my opinion on most aspects of life: Strive for balance.

Five great research methods

1. Read similar books – Read both fiction and non-fiction to get an idea of how other writers interpreted your subject or how you can take true facts and events and make them your own. If you are writing a book about vampires, it is good to know what’s been done, what’s been overdone, and what could be done by reading other books about vampires. Reading non-fiction or folklore texts about vampire-lore from different cultures will help to root your story and give it a rich history. Eastern European vampires were very different from South American vampires, and I think it is beneficial to at least base your novel on something tangible to the reader. Everyone comes from somewhere.

2. Talk to people  in the field – If you are lucky enough to know an expert on your subject, invite them to coffee and pick their brains about both the exciting and the mundane aspects of your topic. If you are the expert, it may help to talk to your co-workers and colleagues and get their take on the subject. A lot of great ideas happen through conversation. If you don’t know anyone it may still be possible to contact someone in the field or visit museums or historical sites to chat with the people who work there. This method won’t work all the time but if it does have advantages. It’s so much more engaging to talk to people than to read facts from a book.

3. Look it up online – The Internet is a glorious thing full of information. You have the whole world, all of history, any fact right at your fingertips. But the Internet is also full of distorted facts, biased opinions and straight up lies. Never take the first website you find at their word. Just because it comes up first on Google doesn’t mean it is legitimate. Be web savvy, be selective of what words
you choose to search things, and crosscheck constantly. If you are researching something like vampires then you can read all the different stories and pick and choose what you want to use, but if you are writing a science fiction about space travel or a legal drama about a murder trial there are specific rules you should only break for very good reasons.

4. Travel to the places – This is only an option if you have the money or time, which most of us don’t. If you get the chance to visit the places you write about, do it. Think about combining your vacation with your novel research.

5. Take classes in the skills - If your Main Character is a dancer, why not take a couple dance classes? Even a basic class will give you a better idea of what it is like to be a dancer.

The best way to research your novel is to combine as many of these methods as possible. As a writer we need to know as much about our characters and their worlds as we possibly can.

When to use them

There are basically three steps to research that I like to follow. First is preparation to write the story, or pre-search, then comes the first draft writing, and then checking the facts during the editing phase. This is similar to and is usually done in conjunction with outlining, writing and editing, respectively.

1. Pre-search - This step relies a lot on your style as a writer. Some writers don’t outline, and that means they probably don’t research either. But even though there may not be anything on paper, most writers have an inkling of an idea of what the story will be about or what kind of world it takes place in.

Whether or not you write it down, it’s a great idea to get a basic idea of your research topic. This is a great time to employ all the Methods of Research, 1, 2 and 5 specifically. It will save you a lot of time in editing.

2. Writing the first draft - First draft writing should be a place for creativity. I’m sure a lot of writers like to combine the first draft writing with research but my line of thought is this: If it takes more than a couple minutes, let it go. Keep it creative. If you need to check that July 22 lands on a Tuesday in 2032, that's a quick look up. But anything that requires substantial time should be left until after the first draft is complete.

In my current WIP, one of my characters is a car enthusiast. I know what kind of car he drives, I determined the make and model in my pre-search, but when they converse about the specifics of the engine, the parts, the drivability, I have no clue. I just put in ____'s and highlighted it so after I am done writing I will research the specifics and fill in those blanks.

3. Fact Checking - The editing phase is a grueling process that many dread, I know I do, but it's the time to pull your logical and scrutinizing self back to the foreground and inspect your words with a critical eye.

Logistics and believability of your story are a huge part of editing. You may be able to find a lot of the inaccuracies or inconsistencies yourself but most of them will be found by your beta readers and/or editor. Let them know you will be fact checking and to point out anything that is questionable.
Here is where Methods 1 and 3 will be your lifeline. There is a lot of ‘looking it up’ done during editing and the fastest way to do that is online or in a book.

Happy Researching from Allie B

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