How to Research Information for a Novel: Fact vs. Fiction

Researching for a Novel: An Introduction

If you’re new to writing altogether or you’re just new to researching for fiction, you may be wondering how to research information for a novel. Why is research important? If your novel is full of misinformation, readers won’t make it halfway through the story. You want readers to immerse themselves into the story, no matter if it’s the setting or the events of the story. Whether it takes place in a city you’re not familiar with or you’re wondering how court proceedings work, having accurate information is crucial to making your story believable — for suspension of disbelief.

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Suspension of Disbelief

Let’s talk about suspension of disbelief a little. Suspension of disbelief is all about making your readers drop their guard to believe your story. You want them to lose themselves. It is a reader becoming emotionally invested in a story, allowing them to react to the story like the characters are real. Descriptive writing is a great way to sprinkle in believable touches here and there, in addition to your research. Prime example: when I’m ugly crying around midnight at Me Before You when Louisa reads Will’s last letter to her, only because I’m so invested in the story despite reading it at least five times already.

TLDR: Essentially, suspension of disbelief is the willingness to go along with a story.

So, how does suspension of disbelief relate to researching your novel? You want accurate information to make your story seem realistic. Real information helps with that, no matter if it applies to your settings or a particular injury. Now, I am not a sci-fi or fantasy writer. I have never written in these genres, so I can’t say how properly researched information applies to them other than perhaps if it’s set in the real world. If you are writing these genres, I suggest reading in your chosen genre, no matter if it’s steampunk or high fantasy. This is true for any genre, including romance, thriller, mystery, etc.

I’m getting off track a bit. Suspension of disbelief, when it comes to stories that have piece of reality in them, relates to using information. This is especially true if your setting takes place in a real place, because it helps your reader believe that the story is “real,” so to speak. It helps them believe in the characters, the setting, and everything else about your story.

Why Correct Information in Your Story Is Important

I’m reworking bits and pieces of The Sound of Snap Dragons to make sure my information about Manhattan is correct, such as where the police precincts actually are. It was my first novel to actually write anything involving police (although it is not a police procedural). I may even rework the scene where she gets stabbed, after finding an old resource on writing realistic injuries, which I’ll share below with my other favorite resources.

We commonly hear the phrase write what you know. While this is with good intention, I don’t always agree with it. While I have been to Manhattan a handful of times, it’s not exactly familiar to me. (If you’re ever in Chinatown, there’s this fantastic place we went to years ago called Wo Hop…) Despite my lack of familiarity with Manhattan, that doesn’t mean I can’t write about it. If we only write what we know, books would, indeed, be very boring. This is what research (and especially) the internet is for.

Let me add this disclaimer, however: Yes, research and having correct information is important. But it is fiction, after all, so let your research be the supporting actress to your story.

A How-To Guide for for People Who Have Never Researched Information

Research can be critical to a lot of genres. Mysteries, including police procedurals. Political thrillers. Anything historical. (Can we please acknowledge the release of the new “historical” American Girl dolls that are supposed to portray the 90s? I swear my childhood wasn’t that long ago.) Sure, some genres may not require as much research, while others may require a load of time dedicated to research. How certain wounds or diseases are treated. Particular locations or climates and how they can affect the human body. On that note, I should add this first bit of advice I’ve learned the hard way:

Don’t assume you won’t need to do any research for a fiction novel and be open-minded to feedback and information.

You are doing yourself a disservice if you do. If you only need to do a little bit of research, great! If you’re writing a non-fiction book that you know a ton about because you’re a doctor in that field, awesome! But don’t assume you know everything about your novel. Double check yourself. (Cue the “Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self!”)

I can’t tell you how much research you’ll need to conduct for your novel. It depends on your existing knowledge of the subject and what you plan on writing. Maybe you start to research a certain location for your story, decide there’s not enough information on that particular place, and completely change the story’s setting. You may even receive feedback from beta readers on how you portrayed the setting. (Bonus points if they live in the location where your story takes place or are knowledgable about a particular topic.)

Knowing When to Stop Your Researching Efforts

For some, research turns into a way to procrastinate from actually getting words onto paper or fingers onto keyboard. Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn has a great little quote:

Keep a balance between consumption and creation, input and output.

So, how exactly do you go about starting research for a novel?

Start with a simple search engine query — Google is your friend. You’d be surprised what you can find on the internet. (Okay, maybe not surprised, per se. The internet has been around for quite some time…) With the advancements of Google’s algorithm and how it crawls and indexes websites, the information you can find can be pretty reliable on most sites. From there, there are a lot of steps you can take.

  1. Talk to people who are knowledgeable in the topic you’re researching.
    Whether it’s a medical condition, a mental illness, a historical event, or even something as wild as dinosaurs, you may find yourself lucky by finding an expert in that field or someone who lives with a particular condition.
  2. Think outside of the box when it comes to research.
    You may find some valuable information from resources such as podcasts. Crime Junkie is a great podcast that reports on true crimes if you’re looking for inspiration on murders and missing people. Docs Outside The Box is a good one if you’re looking for random information on medical procedures. You can even Google “podcasts about [topic]” and find lists of recommendations.
  3. Pay a visit to your local library.
    I understand that not every town has a fabulous library system. But if your town does have a decent library, make good use of it. Browse the nonfiction sections. Our local library offers the assistance of research librarians who will help you find the information you need. You can also find digitized historical records, such as marriage certificates, old newspapers, and even obituaries. If you haven’t checked out your local library for information on a topic, go for it! You may be surprised at what you can find.
  4. Talk to people who are knowledgable in their field.
    Reach out to experts in a particular field of medicine or science, or even students who are studying that particular subject. You can sometimes get lucky and find such folks on forums like Reddit and Tumblr. Be wary, however, of every piece of information you receive. There may not be a way to verify the information you get from random people on a forum.
  5. Spring for a “vacation.”
    Okay, this may be a little far-fetched for many, but if you’re able to visit a location you’re writing about, why not call it a vacation? Turn your research into some fun! I try to write about places I’ve been, even if I’m not as familiar with that place as a native, because at least I feel I have a sense of the atmosphere. Like the way New York City always seems to perpetually smell like urine while you’re passing people on the street who are asking for you to Venmo or CashApp them some money. Just kidding. Sort of.

Resources for Researching Information for Your Novel

While it’s true that you’re not exactly crafting prose while doing research, it is true that research is incredibly important for your story. Consider it time well spent for your novel, even if you’re not pounding away on the keyboard. Here are some resources for researching information for your novel:

  1. Google Scholar
    Google Scholar is a quick way to find scholarly literature on various topics.
  2. JSTOR
    JSTOR is another great scholarly resources that “provides access to more than 12 million journal articles, books, images, and primary sources in 75 disciplines.”
    Quora is a great resource, but one to sometimes take with a grain of salt. It is essentially a Q&A site. Ask a question, and a supposed “expert” user in that particular field will answer. There are real experts like doctors You’ll see multiple answers for a question, some of which may not be correct information, which is why I say to use it with an ounce of caution.
  4. Interlibrary Loans
    This is a great source if you find a scholarly article or book on the subject you’re looking for but ends up being $200 to buy a copy. You can request materials to be sent to your local library.
  5. Writing Realistic Injuries
    This is an old resource I’ve had saved in my bookmarks. (Honestly, I totally forgot about it until a couple weeks ago.) It’s a no-nonsense, no-frills list of realistic injuries.
  6. The National Archives
    The digitized archives you can find at your local library? Think bigger. This link is for the U.S. National Archives.

Above are just a few resources to help you with your research. What are your favorite ways to research information for a novel?

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