We’ve discussed a handful of other brainstorming mechanisms, and I hope some of them have been useful to you. In this post, we’re going to go over the wonders of doing some research before (or after, or in the middle of–hey, no judgment here) sitting down to write.
When I wrote the first draft of one of my first novels, I didn’t do any research for it. At all. The story wound up changing drastically with each draft, and fortunately, with each draft, it got a lot better. But I didn’t start really researching the world that the story takes place in until I was on my fourth or fifth draft. Now, I’m not saying that’s the wrong thing to do—every writer has their own writing process. But the problem I then ran into was this: the setting permeates every part of the story. Every scene, from beginning to end, takes places in the world you are creating. Not only that, but the characters are heavily influenced by the world they live in. So if you change the world, and you change the characters, chances are the plot is going to change quite a bit as well. Making these kinds of big changes when you’re further along in the writing process creates a lot more work, and you might fall into the trap I’ve fallen into, which is that you just keep re-writing the thing over and over as you figure out more about the world.
I’m not criticizing anyone else who’s done that. The important thing is that you’re enjoying the writing process, and I know I certainly have. But if you’re looking to avoid that problem and write more efficiently, you might try doing your research earlier on in the game. Be warned—this is more of a “plotter” move than a “discovery writer” move. Some of you discovery writers may find that doing too much research up front messes with your process. But I think you can approach it in a way that is more geared toward generating ideas than outlining the story. Either way, you’ll probably need to do some research at some point if you want to help your readers feel like they’ve tumbled into another world that is as real and lifelike as the one they’re living in.
There are as many ways to start researching a subject as there are people doing research. I tend to start with Wikipedia just to familiarize myself with a subject enough to get an idea of how much I don’t know about it. The internet is a great place for getting a general idea of things, but online articles about any given subject often don’t go deep enough to help you come up with the kinds of details that make a world feel real. Books and libraries are a fount of information. You’ll be surprised at the kinds of odd books you’ll find. When I was researching for a short story about deep-sea diving, I was amazed at how many people had written extremely detailed books about submarines. I found articles and explanations and enough photos to help me describe the interior of the submarine I was writing about.
Other great research tools include:
- YouTube (YouTube is great for finding virtual tours of places you would otherwise be unable to access, or old videos from an era you might be writing about)
- Pinterest (Great for both compiling your research, as well as finding useful pictures and articles)
- Google Ngrams (Handy for figuring out whether certain words were used in certain time periods)
- Evernote (Another excellent tool for compiling and organizing research; its plugin allows you to save websites you visit)
If you have other great tools that you’ve used in your research, I’d love to hear them. I’m always looking for good writing resources to compile.