Some say “write what you know” and others “write about anything you want.” Research is especially important when writing about a subject you’re not familiar with.
I read an article on The Guardian where Sarah Crossan talked about doing research for her book about conjoined twins. She was used to doing research after writing the initial story but this book turned it around.
It got me thinking about the research I do for my books. I’ve spent hours browsing the internet for information, even for something that doesn’t make it into the final story. And from what I’ve heard, that’s more than common. I don’t mind it, though. First of all, it’s not procrastinating since it has something to do with the story! Second of all, the information might come in handy later on, perhaps in another story. Research is never wasted.
Now, I’ve heard some people say that research done on the internet isn’t research. To a point I understand this – it can be extremely hard to verify the information you find and, let’s face it, you probably shouldn’t treat Wikipedia as your best friend. But even Wikipedia can help if you look at the reference links!
I’ve mentioned sites where you can ask questions before, and I think they can be a great help. If you have no personal experience with something that’s in your story, it’s likely someone else does. Maybe no one knows what it feels like to fight a dragon, but you might find tips for swordfighting or how fast a horse can run when chased.
I do think we can learn a great deal online. There are forums where people talk about their experiences, places to ask questions, indexes of books you might want to read for additional information, documentaries etc. available if you manage to find them. The best way would be to treat internet as the starting point and then expand your research once you have a more detailed picture of what you’re looking for. I have used mostly online sources but I’ve also picked up a book or two on the way, mostly to support what I’ve already found from the web. Also, if you find experts on the subject you’re interested in, you could approach them via email with questions. With some luck, you could gain valuable information!
With printed sources, it’s usually easier to figure out who has written it and how credible the text is. But non-fiction isn’t all you can use for research! These are tons of fictional books about nearly every subject, and while I wouldn’t use them for hard facts, they can be great for finding new points of view and opinions.
No matter how you do it, research can make or break a book so it’s important to give it the proper attention. The genre you’re writing also has a big impact; historical fiction naturally requires more background information than fantasy set in a different world. Readers are easily thrown out of the story if they notice glaring errors in history or if you write about penguins that are excellent fliers (again, the genre matters – your fantasy world might be full of flying penguins and that’d be fine).
You should figure out what parts of your story need research and then decide how much time you’re willing to put on it. While it’s ideal to have a completely “real” story, some details might not be worth the effort. For example if guns aren’t a major part of your story, it might be better to just say “he fired his pistol” instead of going into a lengthy description of the model of the gun and how the firing mechanism works. So my advice would be: keep it simple when you can but make the effort when needed.
How do you conduct research for you stories? Do you hoard books or browse a hundred sites online?