Research for Novelists (Part One)

A fancy bookstore. We see an ornate stairway that goes down, skylights, and two floor to ceiling walls of books on either side.

Whether you love it or hate it, research is all but inescapable. Pretty much any type of novel you write will require some level of research. But what that means and how much you need to do ranges from book to book and genre to genre.

I’m actually really good at research. I have two research degrees, even. But, despite skills I learned in grad school I’ve been petrified enough of research-heavy genres that I’ve avoided writing them. To be fair, research for creative writing looks a bit different than it does for academic publications, but there’s enough overlap that I feel like I shouldn’t be afraid of the researchy projects.

The researchy projects aren’t afraid of me, though. My next WIP is a historical fantasy set in New England in the 1870s that takes some American transcendentalist texts and themes and mashes them up with 19th century spiritualism and sex magic. It demands to be written next and I am helplessly in its thrall. It’s gonna be research heavy, baybees.

So, I thought I’d write a bit about researching for novelists as I’m doing research for my novel. As one does.

Along the way, I hope to convince myself I know what I’m doing and maybe share some useful perspective, strategies, and tools with you.

To kick things off…

Let’s talk about types of research

There are lots of ways to categorize what we’re doing or trying to achieve with research, but for me it’s useful to think about four (more or less) distinct buckets of research:

  • Background Research
  • Exploratory Research
  • Targeted Research
  • Experimental or Experiential Research

First up, we have Background Research. For my historical fantasy WIP, for example, I know I need to do some reading about New England in the 1870s. I need to have enough context to write a story set in that time and place. That’s going to mean spending some time with primary source materials. Maybe looking at maps, reading newspapers and novels and memoirs, looking at photos and portraits and art. It will also mean identifying and reading important secondary research (maybe on historical figures who appear in the book, or on the area in general, or on important sociocultural things that happened in the area at the time). This research is meant to provide me with a baseline on which to build. I don’t necessarily have specific questions I’m bringing at this stage, beyond maybe what was life like? Or what was this person like? Or what are the basic facts about this topic or theme or event I need to be aware of?

Background research can easily overlap with Exploratory Research. In fact, they’re related enough I could have collapsed them into the same category. I single it out, here, as a way to talk about the research you might do with no real questions in mind. The research you do to trigger ideas or explore unidentified opportunities. For example, in my WIP, I’m going to be reading some of Louisa May Alcott’s little known potboilers and other lesser known work just to see what they might manifest for me. I don’t need them for a baseline, but I have a gut feeling that they might be helpful.

Targeted Research is the kind almost all of us are familiar with. You do it when you need to know what it’s like to pee while female on the international space station. You do it when you Google how to dispose of a body for the billionth time. You do it when you calculate how many times a truck hauling a trailer full of kelpies would need to stop to gas up on a trip from one coast to the other. It’s the research you do when you have a specific question, the wikipedia rabbit hole you fall down when you just need to know this one thing and only to mention it with one sentence in one chapter, and the next thing you know it’s six days later and your starving.

Experimental or Experiential Research is the kind of research that involves going to places, doing the things your protagonists are doing. So, you know, heading off to Oregon to round up a trailer full of kelpies to haul all the way to Maine. For your novel.

In this series, I’ll be talking mostly about those first three kinds. Mostly because I don’t want to be liable if you decide to trailer a bunch of hungry vampire horses my friends.

In the next post, though, I’m going to talk about some tools and strategies for managing all of the research truffles you’re about to dig up.

Post-Revision Feels

Why didn’t anyone tell me that the second I finished revisions and tried to hand this novel off to beta readers I would be consumed with the need to start sending queries? I’ve been patiently biding my time all along, compiling my list of agents, crafting my letter. But I’ve known I wouldn’t send anything out until other humans have read this story and at least told me it isn’t a bunch of nonsense words in a trench coat.

Revision, in particular, was way more of an emotional rollercoaster than drafting for me. There were at least two, maybe three, points at which I sort of gave up in the middle of word renovations, convinced that the story didn’t have good bones or even bones at all. That I couldn’t fix it because it wasn’t anything to begin with.

I remember that exact feeling from academic writing, too. And it always came during revisions.

Because there’s something really important happening at that stage, I think. You’ve gotten things out on paper. You now have several clear visions: what you imagined, at first, pure and crystalline inside your head; what you’ve made (not so pure or crystalline now, is it, buddy?); and what you’re actually trying to do with the words on the paper.

In revision, you’ve got to triangulate between those three things. It’s like you built a puzzle after glimpsing the full image of what it was supposed to be. Then, someone threw that image away, and you have to fix the puzzle based on what you think is going on after that original helterskelter puzzle sesh.

It’s a magic but infuriating process. I love it, but it’s the worst.

Anyway, that’s enough metaphors for one revision post. Long story short, I’m not querying until I hear back from my beta readers and do another pass. But the urge is strong.

Happy wallowing!

Wallowing in Ink

A row of ink bottles, in front of which cut out paper letters spell the word "wallowing". On a piece of paper further down, the words "in ink" have been written and then splashed with ink.

Wallowing. It’s a word that evokes both pleasure and pain. You might wallow in luxury or in self-pity, in hedonistic pleasure or in suffering and sorrow.

One of my favorite Victorian genre writers, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, described the process of learning how to write as “wallowing in ink.” It’s such an evocative description, capturing the highs and lows of the writing process in one colorful metaphor. I haven’t been able to shake it since I stumbled across it in her memoir.

So, of course, I’ve stolen it. 

And I’m using it as a way to start blogging again.

Every month, here, I’ll be talking about stories and media and other things I’m wallowing luxuriously in. I’ll share the parts of the writing process that have me as happy as a pig (or, idk, probably a dog?) in a mud puddle. And I’ll also talk about that other, less glamorous or comfortable, kind of wallowing: the struggle to put words on the page in a way that works. The imposter syndrome that hits, like clockwork, at certain stages.

That’s it. That’s the post – I’m making this sticky at the top of the blog so anyone who wanders here aimless and uninformed will know what they’re getting themselves into. 😉