Wallowing in Ink

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.

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