The Writing Zone: Stage 10 - Conducting Research
It took me about a year to complete the first draft of my book. Of that time, at least half of it was spent conducting research for the material that ended up being written.
Whether you're writing upmarket contemporary fiction, fantasy, or hard science fiction, there will be a period of time during the process of writing where you'll find yourself finding information that will help make your story a bit more realistic and believable.
"But Trevor, I'm writing a story entirely based on a fictitious world that's as far from Earth as you can get - and 100,000 years into the future. I can totally bullshit my way through my plot and people won't pick up where I made things up versus what could possibly be real. I'm gonna close this post now-"
Before you disappear into the digital abyss, let me say this: There's always an area in your novel that could stand to benefit from a little bit of research. Though my story would fall neatly into the "hard science fiction" slot of genres, there are many aspects of writing that transcend genres, such as the behavior of two individuals when they are in a romantic relationship. Or the process by which a romantic or strictly sexual relationship forms. Or how the mannerisms of individuals are perceived and reacted upon by others around them. I've targeted these areas for these reasons:
- The majority of novels, regardless of genre, have romantic subplots interwoven within them, or have subplots that involves the formation of relationships, whether they are platonic or otherwise.
- How people behave in a plethora of situations is largely dependent on their own experiences in life leading up to that point.
- Many novels - at least in my experience - tend to tackle subjects of sexuality and romance in ways not unlike that of Hollywood: It's tacked on and not given the proper respect that it deserves, even when the subjects veer into the morbid or painful.
Humans - no, sentient creatures - are complicated enough, which is why so many writers spend a great deal of time fleshing out their characters before they drop them into the greater world in which they would inhabit. However, it's very easy to allow one's preconceptions on subjects/people to corrupt (I'm sure there's a nicer way of saying it, but it's late and I'm writing this with less than eight hours before publication time, so...) their actual writing, to the point where a scene with two characters fall in love or have some form of encounter, but some readers may call it out as being unrealistic or exaggerated. Similarly, there is always something more about our cultures, societies, cities, infrastructure, and sciences that are clouded by our own experiences and personal knowledge.
Therefore, to research is to write a more believable novel.
That being said, how does one actually conduct research on subject matter for their book? To answer this question, I'm not going to focus specifically on any particular genre as I feel the methods I share can accommodate most, if not all, book genres - but if this isn't the case I'll call it out.
"You place Wikipedia over Google? Blasphemy! You're lucky I don't cast you out or smite you or something."
Yes, and here's why, Q: For many subjects, Wikipedia can be a very useful source of information - and for a few good reasons. The biggest reason: references and citations. Not only do Wikipedia articles have links to related subpages, but you'll also have access to various citations that take you to other, more focused external web articles.
Wikipedia is a great place to start because of its accessibility. Just about every conceivable subject matter would have its own page here, and by the nature of Wikipedia, that article would've been vetted and edited by several people that were knowledgeable of that subject. If you aim to learn more about a location, a famous person, or a concept, even Google will almost always have a related Wikipedia article on the first page of results.
I didn't start using Quora as a source of research until a few months after I started writing, but once I posted my first detailed question there ("Can we detect radio frequencies when the source is moving near the speed of light?"), the few responses I received were enough to encourage me to keep posting. Unlike Wikipedia, Quora's platform is fueled by end-users asking their own questions which are then answered by other users. Depending on the question, you could end up having several responses provided by SMEs (subject matter experts) with substantial experience in their fields reaching out.
Quora is great if you have an idea on the question that you want to ask, and due to the nature of your question Google's failed at delivering satisfactory answers. If you are nice, respondents to your questions are usually willing to continue the conversation afterwards, making it possible to learn a significant amount.
Accessing and Reading Research Papers
I'll state this upfront: This one likely won't apply to every genre, but this was something I found myself doing quite a bit as the finer details of the technology within my book really began to become fleshed out. One of the first papers I got my hands on - and subsequently played a major role in my management of numerous factors throughout my book - was "Futurological Reflections on the Confrontation of Mankind with an Extraterrestrial Civilization" by Dr. Michael Schetsche. I must've read this a couple of times from front-to-back, using a highlighter in my PDF software to isolate various segments that resonated most with both myself and my creation.
Finding formal research papers can be a mixed experience, depending on the subject matter. Many published papers are behind paywalls, leaving you with only the synopsis in some cases - while others leave you with nothing. However, as I've evidenced above, there are just as many papers that are free to access and download.
Easily the most challenging out of everything above to accomplish. You would approach this step after accomplishing just about everything else that I've already shared. However, this can be one of the most rewarding decisions you could make. Finding a professional in your field of interest can be challenging by itself, but then getting through to that person and getting them to agree to answers a couple of questions you have? This can turn out to be even more time-intensive while also being a productivity timesink because of those that don't respond to your requests at all.
For a very critical element for my story, I managed to arrange a one-hour interview. Prior to the phone call I had my list of questions ready to go, and they knew upfront why I was reaching out.
If you need that extra-personal level of access to a culture, scientific or mathematical subject, or a sensitive subject, it may pay to find experts that will be able to not only answer your questions live or via email, but also provide a level of context that you would otherwise not receive from just reading a Wiki article or dropping a question on Quora.
Last summer I wrote an article about striking a balance between research and writing. After reading what I've written here, the contents of that article still ring true. That is: Yes, research is important, but writing is just as important! Therefore, if you do plan on setting aside time to conduct some research for your story, be sure to review the above and plan your research directions accordingly.
Also, don't forget to get back to writing.
What kind of research have you done for your story? What research strategies worked for you? Share your thoughts below!