No matter what we write, doing background research will make it better. Even if the novel’s time period is contemporary, when we are expert in our character’s profession, or have imagined our fantasy world down to the last plant species, shoring up a novel with reliable facts will give our readers more confidence in what we have written.
We can use background research to either collect facts to incorporate into our writing or to justify what we write. While this is obvious for nonfiction pieces, fiction writers need to be equally secure in what they describe or how they represent characters and activities.
Accuracy Creates Realism
Here are some research ideas
Writing about a character’s occupation?
Check out those organizations dedicated to that specialty, such as like the American Library Association for a librarian, and the American Psychological Association for a counselor, or consult an overview site that links to various related occupations like GoLawEnforcement.com or the National Association of Home Builders for the construction trades.
Doing this research will help you better explain the character’s actions and give them a vocabulary appropriate for their occupation.
Writing about a setting location?
Using an actual physical location, even if given an imaginary name, helps readers better place themselves in your story. In a fantasy novel, the best way to make a setting read real is to build it on an actual place that you change enough to make feel foreign or new.
To research the appearance of a location, start with maps such as Google maps and Street view to get a sense of topography and how the inhabitants live in it. Then look for ordinary travelers’ photos and videos posted to the web. These will provide a sensory overview of the location, and what is thought beautiful, what is unique, what catches the eye. Next consult some local people such as a town librarian, a restaurant owner, or other local business person for information on daily life.
Writing about a medical or psychological condition?
Never assume you can write fictionalize a medical or psychological condition even if you suffered it personally or know someone who has. Experiences can vary widely. Research everything you can to avoid offending anyone. Consult organizations dedicated to those with the condition, ask permission to join social media groups about the condition, talk to medical personal, and if possible, interview those willing to share their personal stories. Consider employing a sensitivity reader to check what you write.
Writing historical fiction?
All of the above suggestions apply to novels set in the past, except that instead of just doing research on how occupations, settings, and conditions are now, also dig into the literature of your period to see how that occupation, setting, or condition was experienced in the past.
Having a contemporary knowledge base can make the historical information more understandable and help you format better research questions. Places to search include the Library of Congress, Google Books and the Internet Archive for first-hand sources, your local historical societies, and the library.
Writing fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal?
Use research on contemporary life and society to provide a framework for the new world you are creating. One way is to build a timeline that shows the incremental changes that would have taken place to reach your imagined world.
No Matter What: Research
Research takes time. It steals away from writing. It brings challenges such as how to store the information you gather and how to make sure the information you collect is valid.
For more on making researching your book easier, see Research Your Subject and Validate Your Writing. This short book is full of suggestions about how to carry out research, how to organize it, how to check for facts, hot links to a wealth of information sources, and how to avoid plagiarism and more.