Let’s first consider what to research.
In a fiction manuscript, a writer will obviously introduce a lot of content about characters, plot and setting. Characters and plot will often be the product of the writer’s imagination. However, as characters and plot develop, they will invoke the customs and institutions of the day, such as dress, language and politics. In dystopian and science fiction, these too may be fictional. But for other genres, they will reflect the real world and, for verisimilitude, could require research. For example, a police procedural should incorporate the actual homicide investigation procedures of the time and place.
Setting could require more research. A story should accurately present features like geography, city and streetscapes, and seasons. Even when a writer writes about what she knows, she’ll still have to double-check things like street names. Further, the setting should work for the plot. For example, a character shouldn’t visit a gallery on a day it’s closed or walk to the end of a street in half the required time.
Bottom line – a writer should do as much research as reasonably possible, and err on the side of too much. As I wrote in my last post about self-publishing, research is the backbone of readers’ suspension of reality and engagement in the writer’s world.
Now the question of when to research. The danger to avoid, of course, is to get deep into drafts of an intricately plotted story, only to find it collapses under the weight of facts. With practice, each writer finds what works for her. Many writers complete most of their research before starting the manuscript, perhaps while doing an outline. Some, such as yours truly, will be in a hurry to find out if there’s a good story, and leave some research to the end of the first draft. Whichever way, be prepared for checking and double-checking facts right through to the manuscript’s final proof.
Finally, how does a writer conduct research? Obviously the Internet offers enormous resources. The challenge is finding information that is reliable and sufficiently in-depth. Good quality, relevant texts often still yield better information and may even be available at the local public or university library. For historical content, museums and archives can also be very useful.
In addition, for manuscripts set in recent times, writers should seriously consider visiting settings (however useful Google Earth is) and, if possible, interview people experienced with key plot points. Contacts are usually surprisingly giving and it can a fun way to spend a coffee or dinner.
Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze