On Research

I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of research.

Or, rather, I’m not a big fan of starting research. There’s a difference. It’s the difference between going up a roller coaster and going down a roller coaster. When I’m on a roll, it becomes easier and even fun, really, especially when I find cool facts that I didn’t know before.

Honestly, though, if I could write a story without having to do any research at all, I would probably do it. I am a writer and I like to write and research isn’t writing (no, taking notes doesn’t count as writing your story, sorry). I want to follow my characters on their journeys and adventures, discover cool plot twists, see exciting new worlds, not read about the mating rituals of velvet worms (admittedly I’ve never researched that particular fact and have no idea if velvet worms actually have mating rituals, but you know what I mean).

In recent years, however, I’ve come to view research as important for most stories. If you truly don’t know anything about mid twentieth century London but want to write a story set there anyway, you need to do some research. You can’t bullshit your way through because trust me, it will show and your readers will notice even if they are not experts on the subject themselves. Readers love to complain when writers get their facts wrong, especially if the writer in question doesn’t admit to getting it wrong.

Research is useful for more than just facts, however. It can give you new ideas for your story that you might never have thought of on your own. Even if you’re writing in fantasy, where you can make up everything from scratch, doing some research on some of the subjects you’re writing about can really help. Research has definitely helped me in that regard.

For me, the hardest part is knowing where to start. What books do I read? What websites do I need to Google? What videos do I need to watch? What places do I need to visit? Who are the experts on the subject?

For me, I’ve found it’s easier to start writing and figure out what you need to research as you go along. As you write, you will inevitably come upon subjects you are not very familiar with. At this point it’s fine to guess about things you aren’t sure of, but make sure to remember which subjects you need to research later. Write a list if you think you’ll forget and refer to it when you start doing your research.

I’ve also found I retain facts and information better when I read it in a book than when I read it on an Internet article or blog post. Don’t neglect the Internet when it comes to research, however, because it is an extremely valuable tool for finding those obscure facts that you need for your story. As useful as a good book can be, their space is limited and they don’t always have every fact you need, especially if they are older.

I suggest you use books as your main source of research and the Internet and various other media as a supplement to fill in gaps that books did not address. Of course, this is my method of doing things and you may find that it doesn’t work for you. As with everything else in writing, you should always go with what works even if everyone else is doing it differently.

Earlier I said that starting research is difficult, but the actual research process is usually easy. At this point, you may even be having fun looking up obscure or interesting facts, reading cool books on the subject, and taking detailed notes for future reference. This is probably my favorite part about research because at this point it’s usually effortless and it no longer feels like a waste of time or energy.

But at some point, you need to stop researching and start writing. Research is always important for every stage of writing, of course, whether you’re writing the first draft or putting the finishing touches on a work for publication, but it is possible to do too much research. Some writers get so caught up in it that they forget to, you know, sit down and write the story that they are researching.

If you find yourself spending more time researching than writing, I suggest you put aside the books and Internet articles and videos and start writing. While you can always do more research, you have to come to a point where you say, “There. This is enough. I might do more later, but right now I need to write.”

As long as you keep in mind the purpose for your research — to help make your stories a little more believable — I think you will be fine.

What do you think about research? How much is too much? Too little? How do you do research for your works? Any tricks or tips to make the process a little easier?

-Tim

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