Research: Beyond the Books

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If you’re writing a novel, you obviously enjoy books. That doesn’t mean you want to invest weeks and months of potential writing time bogged down in research. Although traditional books and endless Google searches can answer many questions, they may not be the best source of information for your novel. They certainly aren’t your only way to find great information.


There’s nothing like getting a story straight from the source. An interview provides a lot of great information in a short amount of time, but you do need to take time to prepare. Regardless of whether you’re interviewing face-to-face or via email, you need to select your questions in advance. Prioritize your most important research questions for the beginning of your interview, particularly those you might not be able to find in books or online resources.

Unlike a book, a person requires thanks. Again, regardless of whether or not you actually meet your interviewee in the flesh, you need to show your appreciation. Conduct the interview over a meal, offer a tip to any professional you interview, or send a thank you note. Even if you interview a family member in their own home, bring them a small gift. Consider it an investment in your novel.

In-Person Exploration

A picture is worth a thousand words, but personal experience is priceless. Not all novels are set in exotic, far-flung locations. If you write about a place within driving distance, try to take a weekend to see it in person. It doesn’t matter if you’ve visited before. You look at a location very differently when you’re trying to answer a question rather than just passing through. Simply walking the same streets as your characters helps you pick important details, note flaws in third party research, and generally create a more accurate and engaging scene.

Hands-On Learning

If your character’s trade, hobby, or practical environment is wildly different from your own, it pays to have a tactile experience with them. This is easy if your character knits, but a blacksmith, circus performer, or 17th Century lady’s maid may complicate things. That doesn’t mean you can’t get any practical contact, though.

Reenactors, drama teams, costume makers, and even historical fair vendors are all fabulous resources if you’re brave enough to reach out and make contact. Most are more than happy to talk about what they do, and they encourage hands-on interaction. Some offer formal training courses – especially artisans who product handcrafted goods. Whether it’s a paid class or a friendly visit, though, think of this as another kind of interview. Come prepared with important questions and thank you gifts.

Research doesn’t have to be boring. It can be an actual adventure. By getting out, gathering hands-on experience and new connections, you develop yourself as a write while gathering the data you need for your current project. You can never really have too many contacts, and they’ll come in handy the next time you sit down to write a novel.


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