Research is essential, but it doesn’t have to be boring. While there is no wrong way to learn, writers aren’t necessarily out to learn a lot of dates and cause/effect facts. We don’t care what the Stamp Act did. We care how hard it was to stick a stamp in place and easily ink runs in the rain. At the same time – we all want to have fun. Editing is enough of a chore. With that in mind, here are five fun ways to approach research.
Read Stories from the Era/Region
Good writers are good readers, but not all great research comes from the dry pages of a textbook. Check out stories, plays, and poems from other times and places. With a library card, this won’t cost you a cent, and it’s one of the most enjoyable kinds of research I’ve ever found.
If you don’t know where to start, you can ask a librarian, ask Reddit, ask the Twitter #WritingCommunity, or just Google it. There are curated reading lists floating around for anything and everything.
Pack Your Bags
If you can, travel. Travel boosts any kind of writing, whether it takes place in our world or an imagined one. Meeting new people, wrestling with complex questions of diverse theologies and ethics, and simply pushing yourself to interact with people who speak a different language will boost your writerly powers.
You can go to a different part of your own country, go to the other side of the planet, or land anywhere in-between. No matter where you go, you’ll find new sights, sounds, foods, smells, and ways of experiencing life.
Learn a Skill
Writers engage readers through their senses. To empathize with a character, you have to feel the coarse wool hissing over fresh callouses as you spin thread or savor the release (and vague disgust) of a drop of sweat breaking free to course down your spine after working in the garden. Maybe you just need to know what things in the kitchen are called and where to find them.
The best way to research is to through hands-on experience. Learning a new skill gives you personal investment in the activity and enough exposure for the novelty to wear off. We tend to write about new and exciting things as – well – new and exciting. That’s very different from being excited about the bread rising well even when it’s cold out or being thrilled when the seems line up on a sewing project. You become familiar with the basics and free yourself to incorporate your new knowledge in your story without turning your novel into a how-to book.
If you have time to really invest in research, sit with your characters and ask what they’d like you to learn. It may be something fairly domestic, like knitting or baking pastries. It could be something a bit more dangerous, like taking up archery or going to an axe-throwing workshop.
Try New Foods
I am a personal fan of food in fiction. English children’s stories forever shaped how I take my tea (with milk – even though I’m as Yankee as a doodle), and I learned how a bite to eat dramatically affects a scene’s mood.
If you want your characters to eat more than buttered toast and tea (which are both perfectly acceptable), try new foods yourself. This could mean visiting different restaurants in your area, visiting an international food shop, or simply asking your grandparents to teach you some new recipes.
Historical fiction opens the door to some great culinary adventures. There are lots – and I mean LOTS – of recipes still around from the Victorian era, the days of the wild west, and even Medieval times. If you want to become an authority, try eating something different. This goes for futuristic science fiction writers, too. Have you ever eaten a bug? Most experts agree a lot of foodstuff will be insect-based in the next century, so dig in.
Take a YouTube Deep Dive
If you absorb information best through videos, you should really put YouTube through its paces. Most of the world’s biggest museums, universities, and historical organizations have some kind of YouTube channel, and their content is wild. You can find short documentaries that summarize entire epics and eras in just five minutes or explore a five-part series with hour-long episodes about a single historical figure.
Even amateurs have some pretty compelling material, and the best of those always link their sources, so it’s pretty easy to see who has done their due diligence. Thanks to YouTube’s suggestion bar, there’s always something new and (fairly) relevant to your tastes to explore.
If possible, try multiple items from this list. Keep appropriate fiction to read on your bedside table, try something new for dinner, and pick up a new hobby to keep your hands busy when you return from your trip. YouTube will always be ready to help you procrastinate productively.