Writers Need Research

Dig into the methods and reasons for research with Abigail.


As you probably gathered from the title, this blog is about research. Before you run screaming for the hills, hear me out.

Research has gotten a bad rap.

My guess is the last time someone asked you to conduct research, the experience culminated with a lengthy essay (properly cited with 12 pt. Times New Roman font) or a presentation and Q&A session where you were grilled on the finer details of 16th century maritime law or the mayfly life cycle.

But the truth is, writers need research. And not just writers of biography or historical fiction, all writers need research. I’m looking at you, sci-fi/fantasy crowd; fantastical and futuristic settings are no excuse for shirking writerly responsibilities.

I won’t promise that it’ll be easy. I do promise a richer story.

Research for writers is a different beast entirely. And while this beast may breathe fire or read minds, it has to have sense enough to adhere to basic physiological principles.

In other words, as writers we must learn to research responsibly. Responsible research and the writing that follows must always adhere to two commandments. If at any time, your writing fails to follow either of these commandments, cut it.

  1. Do not distract readers’ attention away from the story.
  2. Do not deliberately misinform readers.

Including blatant misinformation simply because it’s convenient for the plot or because it adds an element of cool the story otherwise lacks are not valid excuses. Doing so risks losing readers’ trust.

The first commandment is less straightforward. Readers’ attention can stray when they are bombarded by an overload of information. In this respect, research is like a frozen burrito. Past the three minutes it takes to microwave and the two minutes it takes to scarf down, we’ve no interest in spending more of our time musing over the added preservatives, how long it’s been in the freezer, or how many of its kind the factory can produce in an hour.

None of that matters.

To begin accepting our writerly responsibility and figuring out what does matter, we must ask ourselves three questions: What, How, and Why?

What are you researching?

I’m assuming that the story you’re working on includes places, people, and events that interest you, so much so, that you are marginally curious to find out more.

(Pro Tip: If this isn’t the case, you’re writing the wrong story.)

Deciding which aspects of your story to focus on will determine what kind of story ends up being told.

How are you researching?

Research requirements for fiction writers are fairly relaxed. And yes, that means we’re free to look beyond scholarly, peer-reviewed articles. And here’s where we’ll dispel some of the old thinking in regard to what does or does not constitute research.

Interviews, videos, blog posts, overheard conversations, diary entries, firsthand experiences, Wikipedia: all valid research sources.

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll organize research sources into four broad categories. We’ll take a closer look at each of these sources in later posts.

  1. Personal Experience or Knowledge
  2. Another’s Experience or Knowledge
  3. Collection of Others’ Experiences or Knowledge
  4. Group Experience or General Knowledge

Why are you researching?

Writing fiction provides us with ample opportunity to BS our way into appearing competent. Ultimately, with fiction, we can ignore what doesn’t conveniently fit into our narrative and exaggerate whatever is thematically relevant.

And there’s the kicker. How do you know when and where to focus your research efforts? Because our time is limited, past a certain point, too much research gets in the way of actually writing your story.

The answer lies with your characters.

Each character has unique experiences and knowledge which helps inform his or her worldview. They are the lens through which readers come to know the world of the story.

A thorough understanding of your story and its characters and message will help in piecing together a feasible, executable plan for conducting research for your story.

That’s what I’ll strive to accomplish with this blog.

We’ll explore research resources, strategies, shortcuts, and tools. I’ll provide you with exercises, questionnaires, and inspiration. We’ll get advice and information from experts in a multitude of fields and writers who’ve been at this much longer than we have.

Along the research journey, we’ll never lose sight of the reason behind the research: the story.

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