Writing Question: When to Research?

Henry James said, “I know everything. One has to, to write decently.” Writing a story or novel, whether fantasy, science fiction, horror, or something else, can often involve countless issues that require real-world knowledge. If my hero is stabbed in the shoulder, how much will he bleed? What plants will grow most easily on a space station? How quickly will my zombie rot? If, unlike Henry James, you don’t know everything, research becomes key to making your writing believable, vivid, and fresh. It can make or break your work. But when should you research? And how do you incorporate that research into your fiction? We asked Odyssey graduates to discuss how they conducted research, and here are the answers we received.

How much research do you do for your fiction, and do you do it before, during, or after writing your first draft? How much does your research affect your plot and characters?

Maggie Della Rocca

I can’t really quantify how much research I do since I don’t keep track of it by word count. It certainly varies from project to project. Currently, I am working on writing a novel while conducting research for my next project. Generally, I write in the mornings and research in the afternoon, on days that I don’t work.

I start most projects with a loose (very very loose) outline or summary of events. Once I have a setting in mind, I do some research on that, assuming it is an earth or real setting. If it is a fantasy setting, I’ll probably draw a rough map and make some universe notes. The research I do before writing is generally pretty broad, but I find it is important to have a grasp of what I’ll be writing about, so I don’t go flying into impossible or erroneous ideas or concepts in my rough draft. But I never know all the details that require research until I start my rough draft.

Once I get going on my draft, I start discovering holes that need filling. If it seems simple, I’ll stop and do a quick internet search to answer questions. If it proves to complicated, I will make a note on a document of what research needs to be done. I often have an open document that I can jot these notes onto as I write my rough draft. When I’m rereading my draft, I generally add to the same notes that I need to confirm certain details, etc.

I like to be really sure I’m going to stick with something before I go too deep into research. For example, I had a subplot in my current WiP that involved organized crime, gambling, and Native American casinos. I had done the light research of checking into Tribal gaming laws and that sort of thing, but hadn’t taken the time to contact or interview experts on the subject. I’m glad I didn’t because the whole subplot weighed to heavily in the story and I eventually changed it to something simpler–timber poaching. Now I need to do in depth research on that topic, beyond the internet stuff, but will wait until I have finished my complete draft.

So I do research before, during, and after a complete draft, not the final draft but not the first one either. I don’t start writing until I have a good grasp of the setting and concept. I do enough research to answer simple questions that crop up and make notes about more complicated issues. I reread what I’ve written, possibly submit a draft for critiques before doing additional research, since I will likely be making major changes that affect what research I still need to do. I also find that as I do research, my plot and characters gather layers that affect the story, too.

I research more facts than I’ll actually need for the story. I try to only show what the PoV character observes or understands, without tossing in pages of interesting research details. I find that it gives the story depth if I know more about the background, without necessarily making the reader learn all about it. Not that I always mind when authors drop in some fascinating historical details into their stories, but there needs to be a limit on that.

Abby Goldsmith, class of 2004

I write a lot of otherworldly fiction, which reduces the amount of research necessary. Whenever I have a story that includes an element of obscure reality, I do thorough and extensive research before and during the first draft. Topics I’ve researched include cave fungus, ocean liners, spinal muscular atrophy, gigantism in humans, and congenital illnesses.

My personal experiences also influence my stories, and I think this counts as personal research. I’ve lived in small town New Hampshire and a suburb of Los Angeles, and I’ve set stories in both places. I like to think my settings come across as realistic.

These research topics are major factors in the story plot or characters, and I believe it’s worth spending the time to get them right.

Colleen H. Robbins, class of 2007

When do I research? The majority of my research occurs before and after writing the first draft. I try not to stop in the middle of a writing session, because it interrupts the flow.

I usually have an idea of the research I will need, so I do extensive research before I start the actual writing. While I am writing the first draft I will occasionally check some facts, but then I go through the completed first draft with a fine tooth comb.

When I know that certain historical or scientific facts will be critical to the story or novel, I write up a reference sheet of the most important information to keep by the computer. Having the information at my fingertips does not interrupt the flow of writing. I also keep a note sheet to jot down the information that I feel needs to be double-checked after I finish my writing session for the day, along with the page number it occurs on.

Larry Hodges, class of 2006

For my novel, Campaign 2100: Rise of the Moderates, I did extensive research. Strike that; I did incredible amounts of research. Imagine a novel that’s basically a worldwide road trip to real places all over the planet. Extrapolate this a hundred years into the future. (The novel covers the campaign for president of Earth in the year 2100.)

Now I spent many months imagining the storyline, characters, settings, and changes in the future. What would be the main energy sources in the year 2100? What types of transportation? Weapons? Foods? Geography? Clothing and hair styles? Religions? Taboos? Slang? Plant and animal life? Computers? What technologies would rise up and become commonplace? What would be the main political issues? If I didn’t do all of this, it wouldn’t be authentic 2100; it’d just be a poorly disguised 2009.

I did most of the research in advance, though I sometimes stopped to do additional research. It’s generally recommended not to stop in the middle of writing to research something, but that’s what I did as I found myself unable to continue until I know what’s needed. Sometimes I’d think of something, do some research, and go back and rewrite or add a section.

My notes for the Campaign 2100 reached 13,000 words, often on seemingly irrelevant topics. They included notes on building construction codes for the Twin Towers; blue whales; sea life in the South China Sea; virtual reality; valuable gemstones; Mormonism; Dalit history in India; wheat cultivation; kangaroo meat; Brodmann Area 10 in the brain; artificial grass; army tactics; artificial limbs; Ethanol and Butanol; scramjets; the Twisted Gun statue by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward; Don Quixote; global warming; Tau Ceti; The Great Wall of China; iguanas; cats; French banking; the Palace of Versailles; salt water aquariums; the Mexican drug trade; and lots, lots more; plus pages of notes on past political directors/advisors, since I named many of the novel’s characters after them. Plus, of course, there was all sorts of research on politics itself.

And then we got to the geography. I became the world’s #1 expert on Canberra, Australia; Mexico City; Mount Momotombo, Nicaragua; Vancouver, Canada; Germantown, Maryland; Georgetown University, Washington DC; Moscow; the Khrebet Sikhote-alin Mountains in Russia; Dover, England; Val-de-Marne, France; Sarawak, Malaysia; Osaka, Japan; the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Sultanpur National Park, India; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Esperanza Station, Antarctica. (Of course, this is all circa 2100!)

By doing so much research in advance, I didn’t have to interrupt my writing very often. When I needed to know the width of the Dar es Salaam Harbor in Tanzania, there it was in my notes (about 300 feet). When I needed to mention, in passing, the name of a futuristic type of wheat, there in my notes was the name Norman Borlaug, famous wheat cultivator, and hence was my invention of dwarf borlaug-15 wheat. Whenever I needed to bring in a new character, there was my list of campaign directors and advisors to choose from. And so on.

Since I’d already found descriptions of various locations, including links to maps and photos, I had little trouble describing, say, the beaches of Dover, England, even with the addition of the Great Blue Whale Aquarium.

Yet I probably used at most 1/4 of my research notes. But I didn’t know in advance which 1/4 I’d use. Plus, even the parts I didn’t use helped visualize the future world, which greatly helped in the writing. For example, I never used my research on artificial grass, but it inspired me to create an America that was mostly artificially green.

Not all novels are so research heavy. But if you do the research, have it on hand when you write, and use it properly, you have a tremendous advantage over others who are not so prepared.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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