Research Hacks

Research Hacks

The reviewer in the above image gave the maximum five-star rating to the novel as a direct result of “rem – arkable research.”

Know Your Reader, Your Questions, and Your Sources – It’s important to understand what your readers expect from your work before you conduct your research.

1. Reader Expectation
2. Formulate Specific Research Questions
Form a list of topics your research will cover, and then create specific questions for each.

Imagine writing a crime novel set in 1920s London. You might choose the following categories with particular questions for each:

Language. Slang in use at the time? Could people generally write well? Different types of dialect based on occupation/social status?
Everyday life. How did people spend their time? Common food and drink consumed?
Geography. How did London in the 1920s differ from today? What about the rest of the country/world? How will this impact your story?

The exact categories and questions will depend upon your genre.

3. Research Sources
Wolfram Alpha. Like a genius librarian who quickly and accurately answers almost any question. The image below shows Wolfram Alpha in action.

Google Scholar. High-quality academic information. Excellent if you want a more believable character or story with a depth of info far beyond a normal search engine.

Internet Archive. To see how a website used to look, use this. As you can see, it’s possible to view Jerry’s website all the way back to 1999!

Library of Congress. A rich source of American history. View photos as well as other media.

The Two Sides to Novel Research: Accuracy and Authenticity

There are two good reasons for any author to indulge in this paranoia over “the facts” in a novel (whether it’s historical or not).
Reason #1 to Panic: Your Readers Are Smarter Than You

Scary thought, ain’t it? Now granted, not all of them are going to be smarter (aka, better read on your subject than are you). But I guarantee there will be a lot of them. No matter how conscientious you are in your research about Roman sewer systems or stamp collecting, there will always be someone who knows something you don’t. And if that person happens to read your book, they may well call you out on your mistakes.

Reason #2 to Panic: Poor Novel Research Destroys Suspension of Disbelief

This reason is by far the more important of the two, however closely related. The whole point of novel research, after all, is to create a seamless reading experience. We want to immerse readers in the detailed and realistic worlds we create for our characters. If you’ve got your Olympic equestrian character casually mounting her horse on the right side (instead of the left), you’re going to instantly pop that suspension of disbelief bubble for any reader knowledgeable about horses and riding.
Commit to Accuracy in Your Novel Research

In short, blatant inaccuracies can ruin your book. So do your research. End of story. Stop panicking.

Does this sound too simple a solution after all that fear mongering up there?

Maybe a little. But let’s be practical.

There is absolutely no way you can achieve perfect accuracy in your novel.

Never mind what Yoda says, the best you can do is try. After that, stop worrying about accuracy and start worrying about … authenticity.

Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Accuracy

A story, by its very nature, is an illusion.

The characters aren’t real. The events aren’t real. The settings and events–even if portraying real life– are Shakespeare’s “but shadows.”

The best of this kind are but shadows and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. Midsummer’s Night Dream Shakespeare

That’s why readers must suspend their disbelief in the first place. And they do. They willingly buy into the magic trick–as long as the magician (that’s you!) makes it look real.

By far, the most important factor in convincing readers to suspend disbelief is creating a story world that seems real. Readers aren’t asking for reality; they only want something that seems real enough for them to pretend, for a couple hours, that it is real.

That’s where authenticity comes into play. As long as you have accuracy enough to provide a solid basis for your story, you then have a wide-open canvas upon which to create the illusion of an authentic experience.

To put it indelicately: Hook your readers with the truth and they’ll swallow all the rest of your story’s lies.

How can you find this balance of accuracy and authenticity in your book? Let’s examine twelve steps you can put into action right away.

6 Steps to Achieve Accuracy in Your Novel Research

Novel research is easy. All you have to do is read and remember. But it requires time and discipline upfront. Use these six steps to break your task into manageable bites.

1. Begin With a Basic Understanding of Your Subject
2. Discover the General Questions You Need to Ask
3. Collect a Bibliography
4. Commit Serious Time to Novel Research
5. Organize Novel Research Notes
6. Discover the Specific Questions You Need to Ask

6 Steps to Achieve Authenticity in Your Novel Research

1. Do Your Research
2. Support Every Lie With Two Truths
3. Show Readers What They Expect to See
4. Don’t Sweat the Details
Can you tell me what’s “wrong” with this excerpt?

He had no notion life wasn’t always a long journey to a distant horizon. Sometimes it ended in a blink, in a blur of fire and pain. Turns out “blink” and “blur” didn’t mean then what they mean now.
5. Maintain Consistency
Here’s the secret to authenticity: it must walk hand in hand with consistency.
6. Show Your Bravado