Guest post by Dave Chesson
Research can make or break your novel.
When readers choose your book, they expect to be transported into a believable and engrossing world.
Research is the key to creating an immersive environment to be enjoyed and savored.
Conversely, a badly researched novel can shatter the suspension of disbelief, causing your reader to lose patience with your book and even leave a negative review.
The importance of research for reader enjoyment and, consequently, author reputation can be seen in the following review of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s novel Kingdom Come.
The reviewer in the above image gave the maximum five-star rating to the novel as a direct result of “remarkable research.”
So how do you carry out the same quality of research for your own work? After all, not all writers are researchers. It can be difficult to know the right way to go about it.
Thankfully, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Read on to discover three research tips you can use on your novel—from hugely successful authors.
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.
After all, information about almost any subject on Earth is readily available. If you’ve ever found yourself going off on tangents and opening new tabs while browsing the web, you know exactly how easy it is to get distracted by the sheer amount of information out there.
The time you can dedicate to research is probably limited, so spend that time in the most focused and fruitful way possible. Achieve this by gaining a solid understanding of your readers’ expectations.
Readers of the Left Behind series expect accurate use of Biblical prophecy. Readers of historical war fiction expect to find the correct weapons from that time period.
If you’re unsure of how to best meet reader expectations, try the following:
- If you’ve published in the past, use the feedback you received. What did your readers praise? What did they dislike? Can you get a sense of what they ideally expect from your work?
- If you’re a new author, look at reviews for similar work within your genre. After all, you are likely to sell books to people who buy similar books. Established authors are also likely to have a wealth of feedback you can draw upon.
- Feel free to explicitly ask your readers. If you have a mailing list, solicit feedback on what makes or breaks a book in your genre. If you have a social media presence, conduct a poll.
- Refer to the many avenues people use to voice their opinions to understand what readers love. Check out forums for fans of your genre, fan blogs, reader groups on Facebook, relevant hashtags, and so on.
Formulate Specific Research Questions
Once you understand what will best satisfy your readers, develop a list of specific research questions, based on either your novel outline or the general topic.
This is how bestselling author K.M Weiland carries out her research.
Imagine your main character is an English vicar. You could research this generally, but creating specific questions ensures you’ll include everything important. You can add questions as you go, but having a list to start with will help you remain focused.
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.
Now consider the best places to find the information you need. You should also have a system in place to collect your findings, such as the research capabilities provided by specialist book writing software. While Google is powerful, it’s by no means your only option. Some useful sources include:
- 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. You can also “ask a librarian,” as seen below.
People: Your Richest Source
Turning to your laptop or smartphone by default when researching can lead to overlooking the richest research source of all — the people around us.
For your novel to be truly great, it should focus on more than just facts. It should contain rich human thoughts and feelings.
Margaret Mitchell based a lot of ‘Gone With the Wind’ on the real stories she’d been told in her childhood about the American Civil War. Her book is not only historically accurate, but it also feels authentic.
Draw On the People In Your Life
- Your family. Ask older relatives what life was like growing up. How much did things cost? Did people speak differently to each other? Ask younger relatives what matters to them. How do they spend time with their friends?
- Your friends. Ask those with different occupations or backgrounds, religions, political stances, etc., for their perspectives. This can make your novel more believable than if you merely guess what different lives are like.
- Strangers. Observe people wherever you go. What are they wearing? How do they talk? Good novelists are constantly watching.
- People online. People reveal a lot about themselves on forums, social media, and their blogs. The gives you the opportunity to research people all over the world you might never otherwise come across.
Travel For Research
Nothing beats actually visiting the place you will write about.
Bestselling thriller and nonfiction author Joanna Penn advocates journeying to your book’s location and getting a firsthand feel for it. This may seem impossible on your budget, but think outside the box:
- Travel during less popular times of the year. Check out a site like Skyscanner and compare airline prices.
- If you can’t afford to go to your specific location, choose somewhere similar but cheaper. Just fact check your research against the actual city to avoid inaccuracies.
- The next best thing to actually being there in person is virtual travel. Google Maps gives you a street view walk around almost anywhere on Earth. You can see the buildings and even what people are wearing.
- Watch documentaries on your location on YouTube or a similar site.
Other Internet Resources
- TripAdvisor. See what real people thought about the attractions, restaurants, and accommodation of cities all over the world.
- Travel Blogs. High-quality posts provide reports to inform and inspire your writing. Many also contain brilliant photos that will help when writing your descriptive passages.
- Travel Forums. Forums allow you to ask about a particular place from a wide range of people who’ve been there. This is a great option if there’s a particular detail you can’t find anywhere else.
Author Research — What’s Your Personal Process?
Effective author research comes down to:
- Choosing careful questions and sources based on reader expectations
- Making the most of the life experiences of the people around us
- Exploring a book’s location, either firsthand, on the Internet, or by interviewing others
These research tips were suggested by bestselling authors. What’s your favorite research idea? Do you have a personal process you like? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Dave Chesson is the guy behind Kindlepreneur.com, one of the world’s largest book marketing websites. Having been a nuclear engineer for the US Navy, he’s a pretty large quantitative nerd who loves the numbers and understands the differences in how things work, especially inside of Amazon. You can find more about his type of analysis like his guide to getting book reviews or even some of his free tools on his site.