When You Just Don't Know What the Hell...

Unless your brain is the ultimate amalgamation of Albert Einstein, Julius Caesar, Amelia Earhart, William Shakespeare, Martha Stewart, the Mythbusters, and Alton Brown, chances are you'll have to do some research on whatever story it is you're writing. The topic of research is quite polarizing in and of itself. A lot of authors don't do a lick of it until they're working on their second or even third drafts, almost as if the hard facts are the candles on a birthday cake. Other people spend months researching their topics ahead of time, and it continues throughout the story as well as after. As I say about most of these issues, neither approach is wrong so long as it isn't inhibiting you from actually writing the story.

 Research is a tantalizing distraction, especially in the age of the internet, when clicking one link will inadvertently lead to down a long, mentally masturbatory path to lost productivity. Still, most writers just don't feel comfortable elaborating on unfamiliar subjects (even if it's only temporary), while others will happily make up whatever they don't know and fix the mistakes later. I don't quite fit either mold. For one thing, I tend to write about things I take an active interest in, or topics subjective enough that they don't require a ton of research (i.e. forensic crime stories, hard science fiction, period pieces). However, even the most nebulous stories will often need a little bit of a factcheck. For instance, in my work-in-progress, my main character is a mail carrier. I happen to know very little about what's involved "behind the scenes" at a typical post office, so that requires a little bit of digging. Also, I'm currently participating in NaNoWriMo with an urban fantasy story that takes place in San Francisco. It just so happens that I have never been to San Francisco. This would naturally require me to look a few things up. Or take a weekend trip down to the Bay Area (if only!). For both of these stories, it has been easy enough to make educated guesses on the unknown, but I have allotted some time for light research. The rest will have to come later, once the story is done. For one thing, I don't want to spend hours researching something that may very well end up cut from the story. For another, the story is the most important thing.

The best research is often in the background. Still, aside from trips to the library, what are some of the best ways to learn about the architecture from Victorian London so you can accurately describe the setting of your dark Dickensian satire. Perhaps you're a little unsure about the principles of string theory for its use in your inter-dimensional dystopian thriller. How do boilers work so you can craft the ultimate vehicle for your steampunk masterpiece? Where does Alcatraz Island lie in relation to Angel Island? These days, most of these answers can be found online, thanks to those folks who were nerdy enough or worldly enough to learn the information we need and put it up on a website. Here is a brief list if sites for writers looking to add that particular flavor and realism to stories that can only come from genuine expertise:

 1. Wikipedia: This is a standard site, of course, and I shouldn't even have to list it here. There isn't much you can't learn about on Wikipedia. However, since inaccurate research can be just as bad as no research at all (depending on your story), it is best to only use this site for non-controversial items. In other words, avoid biographical information on people who recently took a trip through the America's media sphincter. Especially if half of the country hates them. Otherwise, historical figures, city or country history and demographics, weapons, well-established scientific theories, most medical disorders, and cultural or sexual practices are often safe bets here.

2. Google: And I don't just mean the search engine, which requires just as much scrutiny as Wikipedia does, but I mean some of their other products. Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View (which is part of Google Maps) are some of the most invaluable tools for learning about geographical locations. Street View in particular is incredible, because it literally takes you up and down the streets in a first-person view, as if you were riding along in a car. Granted, this is not available yet in all areas of the country, but it's spreading. It was not only able to see what the route to the Golden Gate Bridge looked like coming north on Hwy 101, I was also able to completely explore Topeka, KS for another story, as well as an assortment of other small towns throughout the plains states. Most of us can't afford to travel directly to the places where our stories take place, and if you are getting tired of setting all of your stories in the place you live, then Google Street View is the next best thing. You don't have to write about everything you see, but you can get a general feel for the place and let it indirectly influence the tone of your writing.

 3. How Stuff Works: This site is another plethora of knowledge, and it isn't only for mechanical or chemical stuff. You can learn about everything from strange medical diagnoses to internal combustion engines to the Mayan calandar. Very comprehensive and reader-friendly, you can spend hours on this site, even when you're not researching. Assuming you're as nerdy as I am, anyway.

4. Industry websites/blogs: If you are writing a story about filmmaking, a political campaign, or a particular sport, chances are somebody has a blog about it. This can be almost as good as conducting an interview. A friend of mine is currently writing a story about hockey, and his time spent reading player blogs taught him a lot about the culture of the sport, and he's already a big fan. When I was writing a story about a political strategist, I spent a lot of time on political activist message boards that were full of people who worked on campaigns. They had video, pictures, and knew a lot about policy and the inner-workings of campaigns that I never would have found through traditional media.

5. YouTube: Although this is one of the biggest timesuckers known to man (other than Facebook, of course), it can be a valuable resource of visual information. For instance, when I was doing some light research on mail carriers, I was able to find several videos (mostly local news stories) that were human interest stories for small-town mailmen. That provided anecdotal information as well as the visuals I needed. It was almost as good as shadowing someone. Just make sure to leave before you click on the link of the latest awesome cat video.

6. Thesaurus.com: I avoid using a thesaurus 95% of the time, but sometimes the word you need just isn't there at all. You're having a brainfart or you're trying to write on two hours of sleep or a hangover, or maybe you're trying to be alliterative and can't think of any words that mean "awesome" that begin with the letter "h." In some cases, you've already used the same rudimentary word three times on the same page and you need something different! That, in my opinion, is what a thesaurus is for. Don't dig deep into one looking for something that you think will impress your readers with your prodigious patois. It has the effect of going to the dentist and having only one of your teeth cleaned and bleached while the rest are left yellow.

 Just Ask: Don't be afraid to make phonecalls or send a personal email to the experts. Identify yourself as a writer doing research for a novel, and that you'd love their unique input or--if they had the time or the ability--a tour or a chance to follow them around for the day and observe. You will be amazed that people are not only willing to give you their input, but are also enthusiastic about it. According to many potential experts I've spoken to about this, a lot of them secretly hope they'll get to be a character in your story. They think there is a cool mystique about the craft and love having a hand in it. If you happen to have friends who are knowledgeable in your particular subject, you might also ask if they would want to read your story and mark any elements that are too fantastical to convince even laypeople.

There are many ways to make your story rich with detail and give it an air of authenticity that, along with your skills at weaving fiction and suspending readers' disbelief, will make it an unforgettable read. The key is in time management. Don't get hung up for two hours on an otherwise inconsequential detail. Your job is to focus on your story, and 99% of the time that's what your readers will care about most, especially if it's fiction you're telling. Don't be afraid to take liberties either. So maybe there isn't really a deli on the corner of 35th and Main in New York City. Hell, maybe there isn't even a 35th and Main intersection. In your story there is. It's called taking creative license. You may offend a few New Yorkers, but I think they're pretty well used to it by now. As long as the detail in queston isn't preposterous (like polar bears in the South Pole), you're good.


  1. No polar bears in the South Pole? Pshaw! Next you'll tell me that penguins aren't in northern Canada. Hel-LO! It's the ARCTIC! Everybody knows that!

    Seriously though, great post on the topic of research. Did you spend a lot of time tracking down the various links? ;)

  2. hahaha... Not as much as you might think. :)

    I have spent more time, however, correcting my typos and other mistakes in this particular blog entry. Note to self: don't blog with droopy eyelids.

  3. I went on an astronomy website for a question about stars and it was enough to tell me my idea was fundamentally flawed. Another time I asked for help on an urban spelunking website and got lots of great feedback - once I'd convinced people I was serious.

    Another time I wanted some ideas for setting for an Urban Fantasy novel, places where mystical beings might inhabit, but that were otherwise normal landmarks in Belfast. So I went on a local forum and asked where you might find fairies in Belfast. Can't go back to that forum.