#6: Research… Learn it. Then disguise it.

A blog reader asked me a question about research: how much is enough and what do you do with it all? How do you – as an author – keep from disappearing down a rabbit hole of endless information? Excellent question! And one that applies to every genre. The quick answer: plot is first, research is second.

When you write about something that interests you, then finding out as much as you can about your subject is fascinating! Go ahead, enjoy yourself. But understand that 90% of what you learn won’t be written into your manuscript.

As much as you would love to tell your readers all the obscure tidbits that you’ve gleaned, or make certain they understand exactly how a certain task is accomplished, if it’s not an integral part of your plot, you can’t. No “info dumps” allowed!

Your research goes into the details.

Details in the physical setting such as:

  • Clothing, food, housing
  • Occupations & education
  • Weather & geography

And in your characters:

  • Language & word choice
  • Inner monologue & cultural attitudes
  • Available options & choices made

Earlier this year I read a book where the plot was built around actual events. The first half of the book was amazing! I was captivated by the vibrant and exotic world the author described. Sadly, the plot was completely lost in the second half amidst a two-decade-encompassing “info dump” describing the social inequities of the time and place. Hm. Won’t read that author again.

So where do you research?

One of the best tools is Google, hands down. If I had to heave myself off to a library and dig for every bit of information I needed, I wouldn’t be writing historicals! Now, if I want to know what day of the week May 13, 1752 was, I can simply Google “Calendar 1752” and see for myself. Phases of the moon? Ditto. It’s almost too easy.

Which is why you should never, ever rely on Wikipedia.

Some people get their kicks by going on Wikipedia and altering random information. Wikipedia can be a safe source for some things – like the kings of Denmark in chronological order with dates, because who messes with that? But I wouldn’t use some delicious little morsel I picked up there without cross-referencing it with several reputable sources!

How do you find those sources? The best way is to ask authors who write in your genre. How do you meet authors? Join an author’s organization or two.

Every genre has organized groups of authors. Check their websites: are they professional and up-to-date? Do they have published authors as members? Do they list book signings, workshops, or other events indicating that they are an active group dedicated to your well-being as a writer?

Find the closest geographical group and go to their meetings. Get involved. People will help you when you help them. And when you’re published, they’ll be your cheering section!

Online writer’s groups can offer additional support and opportunities for advice, workshops and conferences. Online discussion is continuous, not relegated to monthly meetings. And it can happen at home in your pajamas. Whatever you do, join somewhere! The support and information you’ll receive are crucial to your success.

Here are a few links to genre-specific organizations to get you started. Happy hunting!

Romance Writers of America   http://www.rwanational.org/

Mystery Writers of America   http://www.mysterywriters.org/

Science-Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America   http://www.sfwa.org/

Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal   http://www.romance-ffp.com/

Historical Novel Society   http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/

Inspirational/Christian   http://www.acfw.com/

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators   http://www.scbwi.org

1 Response to “#6: Research… Learn it. Then disguise it.”

  1. 1 Vicki Bendau 12/17/2009 at 1:40 PM

    Hi, Kris:

    I would urge any writer to join the ASU library as a community borrower. It isn’t cheap, I think $100 for a year, but it gives you access to the entire ASU library system. You can go there and email and download unlimited articles from thousands of online journals, then at the end of the day, check out as many books as you can carry.

    The CD version of the Oxford English Dictionary is really fun for playing with language and finding good words. A new edition was just released within the past year. For around $250 it makes a great last-minute Christmas gift from Amazon.


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