Great Novel Writing Begins with Research
Novice writers are often surprised to learn that research should be involved in all writing, whether nonfiction or fiction. The reason for research is simple: Readers are demanding and expect an air of authenticity, no matter the genre. That isn’t to say that authors should become so mired in the details that they leave off with storytelling; it simply means that to pull readers into a story and keep them there, a writer needs to use a certain amount of plausibility.
What is “a certain amount”? That, dear friends, depends upon the genre. The best way to find out exactly how much accuracy is required from your writing is to research both the genre you’re writing in and the audience you’re writing for. For a fictional story set in a fictional world, for example, you might have carte blanche. A novel set in a well-known city during a recent time period, however, will require more validity—not just in events but also in the people and places involved.
So where is the best place to find factual information, especially when your subject matter is obscure or archaic? Start with the Internet, where just about everything has a website. The following is only a very small sample of what can be found with a little bit of time and research.
a. History: http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNINTRO.html
b. Terminology: https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/docs/firearms-
2. Time Periods/Locations
a. Roman Empire: http://www.roman-empire.net
b. Tudor England: http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/index.htm
c. Victorian England: http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm
a. American Public Transportation: http://apta.com
b. American Railways: http://www.american-rails.com
c. History of Subways, Trains, and Railways:http://www.trainhistory.net
4. US Military
b. Insignias: https://www.defense.gov/About-DoD/Insignias
c. Ranks: http://www.military.com/army/officer-ranks.html
5. World History
a. Africa: http://africanhistory.about.com
b. America: https://www.historians.org
c. Russia: http://russiapedia.rt.com
d. Scotland: http://www.scottishhistory.com
No matter what source you look to, always double-check your information. Dates are often in dispute, as are quotes, and the more important your accuracy, the more digging you need to do. Also please remember that user-edited sites such as Wikipedia are a terrific place to begin your research but you should confirm any information using more reliable and traditionally accurate sources, including references in a local library, a university specialist, a historian (historians.org), a historical society, or the National Archive (www.archives.gov).
Next, a word on language: Try to keep your dialogue appropriate. While no one expects authenticity to the point of Elizabethan verbiage, neither are they likely to want to read a Roman general shouting, “Man up!” As always, remember to take your audience’s expectations into consideration and make sure you’ve hit the mark by using test, or beta, readers.
Overall, what you’re looking to accomplish is a balance between the important historical details and the inclusion of imagination. It’s a fine line, to be sure. Do readers need to know the name of a famous dressmaker in a Regency romance or the type of steel used to craft a Greek sword? Will they be interested in the origin of an idiom or the purpose of a codpiece? Only research can answer those questions, so try to view it not as an imposition but as an adventure: a way to explore, to investigate, and to take your book to places it might otherwise never have ventured.
So, in order to exploit one thing or another, you may have to do research.
You may have to find out more about Chinese immigrants, or you may have
to find out about Halley’s Comet, or whatever, where you didn’t realize that you
were going to have Chinese or Halley’s Comet in the story. So you do research
on that, and it implies more, and the deeper you get into the story, the more
it implies, the more suggestions it makes on the plot. Toward the end, the ending
becomes inevitable. (Kurt Vonnegut)