7 Tips on How to Research Your Novel

I’m just going to say it: I’m comfortable with the label of nerd.

More specifically, I’m a Nerdius scientifica.

Being a nerd is more accepted nowadays, what with our bulging brains and chiselled knowledge. And the reality is that us nerds have a lot to offer, like research skills.

Writing requires a lot of research and writers generally fall into two categories in this regard: those who need to learn how to research, and those who took up writing to justify those dodgy topics they’ve researched. This post will hopefully help the former. But if anyone does want to know how much slack rope you need to hang someone correctly from your homemade gallows, I have a spreadsheet calculator for you.

I stole am reblogging a post from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.

Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.

I’d argue everyone should have a BS detector. [Insert topical political joke here] But the important point to note is that a writer can’t be an expert in all topics, yet readers are likely to come from a wide background. So if you haven’t done your research thoroughly, readers who are well versed in a field will notice, which can ruin the book for them.

1) You can’t do too much research.  In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had.

This point is both true and false.

Gee, thanks Tyson.

You’re welcome!

Okay, what I mean is that while you need to have done enough research to be able to include those little details that sell the story, at some point, you have to stop researching and write the damn thing. Maybe you want to be able to accurately describe what arterial spray looks like for your serial killer novel, but you can only research that for so long before you need to put down the knife and pick up your pen.

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2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact.

Soooo, about that serial killer novel… Pure research. No experience. I promise.

Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice authors receive that you can honestly shrug your shoulders at. It’s not untrue. If you’ve been involved in something as a professional you will know it better than anyone trying to research it. But it can also be severely limiting.

Take the example used. If Star Trek understands how military flight crews operated, why did it insist on sending the most important crew members on the dangerous away missions? Aside from the chance to shag the aliens, obviously.

I think the more helpful advice is seeking help from people who know. Go to forums, discussion groups, ask friends, put out the call on social media, cultivate contacts. The internet makes us closer than ever to experts, why limit yourself to what you’ve done?

3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details.

While you CAN do research on the cheap you COULD still use your writing as an excuse for that holiday to an exotic location.* For your art. And tax write-offs.

The internet is the cheapest and best research tool ever invented. Things like Google Street View, location webpages, travel blogs, and that person you went to high school with who fancies themselves as an Influencer’s Instagram feed, all offer information from your desk. No travel required. The same applies to any other aspect of research.

But be careful. Your Influencer friend might be distorting the truth for clicks. That travel blog may have been paid content from a tourism company. And Google Street View may be tracking your data to target you with ads.** Lateral reading and critical research are key.

4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression.

You can find anything on YouTube. If you want to know about how the Earth is actually hollow and filled with shape-shifting lizards who have roles in every government and are most celebrities, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how vaccines are a secret government conspiracy by the lizard people to depopulate the planet and make the survivors docile sheep ready for the coming invasion, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how white people are being replaced as part of a globalist agenda and the only way to stop it is by becoming a Nazi, then YouTube has you covered.***

Again, lateral reading and critical research are key.

5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now.

While I agree with this point, I think people get carried away with always having a pen and paper handy. A lot of the ideas you end up writing down are rubbish. The flight of fancy comes and goes. The things you write down should be the sticky things. That thing you wanted to look up, you’ll remember it if it was actually important.

6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic.

This is good advice, particularly with internet research. It is easy to look up photos of a location. Harder to look up what it smells like, or if the road is uneven underfoot, or if arterial blood feels warm on your skin. We’ve got roughly 20 senses, so your research (and writing descriptions) should reflect that.

7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom.

This is the most important point about research, even in science. Most of it doesn’t end up on the page. Nobody cares about the lab experiments that failed, they want to know about the results from the one that worked. Nobody wants to read your detailed and accurate Linux commands the hacker types in, sudo leave that stuff out.

I think the point of research is to better understand the universe we live in. For a writer, research will help to create more believable universes for their stories. It isn’t easy to tell the difference between good and bad information. It isn’t easy to know when to stop. And it is hardest of all to not brag about how big your research is.

* Ever notice that novels by successful authors are never set in boring locations? The characters are never having the exciting chase scene through the streets of Canberra, Adelaide, or Perth Australia, they are in Paris, or New York, or London. Funny how those places are regarded as top destinations for travel.

** Maybe? Try definitely. I said may because you can run tracking and ad blockers and deny cookies. Good advice to stop some… interesting ads coming your way.

*** I’m not even covering the worst and most obviously wrong conspiracies with these examples. Not even close. Two of those three examples are getting people killed.

7 Tips on How to Research Your Novel

research

As regular readers here know, I’m a science-a-holic and love research. I actually have an archive dedicated to a minor topic for my first novel, a topic that I make passing reference to, a topic that probably has me on a watch list somewhere. It was book research, I swear!

Below is an article by Chuck Sambuchino which I stole am reblogging from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.

Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.

1) You can’t do too much research.  In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had. TA: Whilst I agree with Chuck’s point, there is such a thing as too much research for a novel. At some point you have to be writing and not researching. There will be some things that you just can’t know and some things that your readers really don’t need to know.

2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact. TA: Except that the away team was always the most important members of the crew and one poor guy in a red shirt; how does that make sense? The idea is that you get to be captain so you don’t have to go down to the planet, no matter how hot the green women are. I’ve commented before that Right What You No is not always good advice and that is what research is for. Sometimes research will be spending a day in a squad car or an overnighter in prison. Although, I don’t advise that, felonies are hard to live down.

3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details. TA: Plus we have the internet now.

4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression. TA: Just check to make sure that the video is reliable. There are some shams and woo on youtube, but that is a topic for my Mythtaken series.

5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now. TA: Same goes for inspiration.

6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic. TA: Just remember that you have far more than five senses, more like 14 to 20.

7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom. TA: Very good point. This point is all too often done with weapons or brands or street directions. No-one cares!

Since I began this discussion with a quote from a literary heavyweight of the twentieth century, I’ll end it with another: Ezra Pound said literature is news that stays news. And a novelist has nearly the same obligation for accuracy as a news writer. Your made-up world must ring true. Not even fantasy writers can completely escape reality; the old Star Trek episodes sometimes referred to real science, which made them more believable within their context. Though we invent tales that didn’t really happen, we drape them over a framework of real-life facts.

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

I love a good thriller. To me novels are meant to, first and foremost, entertain. Some flowery prose may be interesting, the relationships and settings may be fascinating, but if there isn’t any imminent danger to life, limb and puppies, then I’m likely to be throwing the book away.

Mystery, crime and thriller genres are often lumped together or confused for one another. This is kinda like cars, some people don’t know the difference between cars and will just go by colour. While it’s true that they often overlap, there’s a distinct difference: in a mystery there is a puzzle to solve, in a crime there is a crime to solve after it has occurred (although there may be others committed later in the story), whilst a thriller is all about knowing that a crime is going to be committed and the story details the prevention of it.

In an article on Writer’s Digest, Zachary Petit put forward a list by Brian Garfield. He called this the 10 Commandments of thriller writing, because you can’t have a thriller if someone isn’t breaking some rules.

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

Start with action; explain it later. TA: I especially agree with this point. I’m sick of “thrillers” that take the first half of the book to set up the action.
Make it tough for your protagonist.
Plant it early; pay it off later.
Give the protagonist the initiative.
Give the protagonist a personal stake.
Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his/hers.
Know your destination before you set out.
Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. TA: You know, like street directions and descriptions of flowers and home renovations.
For the full piece, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction” by Brian Garfield, click here.

At the 2008 Maui Writers Conference, bestselling thriller writer Gary Braver (Skin Deep) said that dread drives thrillers. You know who the good guys and bad guys are. Dull moments will lose an audience, and writers can’t afford to lose an audience, even for one page. To captivate an audience (and agents and publishers), Braver offers these 10 essential ingredients for a successful thriller.

1. You need to have a good story. Thrillers want to be thrilled. A common element in thrillers is that the protagonist will fall victim to someone else’s scheme and get stuck in a moment of dread. There are only three themes in all of literature: death and rebirth (Stephen King’s Misery); the hero slaying a dragon to restore the world to normalcy (James Bond, Indiana Jones); and the quest to make life better (The Da Vinci Code). Know which theme fits your story.

2. Write about the underdog. Tell your thriller from the point of view of the person with the most to lose. The protagonist gives the story character. Give him baggage and emotional complexity.

3. Multiple points of view can give you great range in a thriller. They allow you inside the heads of many characters, which can build more dramatic tension and irony.

4. Open your book with an action scene. Don’t put biographical information or exposition in Chapter 1 (do that later). Introduce the crime—which tells you the stakes—and introduce the hero and villain, and even some obstacles the protagonist may face.

Don’t sacrifice style—use metaphors and good language—but stick with action.

5. Early on, make clear what your protagonist wants and what he fears. You should know what the protagonist wants and how he would end the novel if he were writing it.
There are two quests: Stopping the bad stuff from happening (In The Silence of the Lambs, it’s to stop Buffalo Bill from killing) and dealing with the character’s baggage (for Clarice to be a good, professional FBI agent in a [then] male-dominated profession).

Think Cinderella: Her main quest is to get to the ball. It’s about liberation. When she gets to the ball she finds freedom.

6. Make your characters miserable. Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse. Give them grief, false hope, heartaches, anxiety and near-death experiences. We don’t want our protagonist to win until the end.

7. Your main characters have to change. It has to be an emotional change that shows growth and victory over some of his baggage. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is stronger and tougher at the end and she gets a good night’s sleep.

8. Pacing must be high: Strong Narrative Thrust. Each scene should reveal something new, no matter how slight it is. Don’t tell us about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. The villain has a ticking clock, so there’s no time to waste on pages with useless information. Short paragraphs and white space are good. Consider using cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, albeit a sudden surprise or provocative announcement.

9. Show—don’t tell. Avoid the passive voice. Use action verbs (He heard the screams in his bedroom). Avoid adverbs—they are cheesy and cheap ways of telling instead of showing. Don’t start sentences with –ing words (“He stared” vs. “Staring at the …”). Make the subject and verb close and up front in the sentence.

10. Teach us something. Make sure your audience has learned about something—an animal, medical treatment, social issue—so we walk away with more knowledge.