The Importance of Research for Fiction Writers
The most basic understanding of ‘fiction’ in literature is that it is a written piece that depicts imaginary occurrences. There is this unspoken assumption that fiction, because it is of imagined events, has nothing to do with reality (and therefore, research is not pertinent). This is far from the truth.
The history of fiction writing presents an inherent paradox: the most gripping of novels requires you to write of imagined events in a realistic way. If we accept literature as a way to reflect and understand the world around us, then we must also acknowledge that the best of fiction stems from reality. It may be an account of imaginary events, but is still heavily rooted in the real.
For an author, this means in-depth research about the various aspects of writing a novel, including cultural/social content, character behaviour and historical details.
Your task is (ever so slightly) easier if you are writing about situations contemporary to you. But the further you go back, through the annals of history, the harder it becomes to strive for such authenticity.
Grammar mistakes are jarring, but so are plot holes. An inconsistent story is off-putting to even the most immersed reader. So, here’s the bottom line: Don’t assume, and get your research down.
Why Is Research Important?
Because even William Shakespeare, one of the most iconic figures of literature, erred in making anachronisms. One of the most famous literary anachronisms is in Julius Caesar, in Cassius’ line
“The clock has stricken three.” (Act II, Scene 1)
The error is that clocks that “struck” were invented almost 14 centuries after the play was set!
But Shakespeare was a giant. We have forgiven these misgivings because Shakespearean literature is rich even with such minuscule errors. As for us foolish mortals, it’s probably best to do our research thoroughly.
A detailed understanding of the landscape that you are writing about is one of the most effective ways for you to draw your reader into the world you are writing about. Your extensive knowledge of your chosen topic will also give you a stable and authoritative voice in your writing.
What Should You Be Researching About?
As you might have realized by now, there are various aspects of your novel you should be researching. To start with, we’ve split them into two categories: content and form. By content, we mean the details and elements you should be focussing on within your story. By form, we mean the style and genre of writing you wish to eventually adopt. Needless to say, these two categories will begin to overlap with each other after a point as you make your story more streamlined.
A story’s setting is one of the most important elements of fiction writing. It is essentially the time and space that your narrative is set in, or the story’s backdrop. A story might have a gripping narrative and well-rounded characters, but it is incomplete without you giving a reader a sense of the place where all of it is happening. As part of your setting, you can include geographical, cultural, social and political details that you feel are pertinent to the story.
In other words, you are essentially creating a ‘world’ for your story.
These may seem like tiny details to add to your otherwise imaginary story, but these are the kind of little things that provide depth and plausibility to your story.
The worst thing you could do as a writer is to assume things. This is a misstep that is quite unnecessary and can easily be avoided with some research. The information you have already gathered while researching your setting is a good enough start. What you now need to do with all these seemingly scattered pieces of information is to make sure they do not contradict each other.
In plotting your story, you will also automatically gain an understanding of the intention and goals of your characters. In order to flesh them out and ensure that they are dynamic and interesting, research is required.
An understanding of human behaviour and nature is a very important skill for a good writer. The stereotype is a perceptive and observant writer is, in fact, due to quite a practical need! Even if your characters do not exist in reality, they should seem real enough for your readers to be able to relate to them.
Historical and Social Background
Your story world is not just the time, place and immediate surroundings of your characters. Irrespective of whether what kind of a setting your story has, it also has the larger context of the world that your characters reside in. This could be from a real point in history (like Victorian England, 1920s jazz era, etc.) or it could be completely made up (Oceania from 1984, or Panem). But irrespective of how your story world came about, it must be thorough and consistent in supporting your plot. As a writer, you must have a clear understanding of the culture and systems that your characters are a part of. A well-rooted universe also gives readers an insight to a character’s identity.
How Should You Be Researching?
- Read about what you are researching. Books, articles and other forms of print media are a great way to gather information on culture, history, and society. Biographies and memoirs are great for character insight (especially if you’re basing your book on a real person). If you’re basing your novel in the real world, you know what do do next. If you’re creating your own world, this is still a good basis for whatever you cook up within your world.
- Films and TV are also great sources for helping you develop your character as they help you understand character traits and motivation in your story. Additionally, they might also help you visualize your story.
- If you are writing about characters with a niche profession (for example), take interviews with people who are in that field. For instance, if you are writing a detective story, talk to people in your police precinct and observe their behaviour.
- If you are writing about specific locations, read up about that. Talk to people from there. In the age of the internet, there are many resources and forums where you can interact with people around the world.
- Try to visit locations you are writing about and spend some time there, to gain an insight into what life in that place is like.
- If you’re short on dough (which is completely reasonable), here is another thing you could try.
What Should You Do with Your Research
Be selective about your details. Whether or not you actually incorporate the details that you have researched, you knowing your world well will make your writing infinitely better.
Because of all the information you have amassed, there is a certain bias you acquire as an ‘expert’ on a subject. So if you include a lot of information, there is a danger of your work sounding too technical. Here is an article about how to tackle that issue, written by a writer.
Make sure that every detail you include is directly relevant to the plot. Keep it simple: and avoid unnecessary plot holes.
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