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        Research for Fiction Writers: A Complete Guide

        • calenderApr 22, 2022
        • calender 6 min read

        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 researching for a novel is not important). This is far from the truth. 

        The history of fiction writing presents an inherent paradox: the most gripping of novels require you to write of imagined events in a realistic way. If we accept literature as a reflection of 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 a writer, this means in-depth research about various aspects of novel writing, including cultural and social context, character behavior, 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 for fiction?

        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 his play 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. 

        Having a detailed understanding of the landscape that you are writing about is one of the most effective ways to draw your reader into the story world. Your extensive knowledge of your chosen topic will also give you a stable and authoritative voice in your writing.

        What should you be researching?

        As you might have realized by now, there are various aspects of your novel you should be researching. To start with, we’ve split fiction writing research into two categories: content and form. By content, we mean the details and elements you should focus 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 overlap with each other as you make your story more streamlined. 

        Setting

        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 if the reader doesn’t have a sense of where it’s all happening. As part of your setting, you can include geographical, cultural, social, and political details that you feel are relevant 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 they provide depth and plausibility to your story.

        One cool way to get a lowdown on these intricate spatial details like roads, mountains, hills, monuments, and other geographical landmarks is through tools like Google Maps and Street View. This is especially useful if you have to write about a place you can’t visit or you simply want to get geographical descriptions right.

        Plot

        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.

        Character details and human behavior

        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 behavior and nature is a very important skill for a good writer. The stereotype of 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 what 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 whether you’re writing historical fiction or creating a new world altogether, it must be thorough and consistent in supporting your plot. As a writer, you must clearly understand the culture and systems that your characters are a part of. A well-rooted universe also gives readers an insight into a character’s identity.

        Writing style and genre 

        If you are writing a novel in a particular genre, it’s important to be aware of writing conventions and tropes commonly used in that genre. The best, and most obvious, way to do this is to read novels and stories in your genre of choice. Look at the top-rated and critically acclaimed books and study them carefully. Be critical in your study, try to understand the author’s creative writing process, and look at the style and tone they try to evoke. 

        Aside from this, you could also take a look at books about novel writing in general. These will give you general, but useful information about novel writing, like when to write long descriptions and when to cut straight to the action.

        How should you be researching?

        • Read about what you are researching. Books, articles, and other forms of print media are great ways 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 to 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 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 behavior.
        • If you are writing about specific locations, read up about that. In the age of the internet, there are many resources and forums where you can interact with people around the world.
        • Try to visit the locations you are writing about and spend some time there, to gain an insight into what life in that place is like.

        Incorporating research into fiction

        Be selective about your details. Whether or not you actually incorporate the details that you have researched, 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 the subject of your story. So if you include a lot of information, there is a danger of your work sounding too technical.

        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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        Author

        Chetna Linkedin

        Chetna is a child of the internet. A writer and aspiring educator, she loves exploring digital media to create resources that are informative and engaging. Away from the writing desk, she enjoys cinema, coffee, and old books.

        4 comments on “Research for Fiction Writers: A Complete Guide

        1. John says:

          I could not resist commenting. Very well written!

        2. Charlotte Stone says:

          Thanks for sharing this valuable information, it is a really helpful article! I really appreciate this post.

        3. Vardhaman says:

          Hope to see more content from your website.

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