Research your novel – what matters?
Research your novel – but what do you ultimately need to know?
If you’re an author or you like to write, this is probably an issue you’ve encountered. Questions like “What would a mercenary be paid for a silver tray in 1884?” pop up during your writing and you turn to research. But then the thought hits you. Is it even really relevant for your story? If that sounds familiar, maybe this blogpost can be of some help!
As a reader, I often encounter books rich in detail because authors have researched their themes, worlds etc. Sometimes though, the story can end up drowning in too much information, making the plot muddy and irrelevant. Do I really need to know how the Chinese vase looked? No, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everything. But how do you find out what to include and what to skip?
Here are a few tips for your research, when you’re working on a new novel.
This might end up being a longer blogpost, so maybe now is the time to refill your hot beverage of choice? 😉
Is it important?
Have you tried asking yourself that question, when writing? “Is the information I’m chasing right now, really that important? If it is, why?”.
For some writers, researching can be one of the more exciting parts of the process. (Whereas editing often isn’t!). Maybe you’re researching some particular old guns, big warships or old cake recipes. Maybe it’s relevant to the story and maybe it isn’t but you feel like it matters!
Of course, you are the only one who can really tell whether or not it actually is important information for your story. That’s why taking a break to ask yourself a few questions, can be beneficial to your writing. “Why is this important?”. Maybe you’ll find out that it’s not actually that crucial to know, before you can continue writing. Maybe that’s why you’re stuck? If you’re using research as a procrastination task, like “I NEED to know how old a penguin gets!” without it being necessary information to tell the story, then you’re just avoiding the task of actually writing anything.
Will it be included in the story?
Once you found out how and why corsets came in fashion, you need to make a decision. Is it necessary to include this information in the story? There is a huge difference between important research and information necessary to the plot.
So what’s need to know and what’s nice to know? Again, this will obviously depend on your plots and story in general. Oftentimes, you won’t need to e.g. explain how a car works. But if you have some more special or unique elements in your story, it might be a good idea to give off a few hints. Like when little Max sees a steamboat for the first time. Knowing how a steamboat works will enable you to tell the readers about this experience, in more vivid detail than if you had no idea at all.
The same goes for when your character(-s) need to find their way out of a swamp, forest, desert etc. Then it’s an advantage for the author to have done some research into the subject. In this way, as a writer, you know what is typically physically possible and what isn’t. This in turn, could help you potentially avoid some big plotholes.
To sum up a bit, not everything you research, will need to be included in the story. But a lot of it is fairly good to know in the back of your mind, when writing out the scenes.
Who is it for?
Most writers are really good at researching. But there are also a lot of writers who fall into the trap of too much information. If you want to do yourself a massive favor, find out who you’re writing for. When you include certain details, is it for the reader or for you?
Much of the research work is for the benefit of the writers themselves. In crime fiction, the author might need to know specific language about bodies and forensics. It’s also essential that they know a thing or two about evidence and trials etc. In fantasy and sci-fi, you’re often in a better position of creating your own rules.
Just remember that the reader doesn’t necessarily need quite as much information as you do, about the world you are creating. As the writer and storyteller, your job is to know as much about the world as possible, yet only revealing what is necessary, to convey the story.
Pernille, I still don’t really get it?
Okay, time for an example; J.K. Rowling wrote a story about the young wizard, Harry Potter. Most people know this one. All the books are basically about a year at Hogwarts, the magic school, as seen from Harry’s viewpoint. That is the story. The reader receives new information about this world at more or less the same pace as Harry does.
J.K. Rowling however, knows a lot more about this world, than the readers do at this point. She knows how the world works, how magic works, which rules are in place, backgroundstories for the characters etc. Using all this extra knowledge about the world she’s created, she can sneak in a lot more information, hints and references. Keeping it all relevant to the story about and around Harry, creates a natural selection in the information available, making sure that most of what the reader experiences, is indeed important. Even though a certain character or backstory is intriguing to the author, it might not be needed to convey the story.
What I’m trying to say is that you’re the “all-knowing”. It’s like telling your friends a story. It doesn’t always matter what color your shirt was or what type of train you were sitting in, for the story to be entertaining.
Research – and choose!
I always tell my sister (author Louise Lund Olesen), to be careful with choosing what to tell the reader. So that is now your task too. Pick and choose from your research results and focus on what’s going to help advance your story and your worldbuilding. You need to know why you’re doing it, because that will make your story even more clear and precise.
Research is such a big subject that I’ll most likely write more about it, here on the blog.
Would you like to read more about my thoughts on research for writers? Feel free to drop a comment below!
If you’d like to explore my other blogposts for writers, feel free to have a look at my writing collection right here>>