5 Types of Research for Your Novel

06092019 Writing Club

This month in the Witty Nib Writing Club, we’re looking at research! I’m hoping this is fun enough, and you can join in the prompt here. I’d love to see your participation!

5. Historical Research

This is a very fun type of research to do because you get to read stories about people who lived in the past. Long-time readers of my blog know my time period of choice, and you can expect that I’m fair at looking up information on it. That being said, I don’t have a degree in history, so take me with a grain of salt.

Something I like to do with historical research is look up historical sites and find recommended books from their website. Even better, you can visit – most of the time, historical sites have at least one historian working there who can help you really get into the way of things. I’ve been to the USS North Carolina battleship museum multiple times, and I love what I learn there.

If you are studying a period of history before the stupid “1924” public domain year (though, luckily, that cutoff is actually moving again), the Gutenberg Project is a trove of good info. I have found several 19th century books that help me with my research, and that’s fantastic!

Also, there’s video. I’ve mentioned the ration reviewer YouTube before, and that’s incredibly helpful if you’re doing a war-focused story (sorry, civilian rations aren’t as common on those channels). If you’re looking at 18th (and some 19th) century information, Townsends on YouTube is so good. For my focus, I’ve also loved the BBC series Lords and Ladles, which looks at how to make 19th-century feasts.

Do you have any advice on historical research? I’d love your comments!

4. Science Research

This is my day job, so I do this all the time. There’s a few things I find important about research for science fiction, and the main one is science communication is garbage.

Science writing is very different from literary writing in that many fields purposefully use convoluted language, esoteric buzzwords, and horrifyingly stupid organization. Beyond that, “peer-reviewed” science writing is often in journals behind ridiculously expensive paywalls (something like $40/article, in certain cases) if you’re not at a company or school with general access to journals. Beyond that, these articles require a reader to have a certain amount of background information and access to other information in order to understand any paper, even at a basic level.

A graduate student takes about 6 months of training to get up and running in one (1) field.

So what can a normal person do to get up on the new research?

Pop science articles can be helpful to find a subject to research further. Often, once you establish a subject to start with, you can go to a library or do further research on the internet. Sometimes, authors of a journal article will pay the publisher to have their article be open access, and you can read it. Seminal papers are also often free to access. For important science info that will help you build a sci-fi story, this should be adequate (and people who give unsolicited advice otherwise are probably just trying to show off). Accurate scientific knowledge is helpful, but most people do not have access to information and can’t refute you.

You can also try to find a scientist in the field willing to work with you. If you email professors, you can ask if there are graduate students willing to help. It’s probably better to email someone in the departmental office to ask their grad students in general, and even then you need someone special to happen to read that email.

Beyond that? Lobby your congressman to force scientific information be more readily available to everyone. The scientific publishing industry is a scam, and everyone knows it.

3. Etymology

Once you start researching etymology for your writing, you won’t stop.

If you’re doing historical fiction, etymology becomes essential to making your dialogue distinct and timely. One of my favorite old-timey words is “poltroon”, a 19th-century word for “coward”. Because it came from Italian to French and coward came from an older French, we can assume that “poltroon” carries out a very specific function in only a small time window. When the word came into English, the French were very powerful and culturally influential, which implies this word may have also had a haughty air to it.

The subject can help you determine how to regionalize your speech, how to add nuances that you might not have been aware of, and more.

2. Locations and Climates

It’s a pretty famous fact that Stephanie Meyer had never been to Forks, Oregon before writing Twilight, which takes place in that sleepy little town. Yet, you can tell there’s been a lot of research into the town because she does describe things that seem realistic (I’ve never been to Oregon, can’t confirm).

And now, with the internet being basically ubiquitous, you can look up info on almost anywhere.

  1. You can get basic info on almost any small town off Wikipedia.
  2. You can digitally walk through many towns (and rural areas) using Google Street View. This is one of my favorite ways to get inspiration about a town.
  3. The USDA gives a Plant Hardiness Map that’s pretty neat-o for American locations. The country you want to write about probably has a similar map available.
  4. Annual rainfall maps can be helpful to determine how wet it is. I swear, it doesn’t rain enough in books.

Beyond that, just read about your setting, read about inspiring settings, and think about how it will affect your book.

1. Diversity Based Research

Location and climate often go hand in hand with diversity based research, and there’s something we all need to realize while we’re doing it:

If we don’t live it, we probably will never get it perfect.

As a Southerner, I find books about the South written by non-Southerners always miss nuances. There’s something about being Southern that is impossible to put your finger on but absolutely necessary to make it feel right.

That doesn’t mean avoid the culture, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, etc. that other people may have a better handle on. It means realize your limitations and do your best to overcome them. Read forums, articles, books, whatever it is to help you get into the mindset as best you can.

I’ve found this type of research to be very difficult. When I’ve written about black characters (which one must when writing about the South), it’s been a struggle to get it right. Getting even the representation of hair right is difficult for white-bread me, but I do my absolute best to find advice (and, lucky for me, I did already know that hair is a difficult issue). Even little things are major elements of getting other people’s lives represented correctly.

So, for this category: do research diversity, and do include diverse characters. Be bold. Try not to make mistakes but forgive yourself for failure.

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Have you done book or story research recently? Tell me something you’ve found out – or, better yet, make a blog post about it join in the prompt here!

21 thoughts on “5 Types of Research for Your Novel

  1. joanne the geek says:

    When I wrote the flash fiction about the female pilot, I was aware of the program that had women flying planes to airbases during World War Two, but I didn’t know its name or much detail about it, so I had to look the program up and eventually found a couple of good online articles about it. I also had to read up on the Soviet “Night Witches” since they were briefly mentioned in the story I wrote, just to make sure they did actually exist. In the end it was quite involved research for a 99 word story.

    A lot of my degree was in medieval European history so I luckily I still have a lot text books and other ones that cover the period. When I was writing My Life in Darkness and Astrid gives her account of how she became a vampire I was able to consult a couple of books on Vikings I have since I needed her account to be authentic and historically accurate. That said, it was accurate according to the books I have, but books like that can date remarkably quickly as new discoveries and understandings occur. For example recently they’ve found viking graves are around 50% women, which means that raiding expeditions were done by both sexes and that changes our understanding of Viking society quite a lot. Often at times when history books are written there are prevailing thoughts and ideas of the period they’re writing about, and many times at some later date these thoughts and ideas can often found to be wrong, or at least inaccurate. We’re still uncovering a lot of stuff about the past, and while history books, no matter what age they are, can give you a good overview of the time period, if you’re needing to be more specific it’s best to consult the more recent ones, or even articles in journals if you have access to them. That’s probably the best advice I can give for historical research.

    Sorry I didn’t mean to go on…

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      1) OMG NIGHT WITCHES – great song by Sabaton about them, if you like metal. But I think I may have mentioned that in the comments of the short, haha.

      2) You clearly researched Astrid very well – I never doubted her Norwegian (it was Norwegian, right?) heritage, and it seemed like she was out-of-time. Very well done.

      3) Viking facts are cooool! Don’t worry about going on too long. 🙂

  2. crispina kemp says:

    Don’t start me on historical research. Last time I was lost for years!!! As for etymology… I ended up conversing with the Proto Indo-Europeans and then had to research ancient DNA results to uncover who they were.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Oh wow, that’s pretty deep! Luckily for me, I like to focus on American history. Unluckily for me, keeping written records wasn’t really an activity most native tribes did, so the history we know only goes back so far. I’m really finding it difficult to understand the experience of early American settlers and colonists *because* I can’t understand the native sentiments, drives, languages, and cultures as well due to lack of information. Sucks!

      • crispina kemp says:

        There’s a book… I’m trying to remember the title. Something about The Five Nations, which really opens the door on early settlers and their relationships with the native cultures, how the French enlisted them to fight against the Brits… and probably vice versa. But it needs a strong stomach to read.

      • H.R.R. Gorman says:

        Five Nations, or Five Tribes? Because if so, the Iroquois Confederacy was SO BADASS. I’m more imbued with Cherokee history (and now I know exactly what I’m going to talk about in my next Carrot Ranch article. OMG thank you!).

  3. Jules says:

    I like looking up things that interest me. But I deal more in emotions – that mostly I’ve had some experience with. I use imagination and what I see or have seen with regard to place settings. If I had the time and energy I think I’d enjoy writing longer pieces of fiction. But I’m a poet at heart and my verse usually isn’t any more than a page long… So I cram in what I can.

    Good info here to book mark. Thanks.

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