The Writing Life- Research, Part One

Research is a part of any editing process, no matter what kind of book you’re writing. Unless you’re writing a story about your own home town and a person who does exactly what you do or used to do. This isn’t a good idea, because you’re going to be bored writing it. Even if you’ve got a super exciting job, you don’t want to write about it. If you were that interested in your day job, you’d want to be doing it and not writing.

So, get used to the idea of researching. Let’s start, with your shopping list.

1. Highlighters
2. Notebook paper
3. Tab dividers
4. Lots and lots of writing materials
5. Coffee, always
6. A strong and reliable internet connection.

Once you’ve got your materials in order, take a look at your book, and decide what you need to research. I can’t tell you what you’re going to need, because it depends entirely on your book. When I researched my first Woven book, I learned about weaving, spinning, Italy, Japan, rivers, Pittsburgh, archery, basic medical education and Krav Maga.

No matter what you research, you’ll want to keep this in mind; you don’t have to be an expert, but you need to find one. What I mean by that is when you’re researching, you want to make sure you’re learning from people who actually know what they’re talking about. In other words, don’t use Wikipedia as your only source. It’s a great starting point, but not an end point.

Speaking of sources, I like to use the same rules I learned in Journalism. Two sources are needed for any fact. I mean two reliable sources. Not everyone thinks or my friend said, unless your friend’s an expert.

Now, when you’re doing your first read through, keep a list of things you need to learn about. Then, start studying. But not the way you’d study for a test. Remember, the point isn’t to track facts and figures. It’s to evoke a feeling. You want to know enough about a fact to paint a back drop. If you’re learning about a country, look for things that make you say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” Those are the things that readers want to read. Not exactly when the land was first settled.

This process should take some time. How much time is going to depend on what you’re writing. If at all possible, do more than just read. For instance, one of my fictional countries is based on the middle east. Guess who’s learning to cook middle eastern food so that I know what my characters are eating. It’s spicy, by the way. I also bought a loom and learned how to weave. I don’t like it, but I can talk about it now and not sound like an idiot.

Oh, and be prepared to look either like a fool or a terrorist. I’ve got a secret, Broken Patterns is not my first book, it’s my fourth. My third one was a crime drama that included male rape. I had to find out how a rape kit was preformed on a male victim. It made me squirm a lot. In fact, it almost made me throw up. But I had to know.

To sum it up, here are the ground rules.

You’re writing a work of fiction, not a paper. If you’re bored, the reader probably will be too.
But when you have a fact, be sure of it. Otherwise you’ll come off as unprofessional and sloppy.
Immerse yourself in the thing you’re learning as much as you can. Hands on experience is great if sensible.
Just because you learned something cool in your research doesn’t mean you have to put it in your book.
Don’t be afraid to learn about something uncomfortable. If it makes you squirm, it will make your readers squirm, and that may be just what you’re after.
Remember, quality sources, or it’s not true. And I mean the quality part. As my husband just added, I can find two sources to prove absolutely anything from the Kennedy assassination to how the moon landing was ‘faked’.

As a final thought, remember that research can be consuming. It’s fun to learn about new things, or at least it is for me. But at the end of the day, we are writers, not researchers. We want just enough to get the idea, and then get our asses back to writing.

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