Most novels require some sort of research.
If you’re writing a novel set in a different historical period, obviously you need to do a lot of research.
But regardless of what genre of novel you’re writing, things come up that you need to investigate.
Even with fantasy, although you can always just make everything up.
How Do You Milk A Snake?
For example, your protagonist may be making a soufflé, so you need to find out how to make one so it sounds authentic.
Or you’ve decided that one of your characters will be a snake milker, and as you know very little about how to milk snakes you google 'snake milking.'
Yes, it is an actual job.
From there, you find an interesting article on the history of snake milking and the story of Sam the Snake Milker who’s been bitten thousands of times while milking snakes and has the scars to prove it.
This then leads to an article about which drugs are made from snake venom.
Which then directs you to a story about a farmer who was rushed to hospital by helicopter after being bitten by a snake, and was saved in the nick of time by an injection of anti-venom.
All very fascinating and will no doubt make you a hit at your next dinner party, but you probably only need a quarter of that information to write your character convincingly.
We writers call it going down the research rabbit-hole.
How To Do Research For A Story
Without trying to sound too glib, doing research for a story depends on the story.
This is essentially what can lead you down the rabbit hole of which you must be remain aware, lest you lose a few days of your existence.
I love research, and I think most writers do, because you find out so many interesting things you may not have learned otherwise.
Here are some of the things I’ve learnt as a result of research for my novels:
Things I've Researched For Books
01 Things That Go Bang
More about guns and bombs than I will ever need to know.
02 Finding People
How to trace an adopted relative.
03 Animal Husbandry And Farming
Everything I ever wanted to know about llama farming, but was afraid to ask.
This was for a novel that I abandoned, but I am keeping the information because you never know…
04 Using Drugs - Research Purposes Only
How to snort cocaine, what it feels like to snort it, what are the effects, how to tell when someone has used it.
In fact, I’ve googled ‘effects of cocaine’ so many times I’m expecting the CIB officers on my doorstep any time.
05 Methods Of Dispatch
How to poison someone and get away with it.
If you want to know, you’ll have to wait until my next novel Murder Undone is published in May.
My partner often directs nervous glances my way at meal times.
Researching Characters And Crimes Old School
In my novel, my protagonist goes back 20 years in time, from 2015 to 1995, and commits a crime, so a lot of my research involved going on a nostalgia trip back to the 1990s.
Obviously I was alive then – I was 40 and raising a family – so I can rely to a certain extent on my memory.
But I found I had forgotten so many aspects of daily life in the 90s.
Like, what sort of food was popular, what TV shows did we watch, what music was playing on the radio.
Also, who were the movie stars in the news, all the popular culture stuff that’s important for the background and setting of the novel.
The main difference between 1995 and today was the lack of instant connectivity.
The internet was still very new – the average man in the street didn’t have access.
I remember getting dial-up in about 1999.
So of course no social media, and until the end of 1995 mobile phones were still bricks that required you to be of Amazonian proportions to carry them around.
So people went to the library to get information and used public phone boxes if they weren’t at home.
In that sense life was simpler and easier to write about, and not having the instant contact between people suited the narrative of my novel.
Those Were The Days
And once I started doing the research, all the memories of life in the 90s flooded back.
I remembered CDs, cameras, photo albums, videos and video cassette recorders.
Plus Gameboys, floral leggings, (no-one, I repeat no-one, looks good in floral leggings) and huge bookstores.
Then there was American sitcom Friends, high-waisted jeans, bike shorts, the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and grunge music and fashion.
Princess Diana worship, the beginning of the coffee culture, women’s magazines that actually contained articles worth reading, Poptarts, and the Macarena… the list goes on.
The thing about the nineties is that it’s long enough ago to warrant reminiscing and nostalgia and for the Gen Ys, it was their childhood.
They’ll be telling their grandchildren about the ‘good ole days, back in the 90s.’
Research Procrastination – Another Rabbit Hole
Because it’s so enjoyable, writers often use research as a procrastination tool to avoid starting their novel.
At some point you have to tear yourself away and start writing.
Stopping your novel to research a point can also be dangerous and send you back into a maze of irrelevant information and time wasting.
When I come to a topic I need to know more about, I will often write RESEARCH in the spot as a placeholder.
Then I write what I think are the facts and come back to the research later when I’ve finished the draft.
Author Joanna Penn has a great article about How To Research Your Novel in which she highlights the importance of recognising procrastination.
How Far Would You Go For Research?
And so far, I’ve only mentioned armchair research.
Many writers go out and get real life experience for maximum authenticity, learning how to shoot firearms, scuba dive, even fly a helicopter.
I wrote a post about this: Writer's Reseach - How Far Would You Go?
Get thee to a winery
But as I’m a bit of a wimp when comes to physical pursuits, I’ll stick to Mr Google.
Unless I write a novel set in a winery…
Have you ever been impressed by the amount of research that’s gone into a novel?
Or fallen down the rabbit hole yourself?
Let me know in the comments box below.
Even editors can get sidetracked down the rabbit hole when researching to see if an author’s facts are correct. When I look up and find two (or more) hours have passed, I have to try to figure out when my paid fact-checking efforts actually ended and the rabbit hole began. Thank goodness for browser history! 🙂
Yes, fact checking is another way of getting side-tracked – sometimes I’m pretty certain of a fact but just have to double check to make absolutely sure. Meanwhile, back at the ranch… my muse is waiting, tapping her foot impatiently.
I definitely enjoy research, and I enjoyed your post greatly, except for one tiny detail. Fantasy can (perhaps should?) demand a fair bit of research, as well, especially fantasy set in a semi-historical setting. Things like the value of textiles in a medieval setting (very, very precious), the capabilities of a horse (it’s not a grass-fueled sports car), or the required balance of farmers/cultivated acres to aristocrats can jolt a reader right out of a fantasy story if badly handled. (Much of my misspent youth involved working on a horse ranch; fantasy characters who ride at a gallop all day and ‘picket the horses to graze’ at night bother me deeply.) Even an urban fantasy about vampires or dragons should consider how much it would take to keep one of those creatures fed, and build the underlying mythos accordingly. (Did you know a vampire bat can eat its weight in blood in a single feeding? Blood’s not terribly nutritious, people tell me. If the vampire is magically nourished by life force or something, that’s great, but then the writer should decide how that works and keep some consistency.)
I write fantasy and science fiction, and jump down the research rabbit hole often. I try to do the base reading while I’m working on the concept and outline (usually while I’m actively writing the previous project), so what I learn can shape the plot. I read quite a bit already; picking non-fiction that suits the next story is easy enough. One story I’ve been contemplating for almost 15 years still has me reading higher-dimensional topology texts, trying to work out the implications of a four-dimensional cube. I’ve learned to spin thread on a spindle. (That one turned into a hobby I adore for its own sake.) I’ve spent weeks reading period cookbooks, sorting out food seasonality and historic prices, and then made some of those recipes at home. I’ve learned to shoot. (A rifle and a recurve bow; I’m in Canada, and handguns are hard to come by.) I learned to crew a sailboat (I loved that, but it’s an expensive hobby.) I learned to butcher a pig. (Now, that skill has come in handy – I can get excellent prices on sub-primal cuts of meat if I’m willing to break them down myself.) I investigated historic dyes, and dyed wool using a variety of local plants. My husband has suggested that I originally got an engineering degree to give me a boost with science fiction ideas, but I’m not admitting to that one.
Most of the really interesting things I might count as ‘research’ weren’t originally intended as research. I was in a Polish castle on vacation… and got a particularly interesting set of ideas from the architecture. I went to see an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts as a weekend getaway with my husband, and came up with a great antagonist. I spotted an old house when I was visiting my mother, and suddenly, there’s an urban fantasy revolving around it. I go down the rabbit hole on purpose afterwards, of course, but the actual trips or museum visits were only accidentally research.
While I’m working on a first draft, I try to limit research during my writing time. I’m glad I’m not the only one who puts notes about things to look up in the text. (I start the notes with a double asterisk, so I can find them all easily with a search later on.) I do the same thing when I realize some location needs an appropriate name or some other potential time-waster. (For me. I’m terrible at coming up with names.)
Hi Nicole, I stand corrected about the need for research in fantasy, not being a writer of it myself. You’ve done some fascinating things in the name of research – you could write a book about them! I could take or leave the butchering of a pig, and as for the implications of a four dimensional cube…my head’s spinning already! 🙂
We’ve been referring to it as “research lock”. Given that the group I’m in leans heavily sci-fi (though we’ve got our crime, fantasy, and heaving bosoms, to be sure), you can image the research questions that fly back and forth on a regular basis.
I like that term – research lock. And how great to have some research buddies!
Great article, Robin. I love doing research for novels, I like the fact that the writing pushes me into areas I would never have normally considered. As well as online research into all kinds of subjects for my mystery/suspense novels, I’ve taken criminal law and forensic courses, I’ve also been to two Writer’s Police Academies where writers can learn all manner of fascinating information about police and emergency worker procedures from the professionals. Once I even got to go on a ride-along. I’ve interviewed detectives and psychotherapists, all for the sake of making my novels as accurate as possible. I like trying out new activities or going to new places – who knows where you will find the next plot!
As you say though, you have to make sure you still find time to do the writing.
Thanks, Mel. You’ve done some fascinating things – and as you say, a great way to get new ideas for novels. The Writer’s Police Academy sounds particularly interesting.
I’m about 80 percent done with a novel that has required lots of rabbit hole research trips. Today’s google search was about how to bake scones. yesterday I consulted a real live artist (also named Carol Cronin) to find out how she would start a painting. All fun, but what a time sink!
How uncanny that the artist has the same name as you – and it’s not a common name. (I feel a new idea for a novel coming on!) I have also had to consult experts and it’s a great way to meet potential new readers – I always offer them a free copy of my book in exchange for their help.
Thank you for the reminder not to get TOO involved in research. Luckily, I am not a known procrastinator, but just last week, I stumbled into a maze of research that took me away from my daily writing. For the first time ever! I’ll admit, the research was totally fun, and I deserved a bit of a break . But I do feel I wasted the opportunity. Won’t happen again! As an aside, I do what you do, only instead of writing RESEARCH, I write MORE HERE. Sometimes “more” refers to research, sometimes it refers to setting, which I always wait until the end to write. In any case, all writers should research to an extent. It really is one of the best parts of being a writer. Thanks for the insight!
I agree, Leslie, I have learnt so much through research and sometimes I also rationalise it by saying I deserve a break. I have found setting a timer a useful tool – give myself half an hour, then back to writing.