15 October 2010

10 rules for doing your research

picture by jscreationzs
via freedigitalphotos.net
"Thou shalt do you research"
As a Pattern Spotter and Theme Finder I decided that my recent struggle to get some facts right in the novel I'm currently writing, the setting I'm planning for my NaNoWriMo novel and three (Jody Hedlund, Helen Ginger for the BloodRedPencil and Mark Terry) blog posts enough to reflect a little on the importance of doing the research.
To be honest - I don't like doing research. I feel like I spend a lot of time browsing the Internet, composing fora posts, reading books, speaking to people  - and I can still get it wrong.

Here are my 10 rules for doing research (applies to fiction and non-fiction)

1. Write about what you know - you won't have to do much research, and you'll instantly know which sources are most reliable, be it books, magazines, places or experts.
Needles to say - it's my favourite rule.

2. Try to get information first-hand. If you can afford to go to a place where you want to set your novel - go, or write about places you have been too. Photographs can be helpful in getting geographical or seasonal info right. I know of authors who have enrolled on courses to have first hand experience and access to experts, or went on field trips (like Joanna Penn).
It doesn't have to be a big, serious course - a few weeks tester is sometimes enough to give you an idea, hands-on experience and some pointers. Check your local college, library or community centre for details of courses available.

3. If you have to get your information second-hand, try reliable and well tested sources first: books, libraries, librarians, experts.I have heard many positive and encouraging stories about helpful librarians all over the world (just email them; from what I've heard from other writers, librarians love being asked all these quirky details - it makes their job a little more exciting). When I was writing a short story set in a little town in northern Norway and needed some local info, I emailed the local council and got a very prompt and helpful reply.
Don't forget to mention particularly helpful people in your acknowledgements!

4. Ask your family, friends, work colleagues- people who, although not experts may have been to the places you want to write about (and have photos and little stories); attended those courses mentioned in Rule 2; or may know someone who has and put you in touch with them.
I prefer to 'innocently' steer the conversation towards the subject and weave my questions into the general conversation inconspicuously. It's happened to me that people refused to answer my questions once they knew it was for my novel or short story, often because they felt they weren't 'expert enough' to give me the information I needed (rubbish! If they weren't expert enough I wouldn't have asked them).
5. Use trusted web resourses: specialist websites, specialist fora, etc.
Writers are rarely only writers, they often have day jobs (like me), and from what I've found - they always more than happy to share their professional experience with you. And they live in different places on the planet, too. and you don;t have to pretend that this is for your cousin who's trying to adopt a disabled dog because her previous dog....

6. Use other brilliant tools available online, to mention only a few: Google Maps, photo libraries, webcameras placed in the place you're writing about

7. Use search engines wisely. Here's some advice on mastering the skill of asking the right question

8. Don't let the facts get into the way of a good story. Jody advises to "Go deep but stay narrow", Greg declared his duty to the Fiction. Ask yourself if you really need all those details in your book -can it be skipped or 'mumbled over' or happen in the background?
You can always consider getting someone to do your research, and pay for it.

9. If you're still not sure you got it right - get rid of it. Ever found any inaccuracies in a book? Have you put the book away? Well, you know what may happen if you get it wrong then.

10. Enjoy your research.
(I think I may skip this one though)

And what are your rules or trusted techniques?


  1. Good advice. Actually, I like doing research. My tip is to write about things that interest you (if you're not interested then you can't expect other people to be)

    I have a little something for you over on my blog ...

  2. Jackdowd

    I always enjoy researching facts for my book. Ten very helpful tips.

    thanks, Jack. glad you've found it helpful.
    Any tips how can I enjoy researching?

  3. Jackdowd

    I always enjoy researching facts for my book. Ten very helpful tips.

    thanks, Jack. glad you've found it helpful.
    Any tips how can I enjoy researching?