Research in writing is vital to create a good, solid story. Too often I have read an article or book with inaccuracies which put me off reading. No matter how insignificant it might be, if there is something you are unsure of, research it. The fact is, if your book or article has false or sketchy facts, readers are going to stumble over them and query the content of your entire story. There are many ways to research and all have their merits and flaws. The following are the ones I use the most.
- The Internet.
Merit- instantly accessible. Wide knowledge base.
Flaws- full of inaccuracies. Requires much cross-referencing.
The internet is a very useful tool, but you can’t believe everything on it. Perhaps in your story you have a girl climbing the Eiffel Tower. You think there are three hundred steps, but you are not sure. So you go onto the internet and query it. One site says there are only 200 steps, another says there are over two-thousand. So how can you be sure which one is correct?
When I research something on the internet, I usually find an official site, or cross reference the data I find with other sites. One internet site is not enough to tell you accurately how many steps there are in the Eiffel tower. But if seven sites say there are 1700 steps and only one says there are 200, it is a safe bet there are likely to be around 1700 steps in the Eiffel Tower.
The best way to uncover this kind of fact is to find an official site and check their statistics. You can even use the site to contact someone in-the-know via email. Such prominent landmarks as the Eiffel Tower have official pages and usually have some kind of information page. (Click on the picture for full size)
- The Internet.
Merit – easily accessible.
Flaws – can be expensive, need to be up to date.
Books and journals are obviously the main source of research for many people. You can buy them online, at a shop, or rent them in the library. Some libraries hold documents and many years worth of newspapers for fact checking. Unless you are writing an historical piece, you have to find the most recent version of the book so that your facts are current and up to date. Make sure the book you choose is of a reputable author or firm, otherwise you might use one which did not research their own work properly, leading to second-hand inaccuracies.
Luckily, many books are written on many subjects so you should have a lot of knowledge to pull from. One of my favourite things to do is sit in the library and create my notes. I find it such a relaxing and calming environment which is conducive to increased creativity flow.
3) People Interviews/surveys.
Merits – First hand real-life experiences.
Flaws – Intimate, recollection problems, point-of-view problems.
Speaking to someone who has experience in the thing you want to research is very useful. You can find out things that books and internet might not tell you; first hand accounts and real experiences. The problems which arise with this kind of research is usually to do with privacy or recollection issues. You might be asking very awkward questions and looking for personal details. The person you interview might not to forthcoming for these reasons.
Human memory can be capricious to the point of being useless as a reliable fact finder. People remember what they want to, not always through choice. Of course, if someone carries out or experiences the same thing every day, their recollection is more reliable than a person who might only have done or experienced something only once.
You also have the problem of negative memories creating negative facts. For example: Joe hit his head on a stool. Joe hates stools. Stools are now an annoyance and completely useless. He has a negative memory of the stool and will therefore give a slanted view on it, which isn’t helpful when you are looking for straight facts.
Another problem is the point-of-view of the person. Place five people at the scene of a crime and each of them will have seen something different. Eyewitness testimonies are an example of this, which is one reason why witnesses are cross-examined in court. Say five were present when a car careened into a bus. One might have seen the car driver on his mobile in the seconds before the crash. One might have seen the bus driver brake hard to avoid a cat crossing the road. Another might say she saw both AND a passenger shouting at the car driver. Another might have seen none of this, only heard the bang. So while a personal interview can be helpful for some facts, it’s probably not the best for fact checking. But it is good for getting real-life experiences and emotions.
When I was writing Malevolence I researched various things; the structure of the brain, criminal/forensic psychology, real-life experiences through interview and survey just to name a few. I used all of the above methods as means as well as my own personal knowledge. I backed up my knowledge by re-reading my text books and journals then cross-referenced these with up-to-date material.
By far the most intense and private research I carried out was that for the character of Kai. In order to make Kai convincingly real, I needed to know specific things for his past and background story. This involved me speaking to people about their time in a war situation.
Obviously there are things you just shouldn’t ask nor bring up, but for me to be able to understand these things, I had to ask. I am quite empathic and could pretty much guess at the information I needed, but I was lucky to have one person who not only gave me their own personal experiences of war but put me in contact with others willing to help me out.
The research was mostly carried out anonymously which allowed the involved to be a little more open. It was carried out discreetly; I did not need to know anything about them other than answers to the questions I listed. I did not need to know –and so did not even ask– about anything on how the army works, or about anything which could be considered national security. Everything I needed to know was purely about emotions and experiences, nothing more. I also did not ask for every question to be answered as there are obviously things which certain people would prefer not to remember never mind discuss.
So whatever way you conduct your research, ensure it is thorough, non-threatening, considerate, vital to your plot/characters and not invasive of people and their lives. Research anything you are unsure of or have very little knowledge of. Also, make sure your research does not breaking any laws! And of course, get any consent you need in order to use what you find.
There are probably things in Malevolence that I did not get exactly right, but I researched what I considered vital points which had to be correct. If I had not done so, I might have made some statements which were so glaringly awful that my book would be flamed to incineration.
So yes, research, research, research, and make your writing the best it can possibly be 😉