Research? The word induces a shudder. I slogged through my doctoral dissertation in the pre-Internet days. Libraries. Card catalogs. Cadging change to make copies of professional journals that couldn’t be removed from the library. Not fun.
But as a fiction writer today, I find research easy, inspiring, essential, creative and empowering in its many forms. Let’s start with Google, as I usually do. Consider this partial list of topics I explored online over the course of completing my two novels:
- Stages of decomposition
- Popular Philadelphia bars
- How to disable a car
- Statutory rape
- Questions and answers about abortion
- Drug rehabilitation programs
- All about your guinea pig
- What to do if you’re arrested
A crash course on virtually any topic, right at my fingertips! I love grounding myself in an unfamiliar subject, at least enough to write about it comfortably and convincingly. Happily, Homeland Security has yet to come pounding on my door.
But research isn’t confined to the Internet. Picking the brains of subject matter experts has helped me get a more in-depth understanding of complex subjects (the New Jersey child protection system, for instance). Visiting places in our stories helps us bring them alive for the reader. Short of actually committing murder, hands-on experience with the objects and activities we write about helps us make them real.
Of course, any writer knows the importance of immersing herself in her genre of choice. Read voraciously. Know the themes, tropes and characters out there. Genre research orients you, helps you find your own voice.
Research can also include sources on the writing process itself (as well as publishing, promoting and marketing your work). If, like me, you lack formal training in creative writing, seek out
some of the classic references. Reading The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watts jump-started my latest
thriller with stream-of-consciousness exercises that took me deeper into my characters’ heads. I
just ordered Shawn Coyne’s book, The Story Grid, hungry for further guidance on structure as I
begin my next novel.
As I wrote in my earlier post, Embrace Being Stuck, research is a key strategy writers can use
to break out of an impasse. A little knowledge can be an empowering thing!