7 Tips for Conducting Research for a Book
Research helps ensure your book rings true with readers. Learn how to get started here.
Book research seems like an obvious and necessary task for murder mysteries and detective novels. Characters need to know how to kill someone and get away with it (or think they will). But knowing the world of your story is important for any book. Yes, if you are writing fiction, and a lot of it is made up. However, real-world settings require authentic details to give validity to your novel.
Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than an obvious inaccuracy. If their trust in the book is called into question over a small fact, readers may put it down. Worse, they might give it a bad book review on Amazon, Goodreads, or another retailer, all based on a technicality.
An author friend of mine was writing a scene taking place in Germany and had the main character buy a pitcher of beer for the table. Luckily a sensitivity reader caught the faux pa, pointing out that in Germany, beer is served in steins or glasses (reference any Oktoberfest visual) not in pitchers. That’s a North American tradition.
The need to conduct research is not limited to contemporary stories. Even if your fantasy novel plays by different rules, it’s important to understand magic systems, and understanding actual scientific principles may help inform where and how you break the rules. Writing sci-fi might mean knowing how to design systems to survive vacuum, or a lack of gravity. Horror stories need realism checks on how long a person can stay conscious underwater, blood related details or psychological analysis for characters. Anything written with a historical timeframe has to have facts underpinning the scenery and players.
If you’re writing a nonfiction book, research can help back up your arguments. Even if you’re writing about your own personal experiences, quantitative data can help show your conclusions are backed by data, or that your experience isn’t an anomaly. Be sure to include proper citations to your sources.
The research process might seem tedious and irrelevant. It can take a lot of time, depending on the complexity of the topic. You want to write, not go back to school. But don’t underestimate the importance of setting the proper backdrop, exposing the unique attributes of your character’s physical, mental, or emotional traits and building a richer world for your story.
Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, self-publishing or seeking traditional publication, it’s important to get as factual details correct the first time. Taking the time to research up front can save you time in the creative writing process. When editing that first draft, you can focus on plot, characters, and sentence structure without worrying about whether those fine details you researched are accurate or not. (Or worse, having to rewrite whole sections of a book if you learn you got something critically wrong.)
“No research without action, no action without research.“
- Kurt Lewin
5 Benefits of Book Research
- Readers will focus on your plot and characters when clear, correct, and specific details are included in the writing. They stay grounded in the story, glued to your tale.
- Your writing may increase in speed. You know the elements at play thanks to your due diligence, so your mind is not distracted by what ifs or on how to work out a situation.
- Believe it or not, researching a topic might inspire you. Many times, in my own writing, reading up on a specific detail leads to a new scene, an intriguing plot point, or a deeper connection to the theme of the story.
- Your research might put you into a scenario, a bit like the metaverse, allowing you to see the possibilities.
- A little prep work up front may increase your speed of writing as you know your facts and don’t have to stop in the midst of a sprint to fact check a detail.
- Your research topic might inspire ideas you can bring to your next book, even if they don’t turn out to be relevant to your current project.
“Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.”
― Robert McKee
The Big Picture
Consider the world your book takes place in and the implications of each of the following:
- Time period. Where in the history of your world does the story take place?
- Time of year. Does your world have seasons? Annual events? Weather patterns?
- Location. Does the book take place in a big city, countryside, ocean, mountains, space, off-world?
- Character details. What does your character do for a living? What are their likes, dislikes, habits, illnesses, go to phrases, physical attributes, etc.?
- Social Structure: How do the beings in your book relate to one another? Are their hierarchies? Social norms?
7 Research Opportunities
1- Read up on it
Various forms of reading help you improve multiple areas of your writing. Whether it’s stories in your genre, biographies on your subject matter, tales that help with the big picture items above or the business of writing books, reading is a natural go-to. If you are a writer, you are most likely a reader too, so this should come naturally.
Pro-Tip: Goodreads has user-generated lists of books in their Listopia section. Here you can enter keywords and get a range of books with similar themes.
2- Use your local library
You may not want to buy every historical book on Abraham Lincoln, and at the beginning of your research, you may not know what you want to focus on. A trip to your local library is a good starting point to assess what you should read. Borrowing the books you need is a great way to access the information without a high cost.
Pro-Tip: Librarians are a great source of information and may be able to point you toward resources you might not have found on your own.
"Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life."
3- Google it
Yes, doing a Google search is the default “Plan A” for most of us. Vast amounts of information can be found through search engines. Start with the basics and then refine your search. For example, if your character gets called for jury duty, go to government resources first, then refine to local or personal stories. Use a variety of search terms to discover different resources and go beyond the first few results Google provides. Writing a chase scene set in Paris? Consider using Google Maps to plot the route to make sure it’s plausible. A street view could alert you to interesting shows or local details to reference in your writing.
The internet is a powerful tool, but be careful. Be sure to check your sources, then double and triple check them. Opinions abound and not every source is legit. Even Wikipedia can be biased or misleading.
“Google' is not a synonym for 'research'.”
― Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol
4- Listen and Learn
Podcasts have exploded in popularity recently, and it feels like there is one for every topic. The beauty of most podcasts is they have outlines for most episodes so you can target your subjects. Plus, you can fast forward to the relevant sections and revisit as needed.
5- Talk to an expert
Ask your friends and contacts for connections to real people who live in the places in your book, or have first-hand experience with / are currently employed in the areas your characters have jobs in. Ask for a short video chat or conference call. Ensure you have questions prepared in advance in order to be respectful of their time. A good idea is to ask if you can record the session. This gives you the time to focus on the conversation, not scrambling to take notes. And most of all, thank these experts for their time.
Can’t connect with an expert? Try social sites like Clubhouse, where you can join live groups discussions that have experts in the field who are willing to give their time to a topic. You can ask pointed questions and get answers in real time.
Even social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok or IG are options where you can ask for help. Start with commenting with a question on a relevant post and then using direct messaging if you get a response.
Pro-tip: Some experts might even want to talk about their passion on an IG live, helping to promote themselves and you while offering your fans more access to your stories.
“The best research you can do is talk to people.”
- Terry Pratchett
6- Field research
If you are lucky enough to be close to an aspect related to your story, visit it! For a story on space, go to a museum or observatory. Writing about dinosaurs taking over the earth? Visit a museum, or go to a zoo and study the behavior of modern birds and reptiles. Historical fiction writers might take a trip to the location where their story takes place, or any local historical site for inspiration.
Think out of the box. If your book takes place in Italy, find a local Italian restaurant.
If you can’t visit somewhere, see if someone else has. Research YouTube for tours, shows, documentaries on the subject.
7- Document it
Research means shifting through chunks of content, some of which will be relevant, some not so much once you sit down to write. Don’t rely on your memory to keep this information locked away. Write it down.
Find a structure to document the significant attributes you want to remember. Not all of them will make it into your story, but having a good reference section to refer to in times of need is important. Some options include:
Keep a journal – everything in one place, make sure to note the source of the fact in order to recall it later if needed
- Use index cards - color code them by topic or character for easy sorting
- If you own a book you’re reading to research a topic, consider using highlighters to mark key passages, or jotting down page numbers to make those sections easy to find again later.
- Dedicate a wall – decorate it with visuals to keep your world top of mind
- Keep it organized - use folders and subfolders as needed to keep relevant information together.
- Create a Pinterest Board – choose the private setting for you or make it public and let your readers get an in-depth look at your world.
- Use a Character Profile template or make up your own
- Use writing software like Scrivener, Evernote, or OneNote to pull in visuals, links, and content
Perfect is the enemy of progress
At some point, too much information may bog you down. In your effort to master the art of making the perfect martini, you might end up in a debate about shaken vs stirred, gin vs vodka, olives vs lemons. While specifics are what will make your manuscript authentic, not every detail has to be perfect to the letter. While you may attest to the theory James Bond orders his martini’s shaken, not stirred because the little ice chips water down the drink thus allowing him to give the illusion of being more inebriated than his drinking buddies, your readers might not need this level of detail. Consider setting a limit on your research time, so you’re now spinning your wheels here forever, instead of writing.
Knowing when it’s time to stop researching
As you dive deeper and deeper into the world, eventually you will hit a point where the information becomes repetitive. At this point, you have enough research and can start using that knowledge in your writing. Get enough information to feel comfortable with your setting or plot, then move on. You don’t need a doctorate in history or literature to write a story set in ancient Greece.
A word of caution
Your goal at the beginning of your research journey may have been to learn anything and everything about a specific topic or get a clear picture of how your characters feel, act, respond etc., but you don’t need to explain all these details to your readers. Paragraphs and paragraphs of details can distract from your story. One of the aspects that stops many readers from enjoying Moby Dick is the excessive amounts of whale hunting details in the book. Which is a shame because under all those facts is an amazing, rich, and engaging story.
If your book is a work of fiction, it’s best to choose a few key details to show in your writing. In the places you want to allude to these facts, show is always better than tell. Rather than expounding with a two-page treaty on the techniques of converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, find ways to explain through the characters how the process of breathing affects them, what the dangers are, why they need the converter, etc.
Research is your friend
Every story has some truth to it, every novel rooted in realistic conditions that push and pull the tale. Starting your book with the background of the how’s and what ifs of the world your story takes place in will give it texture, guide your plot, and flesh out your characters into vivid beings. In addition, by removing ambiguity or incorrect details, you build trust with your readers, and they will focus on enjoying the storyline.