What amount of research goes into writing fiction? Don’t we just make it all up anyway? #AmWriting #AmReading

Readers (and friends and acquaintances and strangers you meet during tennis matches) often have ‘funny’ ideas about what it’s like to be a fiction writer. These ideas are mostly so far off base it isn’t even funny (No, actually, I don’t spend the entire day staring at my screen trying to think up things to do!). Take researching a novel as an example. Most readers understand that writing historical fiction involves hours and hours of researching. But what about chick lit or other guilty pleasure type novels? Surely, no research or perhaps only a bit of research is required to write one of those? Um, no. I think most readers would be shocked by the amount of research writers put into their writing. (Of course, there are always exceptions. I, for one, almost never read a novel with a hero or heroine who is a lawyer as most writers have no clue what a day in the life of a lawyer looks like. Hint: No one litigates all day, every day.)

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I readily admit I’m obsessed with details (And yes, twenty years after my discharge from the U.S. Army, I’m still blaming them for this obsession. I can hold a grudge for-freaking-ever.). For example, I’ll check things like the time of sunrise and sunset at the location of my novel to ensure I don’t have a heroine driving to work in the dark when the sun would have already risen. This is actually a huge pet peeve of mine. People often have a vague idea about things like the length of days during winter, the amount of rain a location receives, etc. As writers, we need to avoid using our generalized feelings and use facts in our writing. It’s not that hard. You can find almost any information online. Sure, it takes time but so does writing a book. It’s just part of the process.

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I only wish my desk looked this clean while I’m researching!


What kind of ‘things’ am I talking about? Here are some examples of research I’ve done for my upcoming novel (a funny mystery which features romance and a bit of suspense):

  • My heroine is a librarian. I ensured that the local university in her town had a library science program. As she works at a high school library, I also read several blogs on what it’s like to be a librarian in a school.
  • As my heroine’s husband walked out on her only a few months ago, I researched divorce law in the state to see how difficult the divorce proceedings would be and how long they would take.
  • I also spent the better part of one morning researching jewelry appraisals, specifically diamond evaluations just so I could write one (1!) paragraph in my manuscript regarding the evaluation of a diamond the heroine found.
  • Of course, I know how to go completely overboard as well. I spent 30 minutes researching meerkats as I wanted to make a joke about one of my characters acting like a meerkat. (Yes, I do need help. Thanks for pointing that out.)

What about the rest of you writers? How much of your writing time is spent on research? (The stuff that leads to actual writing and isn’t just a procrastinating tactic.)

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  1. Any time I get stuck on something I’m not sure about, such as the favored weapon of a SEAL, I do research. The web is a goldmine of information, but you have to weed out the fluff.
    It’s harder when searching for information in the past. One mystery I’m working on has a fire happening in the coatroom of a 1950’s hotel. Did they have a sprinkler system back then? Fire extinguishers? Not having much luck finding out yet, but it’s fun searching 🙂

    1. The favored weapon is a tough one because individuals vary. In case you’re wondering, I do love a shotgun and absolutely hate a 38. Way back when female MPs were given 38s when the men had 45s because the women couldn’t handle a 45. Um, what?

  2. This is a really great post, I love how thorough you are!
    I’v recently been reading a lot of books on mental illness as well as books featuring non Caucasian protagonists. Some were good and others were bad. The bad is because of authors not taking the time to do real research on the mental illness they are writing on or writing their main character as though they were Caucasian, being oblivious to the customs of other cultures. I think it’s really important for writers to accurately represent the peoples they are writing of or else it can be offensive or seem unpolished

  3. A good deal of my time is spent on research. Usually I try to have most of it done in the outlining phase, but sometimes it continues into the first draft. Hopefully by then, I’ve done what I need.

    I can’t imagine writing in the days before the internet. It’s so much easier to find the little details now. Then again, without the internet, readers couldn’t really check the accuracy in books too well, anyway!

  4. I have recently been working on a novel that takes place in Louisiana. I lived in the area for several months in order to learn about the people and the community — even though most of my novel is pure fiction. Maybe I don’t have a lot of imagination — I needed to feel and see and know a lot in real life in order to create an authentic story. Thanks for a thoughtful piece.

  5. Nice post! Alice is unsure of how much of her time is spent researching. Hard to be sure, since a lot of it is interspersed in writing, and Alice was never good at keeping a minute-to-minute schedule…
    However, the kind of research you did, that gave you only one paragraph in the actual text, is not unreasonable. I mean, sometimes the research we do ends up giving us only one word – and sometimes even that is cut out of the completed text! (AKA: Alice’s adventures in Latinland.) But still, it instils confidence in us and integrity in the text, so I believe it is never truly wasted.

  6. A long time ago when I was writing a short story about a guitarist, I read a through biography on Jerry Garcia to give me an idea of the internal process of being a musician. I know it’s fiction, and therefore make believe, but I like to use real life as a source of material for my fiction. Makes it more authentic.

      1. Fiction isn’t real, but it does have to be believable. In a way I’m always researching because I’m always on the lookout for new story ideas. I have antennae that pick up their signals. 🙂

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