Really Useful Links for Writers: Research

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Paul FitzSimons

It is one of the important aspects of fiction writing. And it’s so often overlooked.

Research.

We’re told to write what we love. And, if we follow that advice, we’ll probably know a good bit about our chosen subject. But it is dangerous to assume we know everything about it, and that we can avoid research. Readers have a highly honed bullshit-ometer and will likely toss our book aside if they read something inaccurate. This is especially the case if this inaccuracy could have been easily avoided by the writer picking up the phone, opening a book or clicking on a web browser.

In the same way that no two writing processes are the same, no two methods of researching will be either. As our writing progresses, each of us will hone and tailor our researching methods. But, for those who don’t even know how to start, there’s plenty of help out there.

Regular contributor to Writers’ Digest Scott Francis suggests that, as fiction writers, we can make up everything and anything we want. But not if we want people to read what we write. If we do, then it needs to have – get ready for the first six-syllable word to appear in this columnverisimilitude. In other words, the appearance of being true, real or plausible. And the only way to really achieve this, especially where specific detail like police procedure is concerned, is to research. Scott recommends that we use a combined approach and employ many techniques, such as reading books, using the internet or interviewing experts as our requirements dictate.

I’m not sure how, in all my cyber-travels, I never came across The Marshall Plan before. An extensive guide to all-things-writing, it also includes a comprehensive guide on research. The advice, given to us by the site’s founder Evan Marshall, breaks research down into two key types, Background and Spot. Evan also suggests how we might avoid research-for-writing getting in the way of actual writing.

When writing her novel Kilmoon, Lisa Alber had the innovative idea of holidaying in and then photographing Ireland, where the book is set. She then created a photo journal as a memory and research aid. When posted to her website, the journal also served as an aid to the book’s readers, as they could get a visual idea of the story’s setting.

Whatever about a contemporary novel in which the details, such as the geography and background events will be current and tangible, researching for an historical novel is a whole other beast. Much of research will probably need to be done before the actual writing-of-chapters starts, in order to make sure the story we want to write will fit into the historical time and place that it’s set. The editorial team at publisher HarperCollins is on hand to offer some invaluable advice on researching for a historical novel. Acknowledging the research required, they do suggest that we should remember one important thing – we are, first-and-foremost, storytellers and so shouldn’t get too distracted or bogged down with minute details.

As well as helping us learn how to research, the internet is itself an encyclopaedic smorgasbord of facts and should be fully utilised as a research tool. And the first site we should all have bookmarked is actually Wikipedia. I know , most of you are now recoiling in horror at my mention of the W-word, but if we use it with the knowledge that it’s changeable by anyone and, therefore, not fool-proof, Wikipedia is an invaluable source for quickly finding out something that will allow to keep going with our writing.

Although there’s little to beat going out and driving the streets where your story is located, this may not be possible for a number of reasons. (No, laziness isn’t one.) For these reasons, there is Google Maps. With its StreetView feature, Google Maps allow us to virtually explore over half of the world’s roads and streets, meaning we can sit at our desks in Ireland and pick a street in Johannesburg, then a building, and then a floor for our hero to live on. And because we can save these locations to our Google account, when we visit that city a year later, we can use our smartphones to navigate our way to our virtually-selected locations.

(Keep in mind though, StreetView images can be up to two years old so if you pick an apartment block today and visit it tomorrow, it might already be a Starbucks.)

“I do a great deal of research – particularly in the apartments of tall blondes.” – Raymond Chandler

Creative Licence Can Only Take Us So Far.

The Writers’ Digest Guide to Researching.

‘Just because you’re writing fiction, it doesn’t give you license to make everything up.’

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/how-to-research-your-novel

 

Too Much Of A Good Thing.

Evan Marshall on when research goes bad.

‘I’ve seen writers spend ten years researching a novel that not only didn’t require such exhaustive background research; it would have been better off without it.’

http://themarshallplan.net/howtoresearch.htm

 

Travel…And Take Lots Of Photos.

Lisa Alber used a photo journal as a research aid.

‘What could be better than traipsing off to a foreign land with camera in hand and story idea in mind?’

http://lisaalber.com/books/novel-research/

 

Ask The Experts.

Editors at HarperCollins on why research is vital for historical novels.

‘The prospect of visiting 14th century France before can be a delicious experience.’

http://authonomy.com/writing-tips/publishers-explain-how-to-write-a-historical-novel/

 

Don’t Fear The W.

Wikipedia can be invaluable for fast research online. Just remember to double-check later.

http://wikipedia.com

 

After Two Clicks, You Have Arrived At Your Destination.

For deciding which dark alley to murder our (fictional) victim in, Google Maps is hard-to-beat.

maps.google.com

(c) Paul FitzSimons

About the author

Paul FitzSimons is a screenwriter and novelist and has written the novel ‘Burning Matches’ and a number of scripts for film and TV. He has worked as a storyline writer on RTE’s ‘Fair City’. His short stories are published in ‘Who Brought The Biscuits’ by The Naas Harbour Writers. Paul likes crime thrillers, good coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate. He doesn’t like country-and-western music or people who don’t indicate on roundabouts.

Paul also runs the Script Editing service Paul | The | Editorpaulfitzsimons.com

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