This topic of researching novels doesn’t get much attention on writing forums or in conferences, and I’m not sure why. For me, some of the weakest books I’ve read are that way not because the author wasn’t a good writer, but because they didn’t take the time to research what they were writing, and it was very obvious that they didn’t have a grip over their subject matter. My neighbor and other friends have said the same thing about some of the writers they know personally. “I could tell they didn’t know what they were writing about, and that made it feel less believable.”
When readers jump into a book, they want the experience. To create this experience, they must be able to immerse their readers into the setting, the characters’, characters’ lives and conflicts, etc. It’s a giant feat! That’s probably why so many people recommend that you write what you know, because it makes it easier. For those of us who don’t “know” much, we learn. The more we learn about a topic or subject, the more real we can make it feel. If I wanted to write a book set in Hawaii but I know nothing about the culture or environment, I would begin researching immediately. Research doesn’t have to mean you go take a plane and spend a few days there, but that certainly would help. Nowadays, Google makes it so easy to research anything you want to learn more about, but nothing compares to giving yourself the experience before trying to describe it to your audience. For instance, someone writing about pregnancy who has never been pregnant is less likely to write about it the way someone who has had that experience may. Sure, you can perform an Internet search and look up that people get motion sickness sometimes, how bloating comes up, what a doctor’s visit typically is like, and other details surrounding carrying a baby. But a woman who’s actually been through it will be able to pinpoint the feelings that come with those symptoms, how constant nausea affects her job, and things about her relationship with the baby and its father. We’ve seen lots of movies and television shows, so it’s not like someone can’t write about pregnancy without making it seem real–it’s just that much powerful when you can tap into things you’ve been through yourself.
Research is essential in novels, because readers aren’t stupid. You may be able to wing it with some things in your book, but if you don’t do enough research to feel like you have a good grip on the subject matter, especially big things like setting, readers will feel it. Something will be off, or they’ll be able to identify that you only described something on the surface because you didn’t know how to dig deeper. A book written about a husband lying to his wife that doesn’t really explain how the wife could believe such a lie or why a husband might feel compelled to lie will not be as enjoyable. It will feel forced. Sure, writers have the gift of imagination, but it’s not good to try to fake it for readers. A book I read about a girls’ school felt very slow, because the author tried to write from a young adult point of view and didn’t succeed. She obviously has not been around teenagers in a long time, so all the dialogue was really cheesy and it distracted me from the plot.
When you have readers distracted from the story, it’s never a good spot. Research not only makes you a stronger writer but it gives you more of an authoritative voice. You know you’re using the right words when you know the feeling you’re trying to convey or the topic/place/occupation you’re trying to describe. If you yourself are not aware of what your writing goal is, how can you hit it adequately?
Research doesn’t have to mean taking a plane and going to Switzerland. Maybe talk to someone about the location who’s lived there for years. Interview people in certain professions to make your detective or lawyer sound more real. Read a whole book about someone who spent multiple years in an abusive marriage. Visit a high school and listen in on conversations for a week, or ask someone with teenage kids if they will let you read their comments on TikTok. What are the kids doing these days? The point is do whatever it takes to tap into a sphere you may not be completely familiar with.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the more we want to draw from our own experiences. But things change. Another reason to research is because things have likely changed from when you were a teenager. Kids don’t speak the same way. The Internet is not the same as it was when it first hit the scene. Pregnancy may no longer be the same as it was in the 70s. From doctors’ appointments to birth plans, the experiences are more diverse. Women are told they have more options now, and even sex is viewed differently. Moms talking about masturbation and sex toys is not as taboo as it was before.
What I’ve learned is that research makes your story seem more plausible, it gives readers a taste of experiences they want to get lost in, and it broadens your knowledge in a way that is sometimes required to make the themes in your plot stand out. I don’t want readers to put my book down one day, because they don’t think it’s worth their time. Even though it’s fiction, it’s meant to feel like you’re watching a movie and if I can’t create those images in their mind and bring my characters to life, reading isn’t as entertaining. Research gives you credibility as an author, and it shows that you respect your readers.
No one wants to pay $20 for a hardback that is only touching things on the surface; the characters sound weird; and getting to the end feels like a chore. When I am reading something and just finish it to finish it, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I put myself in the readers’ shoes all the time when I’m plotting, and even editing. What can I do to make them want to pick up my next novel after reading the first or second? Sure, people will tell you to write the story you want to tell, but if intend to make your book public and you worry about ratings, sales, and the other things that come with both traditional and non-traditional publishing, research will help you stand out.
Even in genres like fantasy or speculative fiction where you think the power is all in your hands and no research is necessary, that’s not true. Read other fantasy books that are doing well. What are they doing that works? What are people saying doesn’t work? I read in and out of my genre a lot because I want to learn from the masters and avoid mistakes other authors make. If the readers complain they didn’t get enough culture in one book or that they didn’t like the plot twist in another, that’s something I’m going to take into consideration. Of course, I’m still going to write the story I love, but I also care what other readers think. They’re the ones who will one day be spending money on my work, and I would hate for them to be disappointed. Regardless of what space you write in, there’s always something to learn about the craft and the industry. I’ve picked up lots of tips by paying attention to what’s doing well in the industry, what types of books editors are picking up, and reading comments on Goodreads and Amazon about things similar to mine.
When your research is thorough, it will show. You’ll sound more professional when you speak with agents and editors, and your work will shine brighter. Don’t give up if there’s something you want to write about but aren’t too sure about it. Just pick up a computer, a phone, or buy a plane ticket and RESEARCH. It may take more time, but it will be so worth it.