Researching Your Novel (or: don’t be a lazybones)

Last weekend, I went to the Natural History Museum in London to research my current novel. And as I ignored my boyfriend (sorry, darling) in front of the very awesome dinosaur skeletons, I got to thinking about researching a novel well.


Poor Steggy needs a burger. And a manicure.

As an editor, I’m always looking for new and interesting settings when it comes to considering a project–whether this is a scientifically accurate dystopian future or a suffocating mental hospital. One of the most important aspects to nailing this element is research.

It’s my job to question the facts presented within a manuscript. I have to judge each situation; would this happen? Is that logical? Would that be possible? (For one recent manuscript, I ended up speaking to a specialist in the US about accurate police procedure with regards to minors. If you’re writing a novel that deals with this, have you done that?). I don’t want to get excited about a project only to find the premise falls down at the first hurdle–and if the subject is complex, I don’t want this to be pointed out when the book goes out to a particularly well-informed reviewer. Neither, author, do you.


Inside Hogwar–I mean, ahem. The MUSEUM

Research takes time; in an age where we prize prolific authors, that can put some people off. But if you scrimp: people will notice.

Here are a couple of traps a writer can fall into while researching a new book…

1) Google Is My Friend

Google’s handy. As is Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong; I use them too. The trick is to check–and double-check–your sources, for everything. Sometimes, Google’s an outdated party pooper or a sarcastic meanie, and you don’t want to fall foul of that.

2) Google Is All I Need

It is not.

If you’re writing about a a drug trial, for example, you need to dig around a little further than a few Wiki articles. You might want to:

–study how drugs are named so you name your drug accurately (there’s a specific procedure)

–talk to people who’ve participated in drug trials

–study ethics in relation to drug trials so you know what would feasibly go on. This will keep your plot realistic.

–find out exactly how your “drug” might work on a molecular level. This will prevent someone pointing out that the heroine’s birth control pills will render it useless at a later date (which is pesky).

With regards to settings especially, think about visiting your location and studying its culture (at worst, look it up on Google Street Maps and read a heap of Trip Advisor reviews). One of my most common complaints is an under-used or poorly described setting; it’s always annoying to see a book set in Barcelona when for all the detail given, it might as well be in Birmingham. Make the most of your setting and think about how it affects all the senses–smell, taste, touch, sight, sound. Try to get as many of those sensory experiences yourself; eat the food from your location, smell the local plants, listen to its music or the sounds of the busy streets, visit a museum to see artifacts. When you’re in that city, touch the beautiful buildings and feel the stone beneath your fingers. Absorb, and be inspired.

3) This Is My Job. I Know What I’m Doing

Write what you know, they say. And they may well be right–if you’ve been a doctor for the past ten years then you may be well placed to write a story set in a hospital. But be very aware of the fact–especially if you’ve been out of your job for a while–that your knowledge may be out of date. Check everything.

(This also applies to adults writing for teens. In order to write a teen character convincingly, it’s wise to observe specimens in their natural habitat. There may be strange new customs–don’t be alarmed. Adapt. Also, please don’t set your novel in the timeframe you were a teen unless it is absolutely essential to the plot).

4) But I’m Writing Fantasy!

Writers are allowed a little poetic license, and it’s true that if you write fantasy well, readers will suspend their belief for all sorts of things. People who magically turn into dragons? No problem. Werewolves? Heck, why not? But remember that even in fantasy, all of your scenarios must be plausible; just because I believe that vampires could exist in your mythology, doesn’t mean I’ll believe the heroine will buy that the first time she’s exposed to them. You’ve got to convince her before you convince me, and that takes time.

The same goes for all of your contemporary scenarios within fantasy; if your werewolves are fighting a court case, we should see realistic and accurate court procedure.


We finish with a giant animatronic t-rex!

Research As A Marketing Tool

There are benefits to researching your novel well. If your premise is cool, you’ll have a lot of interesting photographs and info snippets to share. Use these to your advantage. I see a lot of successful authors posting about their research visits and sharing photos on social networking sites; I find this endelessly fascinating, and it also tells me how much they love what they do. Seeing how engrossed these authors are in their subjects also makes me trust them; I feel, as a reader, that they really know what they’re talking about. So as you research your manuscript, keep your materials–when your release day nears, they’ll come in handy.

I hope, as always, this has been of some help. Now go forth and give your novel that extra dimension.


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