Research is Good- Really!

by Matthew X. Gomez

So you’ve got your idea. It’s the perfect science fiction piece. You’ve got a brilliant main character, a diabolical villain, and a twisty sub-plot that is sure to keep your readers hooked. And it’s fiction, right? No need to bother with that pesky research those journalists, biographers and historic fiction writers need to worry about. This is your creation, your brain baby. So why bother researching at all?

Well, I’ve got one word for you: authenticity.

Chances are, you are going to be pulling real-world details into the piece. It could be possible ways to achieve faster than light travel (or understanding the repercussions of interstellar travel if that’s not feasible).  Writing fantasy? Depending on the era, you are probably going to need a working knowledge of how the feudal system works, how a siege works, or if they wore eyeglasses.

Research can add realism to your work. Does a character get pregnant? How can that affect her mood? Are there things she can and can’t do now? Have a character addicted to drugs? What sort of problems (physical, psychological, social) does that cause them? What if they decide to quit cold turkey? Is your main character fixated on Atlantis? Are you aware of the potential locations that have been put forth over the years? Writing a piece set in Renaissance Venice? How much do you know about the role courtesans played in the city politics?

There are some fantastic options when it comes to research:

  • Entering a search term into a website. Of course, that comes with its own warnings. Not everything you read can be trusted (this goes double for the internet). A great rule is to be sure the information you found can be found in three unrelated locations.  
  • Make friends with your local librarian.
  • Read non-fiction that touches on your subject.
  • Browse second hand bookstores.
  • Audit a class at your local community college.
  •  Talk to people who have experience in what you are investigating. Have a relative that’s a police office? What better resource if you’re writing a police procedural, or even if you just have a character that is an officer.

To be sure, it isn’t necessary to share all of the information you get, which is tempting to be sure. But by adding that bit of realistic detail (even to the most unreal of stories), you add that bit of authenticity that can keep readers hooked.

Even more importantly, if you attempt to wing it, if you pull information out of the air and try to weave it whole cloth, you risk alienating those readers who do know a bit about the subject. They are only willing suspend disbelief to a certain degree. Don’t tempt them into dropkicking your book across the room.

So what are your favorite ways to conduct research?

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