Hello everyone! After a long wait due to my own forgetfulness, the Academy is back with a brand new lesson! And what better way to invest in our 20th lesson then with a wonderful article on researching courtesy of the wonderfully thoughtful @Rediamond! Enjoy:
Write What You Know.
The maxim works brilliantly if you want to write realistic fiction about relatively ordinary teenagers or young adults going through relatively ordinary struggles. Most people, by definition, are ordinary after all and there is little reason to assume that authors are any different. But what if you want to write about something you haven't lived through? The maxim then needs a corollary.
Learn What You Write.
It is indeed possible to write well about subjects, characters, and situations you have no good comparison to in your life by learning enough about real world situations that mirror what you want to write about. There is a belief in many fiction communities that research is only important for science fiction and historical fiction, with a few odd exceptions. This is simply not the case and largely stems from a mistaken definition of what research is. Put simply, research is an organized effort to learn something about the world you did not previously know. This has a few uses in creative writing. I will outline four here.
The first, and most obvious, is learning about settings, people, or some element of the natural world for a story. If a plot revolves heavily around some scientific discipline, knowing about that discipline helps produce a more faithful work and might open up new subplots or ideas for the story. If nothing else it saves you from finding out after the fact that your story is the laughingstock of physics forums the web over. The same goes for time period and location research. Knowing more about the setting increases the depth and realism that can be breathed into it. This use is generally acknowledged and usually practiced well.
The second is for character creation. While you might not personally know an overly charismatic badass who marshaled armies and nations to go on glorious quests or did otherwise heroic things, chances are several people have done something similar in history. You can read more about them to get an idea how people similar to the character being created would function in the real world. Do similar historical individuals share certain traits or weaknesses or backstories? If so, it might be worth considering giving your character something similar, to increase the realism. The same can also go for how events might transform a person. If the character is designed to witness a terrorist attack or the murder of their best friends, the realism of their response can only be increased by knowing how real people react to similar situations.
Of note here: all of the above advice is at least doubly important when writing characters with mental or physical disabilities. In these cases tacking on these traits without knowing what you're doing and presenting things relatively faithfully and seriously can be offensive to real world people in similar situations. In these cases I would very strongly encourage doing your homework.
The third is for style. I will largely discuss this in a later section, but it helps to know the conventions of a genera before writing in it. For historic periods, knowing how characters or a first person narrator would talk (slang, language conventions, pop culture references, etc.) is also important. Before the twentieth century contractions were not common in the spoken English language, for example, and some modern scholars or upper class individuals still might resist using them. Culture references also vary a lot with time and place, more so than language.
The last I will be discussing is for inspiration. Accounts of real events are by definition the most realistic stories that can be told. Studying similar events in the real world is thus a good way to figure out how people might realistically react to something and gain inspiration for new elements that can be adopted into a plot.
How to Research
With that out of the way, how do you start to do research effectively? Research for fiction is substantially less formal than for formal reports, especially when bibliographies aren't required or expected. This frees up more tools to use. Below is a quick rundown of the most common and best.
The Internet is filled with information, and there are several good places to get it, along with a few less than reliable ones. Wikipedia in particular is excellent for quick and informal research into a topic. Beneath the articles is a list of references that are excellent for further, often more in-depth information on a topic. Biography.com is an excellent starting point for researching individuals, even if for the most part only well-known figures are covered. MIT's website has a section with several important writings in human history, such as the Communist Manifesto and The Art of War. These can help to get an idea of both revolutionary movements and the world before them. Science topics are also often well explained at least somewhere on the Internet, often in a manner meant to be understood by outsiders.
Wikis are good for fan fiction as they often provide a reasonably detailed synopsis of some aspect of a work. As these works are usually the basis for the setting, plot, and/or characters of fan fiction familiarity with the source material is highly important. Pokemon has several wikis, including the one housed elsewhere on this site. As a game-verse writer I have found Bulbagarden's collection of every line of dialogue major characters say to be very important when writing canon characters.
II. Reference Materials
Encyclopedias have been largely rendered useless by the advent of Wikipedia. Old encyclopedias, though, can be good for understanding what people did and did not know at a certain point in time. The problem is that they can be very hard to find. The main reference books you will likely use in creative writing research are atlases to capture the details of a place, although more specific guidebooks to a location a setting is based on can also be helpful. It is often helpful to own the book, if possible, in these cases as it will likely be frequently referenced.
III. Nonfiction Books
Yes, even in the age of the Internet books are still the most useful way to research when selected and read well. They provide more in-depth looks at a topic or person than most websites or encyclopedia entries will and tend to be more reliable, but this varies depending on the writer, age of the book, and the purpose of it. Textbooks or similar tomes are best for understanding a topic well as they are specifically meant for teaching the subject. Often, you will not be able to find these and must settle for a book that sort of addresses a topic or has some bias. In these cases, reading multiple books that look at a topic from a perspective other than a textbook can be helpful. For example, if you cannot find a textbook on the politics of the Renaissance, it might be worthwhile to read a few related books. Machiavelli's The Prince, available on the Internet, a biography of a Pope of the era, and a book on Renaissance art could help, for example. While none of them will directly explain the politics of the era, you will learn about a proposal on how to change them (implying they are not like this), a glimpse at them through the lens of a man deeply involved in them, and a look at the creations of men who were shaped by the era's politics. Collectively, this can be almost as good or even better than a textbook. It just requires more careful attention to the details and subtext.
The central problem with books is availability. Libraries often have limited selections unless you live in a major urban center and the books must be returned. E-books are inexpensive but physical notes cannot be taken in them and the supply is still somewhat limited on most subjects. I can speak from experience that indirect research must be used a lot with a Kindle. Physical books are more expensive and require either paying shipping and handling or trying to find what you need in an increasingly scarce brick and mortar bookstore. Textbooks, in particular, can be brutally expensive and hard to come by if you don't know for certain what you're looking for.
Collections of letters, while hard to come by, give a better picture of what people wrote like in an era and the thoughts and lives of the people who lived in it. They provide a direct look at famous people's thoughts which can help with character research. The ones available online tend to focus mostly on famous people, so learning more about the common man through them can be surprisingly difficult. Written language is also different from spoken language so it has limits in terms of stylistic applications.
Yes, reading fiction can be research. It is mostly helpful for directly learning the conventions and style of a genera, but has other uses. Almost all writing is borrowed with some modifications from elsewhere. It's a simple truth of the discipline. Having more places to borrow from allows for more original combinations and often better ideas. Fiction is also great at getting an idea of the style of a time period by paying attention to the dialogue and cultural norms referenced in works written in a certain place or time. Fiction research is different than fiction reading, though. Research with fiction requires reading for fine details in the style, dialogue, and characters and often involves extensive note taking and picking apart a work for significant elements.
Which segues nicely to the next topic: how creative writing research differs from reporting research and simple reading. The primary difference lies in the recording. Research for writing will likely need to be referenced repeatedly, and possibly at some detail, for a long period of time. Given the length of the average journey fic, for example, you might need to have good enough notes to keep yourself familiar with a topic for two years or more. This will often require one or more detailed reads of the relevant websites or sections and a folder of written notes being kept that fully explain what you need to know about the subject to do the writing. I have used spiral notebooks for longer and more complicated subjects in the past with Excel spreadsheets for shorter ones, but it's really up to you to figure out what works for you. Keeping a copy of the material or access to it is also important for refreshers down the road. Finally, it isn't important to know all aspects of a subject equally well. If you're trying to base the Pokemon world on real life Japanese culture, knowing about food and social interactions will be far more important than having notes on burial rites and the reactions to circuses, unless you're story revolves around someone dying or being in a circus in which case you should definitely know about those things.
Lastly, be willing to deviate from what you know. Fiction is fiction because it refuses to strictly follow fact and the way the real world works. Obviously some big things probably shouldn't be changed, especially on sensitive subjects like mental illness, but the details can usually be bent if it makes the story better because you did it.
So, get out there and research! It could give you ideas, make you seem smarter in writing, and generally mold you into a more interesting person to talk to in the real world. I've provided some links below to help get you started.
The MIT Classics Archive