Where to Find Story Ideas: Research

Good afternoon, squiders. Today, in our search for inspiration, we’re going to talk about research.

This is exactly what it sounds like–you need to know something (or know more about something) for a story, and so you research it. This can happen at any stage of the process, from when you’re still in the outlining/planning/expanding premise phase to writing the draft to revision.

Personally, I like research at the very beginning, when you’re still considering what sort of story you’re going to write.

If you do your research before you get going, not only do you allow yourself the opportunity to make sure you understand the world you’re creating, so that it feels alive and real from the first page, but you may find some neat things that you can tie into your characterization or your plot. Some research may be integral to the very essence of your story, and if you don’t look first, you’ll miss it.

This varies from story to story. Sometimes you come into a story with a good idea of the story you want to tell, and you only need details to make sure you’re not going to sound like an idiot. Sometimes you have a vague idea, something like “I’d like to write about death spirits” or “alternatives to werewolves in modern day” or “would it be possible to hide an advanced civilization in Central Park.”

Your research can directly shape your story with the latter type. With my novel Shards, for example, I went into my research with “immortals that aren’t vampires” and the research that followed gave me my characters, their personalities, my plot, and a lot of important mythology that’s woven throughout.

With another story that I’ve yet to write, my research has given me two distinct paths to take: death magic or dark magic, both of which are awesome. As I flesh out the story more, I’ll be able to decide which set of research will be more beneficial for the story I want to tell.

Now, you can use research for other story aspects as well. If your story is set in a real place, you’d better be sure you have the details right for it. I have some authors I refuse to read because they can’t take the time to pick up the map and make sure they’ve stuck things in the right place, and there’s nothing more distracting than reading a book where every time something setting-related comes up it throws you out of the story.

(Also: check weather patterns and so forth so you’re not making it rain constantly in a desert environment, etc.)

Same thing for dealing with real cultures, communities, etc. No matter how obscure you think something is, someone who knows about it probably will read your book, and if you get it wrong, they’ll be annoyed.

NOTE: Just because you’ve done your research on a place doesn’t mean you need to hammer that in. It can be off-putting to read things like “She continued down Park Boulevard and turned right on Harrison Avenue, passing Jefferson and Washington before arriving at the CVS at the corner of Harrison and 15th right next to the Bennigan’s.”

Research can be time consuming, and you do run the risk of over-researching, where it’s taking up all of your creative time and you end up with more material than you need or could ever possibly use. (This can be okay if said research can be applied to multiple stories.) It can be helpful to periodically look at the information you’ve acquired to see if you have what you need or to see if you need to focus on a specific subject to round things out.

It also helps to organize your research so you get something useful out of it.

WARNING: Research is like a spice when it comes to actual story drafting. You just need a pinch of it here or there to give your story added depth and realism (even in a fantasy or science fiction world). Just because you know all the polite rules of etiquette for a particular time period doesn’t mean your readers want to read that. Authors can sometimes get caught up in a subject and want to show off their knowledge of it, but this is almost always detrimental to the story you’re trying to tell. Remember: just a pinch, just enough for some subtle seasoning.

As for where to do your research, libraries can be your best friends. They have nonfiction material on any subject you could ever want, usually in multiple formats (for example, I find videos helpful when doing place research because it gives you a sense of the life of the place) for whatever suits your fancy. The Internet is another good place to look, especially if you’re looking mostly for inspiration and are less concerned with how accurate the information is. Interviews with people are also a great source, for when you have a character that has a career you know nothing about or has life experience outside of your own. There are also specific writing resources to help you present things accurately, and most writing forums have a place where you can ask questions and get answers from people who know better than you on a subject.

For organizing, I find it helps to have a specific document for each story. General research that can be useful in the future can go into your idea file, but if you’re doing research for a particular story, having it all in one place rather than mixed in with your other ideas and research makes a huge difference. I usually make a big long list of useful tidbits and then periodically free write some connections between the information to get an idea of how the information can be used.

What do you think, squiders? Anything to add? Favorite place to do research? Best example of how research has helped you with a story?

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