Being a Better Writer: Knowing What to Research … and How

Hello readers, and welcome back after another weekend (and week)! How are things going on your side of the keyboard? Well, I hope?

Things here have been a mix of quiet and busy, the kind that kept me from making any extra posts last week, mostly because they would have been small, short affairs barely worth a post, but also because I was happily consumed with working on the final part of Starforge. It’s coming along, readers, and will be done, I would expect, in another month or so! So yeah, that kind of excitement kept me from doing much on the site last week.

Speaking of the site, there will be a live Q&A Being a Better Writer in the coming weeks. I got a few responses back concerning timing and the like, and the time that seemed most functional for everyone was 6 PM Mountain time, weekend or weekday (excepting a few days on the weekday part). I’ll have more on this soon, but due to the next item of news, it’ll be a bit.

Next item of news is: I’m taking a vacation! Well, what I hope is a vacation. I’ll be visiting my parents and sibling (the ones with a nephew and niece) back where I grew up for about a week. The idea is to have some fun with my nephew and niece while relaxing for a bit. Which quite a few people have told me I desperately need. The relaxing bit, I mean.

Posts will continue as normal. I’ll be doing a couple of Being a Better Writer posts in advance and putting them on a schedule. So keep checking back for more each Monday! It won’t stop!

Two other bits of news before I take off. The first is that Axtara – Banking and Finance continues to be my best seller right now, and has eclipsed Jungle in its total review count. Different audiences in part, but still, that’s pretty good!

And if you loved Axtara and wanted more from that setting, the fourth and final part of A Trial for a Dragon will be live on Patreon for supporters this Saturday. If you’re not a supporter, you can be for as little as a dollar a month!

All right, that’s the news! Like I said, lots of little stuff, stuff that I probably could have made a small post for, but … Starforge people. Starforge!

So with that, let’s get talking about today’s Being a Better Writer topic, which comes to us from a reader request in response to a common statement of mine. If you’ve been a reader of Being a Better Writer for any amount of time, you’ll know that one aspect of writing I constantly circle back to is always do the research. Because, unfortunately, this is a step that a shockingly large amount of writers (and editors) skip. Yes, even among the trad pubs (in fact, they’re actually worse at in these days in my reading experience).

So, this reader acknowledged that. Doing the research was important. But what they wanted to know was how did they do the research, or even how could they know where to start? And, as I thought about it, I realized that this was just as important a topic to cover at some point and added it to the list. Because this reader was right: it doesn’t matter how willing you are to do the research if you have no idea how to do it, what to look for, or even that you need to look!

So hit that jump, and let’s talk about not just the importance of research, but how to research, how to know what to research, and even how to know that you need to research something.

Okay, so let’s talk about that last one first, actually. I’ll just jump to it and tackle this one now: How do you know if you need to research something? Well, it’s actually pretty simple. Just ask yourself these two questions: do I know enough about this field/topic that I have a knowledge of five years experience and/or education in it, and how important is this subject to the story?

If you can’t answer yes to the first one, and that second one is “more than a single throwaway line that isn’t specific at all,” then yes, you need to research whatever that topic is. Does that sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah, it is. That’s writing: Work. And if the work isn’t put in, then the result … Well, it won’t be as good as it could be.

Now, some readers might think in response to this “But sure, I know enough” and think that they can get away with not bothering to do the research. And well … this is what results in stories where a computer stops working because the
‘copper wire rusted’ or someone talks about their “spaghetti farm” (which I use to refer here to instances of a lot of stories getting farming completely wrong with basic things like how plants grow.

Point being, a lot of writers have assumed they know enough about a topic because of their thoughts of “How hard could it be?” Recall how many stories make their plots in kind out of embarrassing folks who think just that, and realize how easy it is for something that a would-be writer considered “common sense” to be completely off the wall.

Ice doesn’t sink, by the way. Just in case you wonder how obvious some of these issues can be. The answer is: very.

In other words then, how does a writer know they should do the research? They should by default. The natural inclination of every writer when they reach any topic they are aware they aren’t informed of to any level should be to stop writing right there and go get that knowledge.

Again, I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across a book or a story where the author just assumed something like “Well how complicated could the history of cans be?” or “Jet engines can’t be that complicated” and ended up writing complete nonsense.

A writer’s first inclination should be a humble admission that there’s always more to know, and to seek out knowledge on any topic they’re planning writing about.

Of course, to be able to do that, you have to know how to do that. And it turns out … this is harder than it looks.

So I’m going to tell you a quick story. A few years back, I was spending some time with someone and we were both talking about the new Hobbit film (the first one) that had just come out and the fun music that had come with it. At which point we decided to see if we could pull up The Song of the Misty Mountains (which if you’ve not heard it, is great, so that link is there for your fun). They went first, pulling their phone out and then after a few seconds searching, sadly proclaiming ‘YouTube doesn’t have it.’

Which didn’t seem right to me, so I said ‘Let me try.’ I was rebuffed that no, YouTube doesn’t have it … and then a few seconds later I found it.

So what was the difference here? Why was I able to find the song while they couldn’t? Well, I asked what they had searched for. It turned out they had entered “Hobbit movie song” or something like that into their search, and after scanning through a lot of junk that had come up, decided the song hadn’t been there.

I had instead chosen to Google “Hobbit film misty mountains song” and found both the name of the piece and the name of the one who sang it, and entered that into the search instead, and presto, there was the song! Piece of cake.

I’ve run into this sort of thing quite a bit over the years. It turns out that while knowing you need to learn something is an important step in getting your research right, knowing how to look for it is also incredibly important. As is taking the time to dig through whatever it is you find and think critically about it.

Another example, this one that I’ve referenced before, and one that made the news: A big, heavily promoted work of historical fiction was raked over the coals upon release (and has now all but vanished from the mind of most people) for having in its “historical” setting the protagonist use a fantasy recipe from The Legend of Zelda to produce a dye.

How did this happen? The author, upon realizing they needed to have the protagonist make a certain color of dye (I don’t remember which color) simply entered “[color] dye recipe” into Google and then copied over the first Google result they found without even checking the page itself.

How’s that for “research?” The result was an obvious fantasy recipe in a “historical” book. And no, the editors from the publisher didn’t bother or read it closely enough to catch it either. But boy did readers clue into that fast, because it was obvious the recipe made no sense whatsoever. After all, it was using fantasy logic.

In both cases, someone’s quest for knowledge was undone because they didn’t know what to search or look for, and therefore went with something very broad.

This is a mistake. When it comes to research, be as specific as possible. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, start doing specific searches with layman’s terms to narrow it down. My search for The Song of the Misty Mountains only succeeded because I used Google to hunt down the official soundtrack album song list to know exactly what to search for at the end of my quest.

If this sounds like “researching before researching” well yes, that’s exactly what it is. Sometimes we know so little about a topic that we need to start at the basics of the topic in order to understand enough to refine our point of inquiry. For example, someone might want to know what ships logs are like on a type of naval vessel, but not know anything else. So they might start by Google “Military ships logs.” Reading some basics would let them realize that different navies may keep their logs differently, and also that the function and style of logs can change over time. So they might refine their search “Russian Navy ship logs” to “Russian navy ship logs 1920s” to even searching for the logs of a specific ship.

Here, let me offer an example from my own work. When I was writing Axtara – Banking and Finance, one of the many topics that came up through the course of the story was the price of metal pipe. Since it played an important role in the story, I immediately began Googling “metal pipe, 17th century” to try and track it down (Axtara‘s tech base is a little mixed compared to ours, with some sectors being ahead compared to Earth’s history while behind in others).

This led to looking at what kind of metals pipe back in that era could be made from, as well as learning a bit about manufacturing before, as my search fine-tuned itself, I starting searching for financial records from companies that would purchase pipe from the 17th century. And I found a receipt (yes, and actual receipt) from a very ancient company’s purchases that let me find the differences in costs between different lengths of the right type of metal pipe.

Point with all of this being: If you don’t know what to search, then start broad and narrow your search down as you study the results. Unsure about how a character might grow a flowerbed? Start by searching for the basics and then narrowing things down with specific flowers.

Also, don’t be afraid to expand a little in unexpected directions. You’d be surprised what extra knowledge you might pick up from an odd tangent that can circle back.

So, we’ve talked about learning what to search, and how you start broad and narrow it down. But now comes another important thing worth considering: Are all sources equal? Or really, to be more modern: are all Google search results equal?

The answer, as that writer of “historical” fiction found, is no. Google search results are ranked based on two primary algorithms: What most people seem to be looking for, and what each persons personal search history indicates their interest lie in. Which can make things tricky for writers out there.

How can you get around the algorithm? Well, the first step is not assuming the top result on Google is automatically what you’re looking for. In other words, click those results you get and examine them. Had that author of historical fiction bothered to click the result Google gave them instead of reading the summary, they likely would have noticed that they were on a website discussing video games, rather than some sort of history site (and for that matter, they could have used the broad to narrow advice as well and actually searched for the history of dye in the time and region they were writing).

Because here’s the thing: Not all search results are created equal, no matter how popular they are. And if a writer is looking for knowledge, they need to be able to categorize the results they find based on their source.

For example, personal accounts can be very useful for a writer as they can often detail what an experience feels like. They can also offer slang for a field or position where a scientific source or a research article will be more concerned with specific numbers and proper terms. Both are useful, but you need to be certain which is which when doing research.

Though knowing what you’re looking for can be quite helpful. Again, narrowing down what you need can be quite helpful here. Are you looking for what someone’s personal experience with something? What the sensesation was like? Or something specifically clinical?

While we’re on the subject of sourcing, don’t consider Google your only avenue. Other books can be a source of information on a topic, as can be more modern things like YouTube. Did you know you can find, for example, recordings of operating 18th century steam engines on there? Which means a clever writer, wondering what such a thing might sound like in order to set a scene, can look for such a thing on YouTube (and yes, I have done this many a time for everything from engine sounds to storms).

Now, there is one last thing to note here, as we talk about sources: Consider that people on the internet lie. Check the source of any information you find. Look for places that are official, or have evidence that they know what they’re talking about. Check URLs, or about pages to see what sort of background the site claims or references. Doing so can even be helpful, sometimes leading to additional sources of knowledge for us to pull from.

All right, there you have it. I realize this is somewhat of a different topic to have covered, but with as often as research in books tends to have run awry, I think that this requested topic was a good one to cover. So, as you go back out into the world of writing, remember these points!

  • If you’re not an experienced voice in something, no matter how “simple,” start researching!
  • Start wide and narrow your search down. The more specific you can be in hunting for a result, the better, but you may have to learn a bit to know what to search!
  • A top result isn’t always the right one, nor may it be what you’re looking for. Click through and examine your results!
    • In that vein, always check the sources! Are they private? Personal? Professional?
  • Google isn’t the only source out there! Books can be a fantastic research tool, as can videos and documentaries on specific topics on YouTube!
  • Don’t be afraid to be a little distracted and branch out from your initial search for knowledge! New concepts mean new ideas, or even stumbling upon a new avenue that can be perfect for a story!

And with that, I leave you with the customary Being a Better Writer farewell. Good luck!

Now get writing!

Being a Better Writer, as well as Unusual Things, exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:

Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, 22ndTemplar, and Piiec!

Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!

If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!

Thoughts? Comments? Post them below!

One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Knowing What to Research … and How

  1. I did a search for “ships log” — top result was a dugout canoe.

    Seriously, this week’s topic has application way beyond writing stories. Should be required reading for everyone, not only interweb users.

    Liked by 2 people

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