Being a Better Writer: How Do I “Do the Research?”

Welcome back, writers! Another Monday is here, bringing with it the start of a new month as well as—in my case, anyway—another load of snow.

Which is both unusual and not, where I live. From my time in Utah, I’ve grown to expect the “last gasp” of winter to be a snow flurry in the first weekend of April, and most of the time that’s exactly what happens, forming a striking interrupt in what would otherwise be the “first bike ride of spring” territory.

But that’s a flurry, one that never sticks to the ground. By comparison this year has broken all sorts of snow records across the state, and last night wasn’t a “chance of snow flurries” but a full “winter storm warning.” And while that just meant a few inches as of this morning, at least where I dwell, the fact remains that such is not a flurry, and winter’s grasp is proving exceptionally clingy this year.

None of this has that much to do with today’s topic, by the way. This is just preamble. Unless you’re searching for information and research about what it’s like in Utah today, to which I’d answer at least the northern half of the state is pretty wet.

But you’re probably not here for that. No, if you’re here on Unusual Things on a Monday, odds are you’re here for Being a Better Writer. Which, fortunate reader you, is the true purpose of this post. Monday delivers something to look forward to once again.

So, enough kidding around. There’s already a news post from last Friday if you’re wondering what else is going on around here, so you can go read that if you’re curious about what the latest projects are (or if you’re new, to see what’s going on and what the rest of the site is concerned with). Everyone else who’s read in, let’s talk about today’s topic: how to do the research.

See, a common axiom repeated again and again here on Unusual Things as well as at writing conventions and other workshops involved in the process of teaching writing is “Always do the research.” Sands, it comes up often enough that there’s a tag for it in the tag cloud here (“Research,” for the curious, which will also grace this post).

With as often as it comes up, however, it continues to do so. “Always do the research” has to be an axiom because there are, unfortunately, a wide array of folks who don’t do the research. Or do the research really poorly. And prior discussions of this topic have pointed out direct examples of books that have made it to print from traditional publishers that have had wide arrays of astounding errors, each with their own ramifications.

Side note: My personal favorite has to be a Sci-Fi machinegun that fired at .25c, as in the speed of light, without somehow creating a chain of fusion explosions the moment the bullet began to accelerate down the atmosphere, while the favorite of the news is a “historical fiction” novel from a few years back that managed to infamously confuse a Legend of Zelda videogame walkthrough for “historical fact,” resulting in a truly bizarre bit of “historical fiction” (yes, this made it past the editors of a major publishing house, which says a lot about how good the self-claimed “gatekeeping for quality” seal is at actually providing said quality). My least favorite was a short story fiction winner that based its entire setup on the idea that copper rusts like steel, then presented an “idealized” future of agrarian farmers and hunters that made it very clear the author had no idea how farming worked in the slightest and couldn’t even be bothered to do some basic research.

Okay, side-note over. Point is, “always do the research” is a truism regardless of what you’re writing about. I recall one of my first exposures to this coming from what was one of my first LTUE attendances, where a fairly famous Fantasy author gave a little example of how many fantasy books he’d read that had a tannery in the middle of a generic fantasy village, which was his “red flag” for “this writer did no research whatsoever.” Because tanneries stink, and you did not want them inside the village. At the least they’d be confined to an industrial sector downwind of everyone else who cared about the smell.

Point being, just because we’re writing about fiction doesn’t mean that our stories entirely disregard reality. In fact, actually, it’s quite the opposite. Contrary to what the common layman may think, writing fiction can actually be far more difficult than writing non-fiction. Writing non-fiction often simply means reciting facts, recording or transcribing them for the future. If Scientist Davi runs an experiment and it fails, that is what non-fiction records: Scientist Davi ran an experiment—here are the details from their notes—and it failed.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not merely regurgitating an occurrence. It means taking aspects of reality, from physics to biology to finance—everything related to what you’re writing about, in other words—and then understanding it to the degree that you can write about what would happen if you applied a small twist. It’s not only understanding that something exists, such as a tannery during medieval times, but understanding enough of how that tannery operates and what it did so that you can understand how and where it slots into its surroundings and the economy of the village … So that when you do something like have it operate via wizard, or perhaps be run by a group of paranoid gnomes standing three-high in a trench-coat, you’re able to work out how that would change said tannery.

In other words, non-fiction is often about regurgitating facts, while fiction is about understanding them to the degree that you can write a reasonable way for them to become different if you make that tiny tweak of fiction.

And look at that. We’re a thousand words in and still locked in the preamble. Point being, “always do the research” is a must-have mantra if you want to write good fiction. Fiction that understands the world enough to make that tiny tweak. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’ll stay true or even happen that way—after all, Crichton wrote Jurassic Park back in the late 80s and since then the science hasn’t given us dinosaurs like the book, much in the way Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t give us corpses reanimated by lightning. But both at the time did do research into what science thought might be possible. Sure, we may find a dozen years later that orbits don’t exactly work like that, or what we thought was a planet was in fact, a misinterpreted signal. Doing the research does not future-proof our books into being non-fiction.

But it does ground them. And there are some things that will stay true, regardless of setting. For example, if you’re writing a book about a small fantasy village with a tech-level comparable to say, 200 AD Roman Empire, then one thing you’re going to want to do research on—even if just for something as benign as a character going to get a glass of water. Because procuring a cup of water in a 200 AD tech-level is not automatically akin to producing one today. To write about how your characters might live, you need to know how people in those places and situations lived. Why they made the building choices they made. The life choices they made. Career.

Not because you’re going to replicate it 100%, but because you need to understand what the affects of your little wrinkle will be. If you’ve introduced magic of some kind to this setting, you’ll need to think about what effects that will have on things. But in order to understand that, you need to understand what is being affected and how it functions. It’s akin to … making a shot it pool. Your goal in pool is to use one billiard ball to strike another and hopefully send it into the correct place, but in order to make that judgement, you need to look at the whole picture before the ball you strike enters it.

Okay, that is more than enough preamble. Let us now graduate into today’s topic. Let us move a bit further with this concept. Assuming an understanding of why the research is important is already known to you, this can create a further question that then becomes paramount, especially in a young writer’s mind: how do I do the research?

You know the drill. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about it.

So, how are we going to start our discussion concerning the “how?” Well, I’m actually going to start by telling you of an experience I had last week. See, last week, I was working out some of the details of the finale for that Jacob Rocke story, and hit upon something that my research thus far hadn’t answered.

I’d already, in the course of this novel, looked up blood reports online, as well as how they were filled out, and even sat through an instructional education video on Youtube about running various types of blood tests. But I hit a dead end. Which is how I spent almost an hour of my Wednesday on the phone with a local medical lab. Being transferred through four people, all of which loved my question—one even said that the phone call was the highlight of their week, even if they didn’t have an answer—before eventually finding the answer I sought out. Which then was reflected in the story properly.

Yeah, I cold-called a medical laboratory to ask a question about blood, further details of which would give away some crucial elements of the story. So I won’t share them here. And sure, it took almost an hour to get the answer. But here’s the thing: That answer came with aid from the very people whose jobs it is to know about such things. The very same people who, were they to read the book, know when something was wrong.

Now for a moment, let’s flip the table. Regardless of what you do for a living, I want you to think about that right now. Think about that job, and what goes into it.

Now, imagine what happens when you read a book and that same job comes up. Do you take notice? I certainly do.

Now imagine that the book gets things wrong. That it becomes clear that the author didn’t talk to anyone who worked said job or do any research on it. It’s annoying, isn’t it?

Bear with me a moment longer. Now imagine that you’re doing said job, and out of nowhere you get a phone call. The individual on the other end introduces themselves as an author who is writing a story that just happens to involve what you do for work, and they were hoping you could take a few moments to answer one or two questions they’d been unable to find good answers for.

I’d imagine that most of us would be flattered. And in my experience, most are when an author wants to know about someone’s job so that they can replicate it accurately, most are more than willing to take a moment to answer a few questions and fill them in.

Logic and reason still apply. You should be polite. You definitely should explain why you’re asking, especially if it involves something bizarre, esoteric, or would normally put you on a watchlist.

In other words, however, asking someone who is experienced directly in what you’re writing about, either through education, hands-on experience, or both (depending on the job) is a fantastic research tool. First-person data you can collect yourself.

All it takes is a phone, a phone book (online, most likely) and a few thought-out questions.

Plus, and I stress this again for emphasis, politeness. If you’re rude and/or waste their time, not only will you not get the answers you seek, you’ll make it less likely that the next individual searching for information will be able to acquire it. Which hurts everyone. So please, be polite when following this avenue of research.

But if you want to “do the research” a great avenue is calling experts.

Now, another great avenue? Your local library. No, I’m serious. I know. Who’d have thought that a local repository of public knowledge of mankind would have, you know, actual knowledge?

All right, I’ll dial the sarcasm back. But in seriousness, a great way to do the research can be to just read a couple of books on the subject. It doesn’t even have to be the whole book if you’re looking for something specific, but it never hurts to check out the non-fiction section of your local library to see what sort of information you can find on a subject.

Now, I do want to throw a caution with this one: Old books are good sources of old information, but may no longer be relevant or correct to the modern era. For example, a book on how to farm grapes in the 1930s would be really useful for someone writing about farming in the 1930s … but if they were writing about grape farming in the 2020s, should find a more modern source or have their farmer character be dedicated to recreating the “old ways.” Because farming has changed a lot over the centuries, to say nothing of the last hundred years. Same with medical treatments, engineering, architecture, materials science, archeology … Really, just about everything.

However, this is both a caution and a bonus. See, other sources may be far more up to date, but what if you want to accurately reflect the position of a teacher in 1920s New Mexico? Simply Googling such a query would first return more modern results, but a library, being a depository of knowledge old and new, could have books from that era discussing exactly that.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t internet sources of old, outdated non-fiction books or knowledge—there are, and I’ve used some—but they’re often excerpts, incomplete, or just plain not as easy to flip through as a real book if you’re hunting for something. Plus, a library will let you check out that ancient book (provided it isn’t a special collection item) and then take it home to fill full of bookmarks for reference.

Now, the older a book gets, the more chance something in it will have later been refined or even proven completely wrong—but that can be completely right for a setting that say, hasn’t figured out plate tectonics yet.

Additionally, don’t always take what you read at face value. Finding one book on a subject can be useful. Finding multiple books on a subject is better. You can always use the references section at the back of a book to find additional sources. Furthermore, you can vet books as well. Check reviews, and see what other experts have said about an “experts” book. If they’re spoken highly of it, you can probably trust it. If they have used words like “tinfoil hat” then perhaps consider questioning its declarations.

Okay, what about the internet? That thing you’re on right now, reading this very article? Well, it does have some very useful information.

There’s a danger, though. There’s very little filter, and little in the way of quality control, meaning that you’re going to need to sift and categorize everything you go through. Basically, you have to fact check. Multiple sources, collaborating details, stuff like that. Or just check to make sure you’re not looking at an April Fool’s Day prank, but a real photo from a century ago.

What about Wikipedia? Well, let me tell you something: Wikipedia is a great primer. But it’s a better source of sources. If you’re looking for information on an event, try finding said event on Wikipedia and then checking the pages sources directly. And, to pass on some advice I was given, if the Wiki page links as a source another Wiki page, or worse yet itself … question it. Question it carefully.

But there are fantastic resources out there on the internet. My favorite that I’ve tracked down was a scan of a receipt for piping prices from the early 1700s, which allowed me to verify what the prices of various lengths of pipe were like at the time.

Without the internet? Good luck finding that without a week-long search. And I did it in an afternoon.

The internet has other great sources as well. Youtube is home to many instructional videos, some uploaded by colleges themselves for their students. While most think of Youtube as a source of funny videos, the truth is that there’s a lot of very useful stuff on there. For example, I’ve listened to and watched the startup sequence for a restored, authentic U-boat engine, helpfully uploaded by the museum that operated it. I’ve listened to a Canadian’s recording of a thundersnow storm. I’ve found an old audio archive engine of a 1800s steamship boiler in operation.

All with just a few minutes on Youtube. Museum channels, archivists, colleges, and more upload plenty of “how to” guides, informational documentaries on how farms worked in the 1600s … All sorts of things.

Again, you do have to vet things. Videos that are popularly memed or going for hits usually aren’t very informational. For example, there was a very popular “rustic living” series that was later revealed to have been entirely done with modern equipment and methods when the cameras weren’t running, effectively faking what rustic living was like in order to get views. So you can’t just take something at pure face value.

But with careful consideration, and an eye for using the right search terms, you can find all sorts of useful information on Youtube. You may have to sift a bit, but it can be surprisingly useful.

All right. We’ve talked about various sources for doing said research. And we’ve talked about vetting and sifting. Which means there’s one last thing to cover before we wrap this up: knowing what to search for.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that’s easily taught, at least not via text. The best advice I can give is to be specific with your search rather than general, and then work from there. Knowing some basic boolean rules, such as putting a phrase that must be included in quotes, or excluding a term with a negative sign before it (like this: -Venus), can allow you to be much more specific.

For example, if you’re going to be writing about a 200 AD-era Roman village, do not Google “Roman village.” Try something like “What was life like in a Roman village” followed by “200 AD” with the quotes around the year segment (to see a non-sarcastic use of “Let Me Google That” being used to demonstrate the quotes in place for a starter search, click this link). Be specific with your initial query—the more specific the better—and then widen or narrow things from there.

This applies with speaking to experts as well, by the way. Don’t approach an expert with a broad “Tell me everything I need to know” request. For starters, they don’t know what you need to know. Respect their time, and ask a direct question. If it’s incorrect or wrong in some manner, they’ll let you know, and then help you make your way to the right question.

But yeah, be specific. Narrow things down. The more specific you are, the better chance of finding an answer. Or finding information that will lead to asking a better question to find what you need.

Oh, and don’t just immediately dismiss a result if it’s close, but not exactly what you need. Check it out. Sometime you don’t find what you were looking for because it didn’t exist, and what you may have discounted was actually what you were looking for and didn’t know.

All right. And that is this week’s Being a Better Writer. As a quick recap, always do the research, but to do said research, consider speaking with experts, checking out a library, or sifting to find good internet sources, such as Youtube how-to videos or archivist materials.

Sifting through everything is still going to be a challenge, be it a book or a filmreel. Check dates, and be aware that things change over time—from views of science to history to how things are done—and that some people may be espousing other views.

But if I were to wrap up with one last rule, it would be this: If you are 95% of the way there, and did all the effort, all but the most anal retentive readers are going to forget about that 5%. Especially if all 100% of it is bolted to a great story.

So get out there and start sharpening your research skills. Do the research, and do it right,

Good luck. Now get writing.

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4 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: How Do I “Do the Research?”

  1. You bring up some really great points here! As a mostly sci-fi/fantasy writer, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking “nah, I don’t need to look that up,” only to realise that I really, really do later on. I love how you flipped the perspective, too – I can’t tell you how irritated I get when people misrepresent anything having to do with music (which is…all the time) or Christianity or even authors/writing. That’s a great thought that will encourage me to keep doing the research! Would you mind if I reblogged this post with attribution, an excerpt, and a link to the source?


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