Latest News

Why Writers Do Research: Or, Why Harry Didn't Take Voldie Out With A Lightsaber

"Oh, please. I'm writing a fantasy, not sci-fi. And if it's fiction, can't I just make it up anyway?"


For most writers of fiction, this is one of the most frustrating assumptions someone can make. To quote someone from AW: "In that case, Frodo could've just Fed-Exed the ring to Mordor."

Fiction must be believable. For a genre like sci-fi, it's normally assumed that the writer researched like crazy to get all the scientific jargon right. But what about fantasy? Paranormal? Contemporary? The truth is, genre doesn't matter. If you've written a book, you've created a world, and worlds have rules. Most settings from novels of all types are based, albeit loosely sometimes, on some aspect of the world we live in. Medieval England lifestyle. 1950's American fashion. Modern Japanese technology in a early 20th century Bombay setting. The basic elements of any novel have traceable roots.

Enter research. More specifically, research for world-building.

Your world exists in your imagination, and it's up to you to make it believable. No matter how fantastic or outrageous the rules are, reading up on a few things will help you establish that oh-so-important credibility with your readers.

For some writers, this is the worst, the most horrible, most dreaded part of writing. For others (like me), research is so fun it becomes a dangerous and welcome distraction from actually pounding out that first draft. If you fall into the first category, here are a few suggestions to help you not only get the most out of research, but to actually enjoy it.

Use the Block

If you have all these scenes in mind and your fingers are just itching to start typing, then by all means, go! But when you hit that first mid-book wall -- you know the one, about 20% in -- try a little light research. Pick one element from your story, like the setting, an object, a character's job, or a paranormal element, and Google it.

My personal example: in my YA thriller, the characters travel through a dozen major cities across the world. I had a skeletal outline of what happened in each city when I started, but sometimes I felt uninspired for details. Reading up on Geneva via Wikipedia sparked a whole new story element for me, and turned what was shaping up to be a blah scene into one of my favorite chapters of the book!

Of course, it goes without saying that you should take any "information" you find on the internet with a grain of salt. But just reading about something that relates to your story is sometimes enough to get the creative juices flowing again.

*Hint: Follow the links on Wikipedia. They're like a bright blue breadcrumb trail of inspiration.*

Research and Revise

Often, people think of research as a predecessor to writing. But if you have a solid scene in mind, write it while it's hot. Then when it's time for revisions, go through and check the details against reliable sources. If you hate editing, a little fact-checking is a guaranteed way to improve your manuscript.

Set a Timer

Just like the times when you force yourself to sit down and get at least 500 words written, apply BIC and research for at least 15 minutes every day. Try making it separate from your writing time, and just allow yourself to relax and browse through one element of your novel. Have a chase scene in a rickshaw? Maybe you should watch a real one. Writing about Washokey, Wyoming? Do a little research into the amazing variety of animal head trophies in the area. Just like the actual writing itself, research is a discipline. Start training!

Elevator to Narnia

And if you ever find yourself thinking, "it's just fiction", remember: the White Witch didn't win Edmund over with a Snickers bar. Make it unique, but make it true to your world.

For more about using real world elements to create a kick-ass fantasy realm, stay tuned for a guest blog from Janice Hardy, author of The Shifter!
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

Posts by Michelle

website twitter

  • Blogger Comments
  • Facebook Comments


  1. Worldbuilding is my weakest area. But I am getting better and once you get over that "But CAN I do that?" hurdle, the sky is the limit. I especially love reading about different abilities and then putting a whatif spin on them. 'What if' can be your best friend, btw!

    I think its also important to have fun when worldbuilding. Little quirks can add really great twists and turns to a story. In one of my books I have a faery who is super hot on his side of the veil, but who turns into a hideous gargoyle who can only come to life at night in the human world. Bizarre? Totally! And it works!

    I have a friend who is fabulous at worldbuilding and who keeps notebooks filled with amazing worlds. Politics, people, customs, enemies....its mindboggling.

  2. Links on wiki are so awesome/distracting. I spent SO much time on there learning random unimportant facts because they were remotely related to what I was looking up in the first place. This was a great post, and that picture could not be more awesome.

  3. I always hated the 'research' part of writing. But I never looked at it this way, Michelle. Next time I'm stuck, I'm just going to wander around Wiki lol. Great post!

  4. Great post. I'm just like you, Michelle -- research isn't my problem. It's simply another means of procrastination. I've become an insufferable know-it-all due to all my wikimeandering.


Comments are moderated on posts two weeks old or more -- please send us a tweet if yours needs approval!

Item Reviewed: Why Writers Do Research: Or, Why Harry Didn't Take Voldie Out With A Lightsaber Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman