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Research -- All The Layers

Research. Some of us love it, some of us hate it. It's a necessary evil (or joy!) for writers, no matter what. Sometimes it's simple, sometimes it's complex. But always, and no matter the setting, it makes your story richer and more real. Lately I have been thinking about the different depths of research, so I thought I would lay out some of them here.

Basic research. It probably doesn't even feel like research. This is the sort of thing where your character is staring at a maple leaf and you're describing it and suddenly you have the feeling that you've forgotten altogether what on earth a maple leaf looks like, so you google image it. Or you need to know the symptoms of pneumonia so you go to the NIH's website. Or you want to know how long goldfish can live or how fast sharks can swim. Simple things you can find the answer to in five minutes with a quick internet search. We do this kind of research all the time. It's the stuff that probably doesn't alter anything major about your book, and maybe sometimes doesn't even feel needed, but don't underestimate it. The details matter, too.

Wikipedia research. As I call it, anyway. I will look stuff up on Wiki or in other similar sources if I need to know a little more about it, but don't need to know everything about it. Or if it's something relatively simple, but not quite simple enough to get a five-minute answer from a google search. Or maybe you want there to be a rebellion in your book and you want it to go down the way a specific historical rebellion did, but you're not quite positive it'll work. It's good to do some surface research before you delve in deeply, so you're not wasting your own time if you realize quickly that there's no way you can make it work.

Human research. There are some things that are nearly impossible to get just by reading scientific articles or wikipedia entries. Listening to teenagers interact with each other, watching people's body language when they converse or are surprised or upset or etc, reading blog posts by people who have experienced terrible events; all of these things help give a clearer picture of the reality of the human experience, outside of our own, and that can make for stronger stories, too.

In-Depth research. I love doing in-depth research. This is the part where you need to truly and deeply understand something. Maybe it's a historical event you want to write about, and the details from your history textbook only barely scratch the surface. Or a scientific concept. Or any number of things. Watching a million documentaries from all different angles, reading books by experts, immersing yourself in all the articles you can find about it on the internet, making sure you understand it deeply enough that when you incorporate it into your WIP, you are incorporating it with confidence. This is the hardest kind of research to do because it's so intensive and thorough and you might not even use most of it (and, perhaps, shouldn't use most of it, so you don't accidentally turn your book into a thesis paper), but it can also be very fun. Or at least I think so. This kind of research might not be necessary for every single novel, but I often think that researching goes hand-in-hand with world building, so in many cases, you're probably going to be doing some serious work.

There is, of course, a lot more I could have said in this post. As writers, we are pretty much researching every moment. And when we're not researching for our stories, we're probably researching other things—like writing great queries and passable synopses (I, personally, have accepted that passable is the best I can do with synopses) and the how to find reputable agents or editors or any number of other publishing related things. And all of that, of course, is an entirely different subject.
And, before I end this, speaking of research, have you all yet checked out Kate Hart's brilliant year-end Field Trip Friday roundup? If not, you should go do that now!

Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. I love to research, but I can get lost in it. And then just like I research in layers, I have to peel back the research from what I've written until it's organic to the story and non-intrusive. And that's harder than pruning words for me. Is it geeky to fall in love with facts? :)

    I loved Kate's roundup, too!

  2. Research can be consuming! I always try to find easier ways to do it.

  3. As I'm about to embark on research for my next novel, this was a timely post. Thanks for sharing. And as a librarian, I'm so happy you make the point that Wikipedia should be used with extreme caution!


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