Five Ways To Do Research For Your Fiction

When you’re writing fiction, the temptation to just “make it all up” becomes very tempting at times. The problem is that there is no way you can know everything on a subject or know all of the little details that matter. 

Your readers are not dumb, and you should never assume that. The old saying of “people are conservative about the things that matter most to them” applies, and you don’t know if you’ll run into a reader who might know more about your niche subject than you do. And this covers a wide variety of subjects, such as-

  • Having your detective and the police conduct an investigation and interrogation that would look great in a movie or on TV and is all dramatic. But their “investigation” will make the District Attorney cry or scream in anger because they’ve done everything possible to make his job impossible to press charges against the suspect.

    The suspect might be guilty as sin and there’s plenty of proof. But, because of what the police did, there’s no way he could bring it to court and not have it laughed out at arraignment.
  • Setting your story in Georgian England, say 1730 AD, and your male protagonist takes your female guest to his greenhouse, where he’s raising orchids…

    …except that orchids didn’t really show up in England until about the later part of the 1700s and more like the early 1800s. Our protagonist’s children might see them in about forty, fifty years but not the protagonist.
  • You’re on a spaceship, and you’re going to toss someone who is very bad out of the airlock. There’s even a window in the airlock so that you can watch them be blown out and explode when all the air in the body escapes…

    …and boy, you’re going to be disappointed when he just kind of hangs in the airlock, choking to death and dying of asphyxiation when the air runs out. He’s not even blown properly out! And, assuming that he was properly blown out into space, you’ve just thrown a body’s worth of water, nitrogen, carbon, chlorine, and a half dozen other critical chemicals into space. Where all of those materials are critical to your life support needs and are rather difficult to replace.

    And let’s not even mention that the ejected, freeze-dried body is now a hazard to all space-going traffic

Even if your reader doesn’t know all the details of how Tulip Mania took over the Netherlands or why you need to prevent static electricity grounding when your helicopter lifts something off the ground…there’s a lot of little random bits of knowledge running around people’s heads. And, if you don’t respect that, the person reading the story is going to start losing respect for you. When that lack of respect reaches a certain point, they’re going to throw your book across the room (or delete it off their phone or tablet) and not buy any more books you write. And probably not tell their friends to buy your stories as well.

But, by respecting the knowledge, and showing that you know enough about the background and stories behind your story…you reader is going to respect that. At the very least, they’ll respect the amount of effort you put into getting the details right. And gaining your reader’s respect is the first step to having them enjoy this story and the ones that come after.

How do you find out about all these things that you need to know before you start writing your story? That most dreaded word of school children having to write a paper at the very last minute-research.

Fortunately, doing research with access to the Internet is much easier than it used to be. And there’s five simple tips and suggestions on how to start doing research for your fictional story.

Start With A Funnel And Work Your Way Down

The best way to start with your research on a subject is to think of it as a funnel. You want to cast your inquiry wide on the subject you’re researching, narrow down as you find details, and always take notes.

For example, let’s start with police procedures, because you’re going to be writing a detective novel. That sounds simple, right?

But…police procedures change on a very wide basis. Is your story set in, say, Chicago? Start looking for police procedures in Chicago. Who investigates what kind of crime? What department? Even something as simple as a murder investigation can be investigated by Homicide, Robbery/Homicide, Major Crimes, or any number of names in a department. Does your crime start out in one department, and does it change to another if the nature of the case changes?

Take your story out of Chicago and stick it in a small town somewhere. A small town might have one officer that does five or six other jobs, because there aren’t that many murders in the small town. Or they have to call in the County Sheriff or the State Police (and what are those called in that area?) to handle the investigation. Even how departments talk on the radio can be different with a little distance, as one department might use 10 codes without variation, while another might have specific codes just for that department.

Let’s not even talk about the era! DNA testing on a regular basis started in about 1986 and didn’t become more prevalent until the 1990’s. Just running fingerprints alone in the 1970s would take a few days and require a human being to gather the prints and do the comparisons. And the burden of proof and how that proof was obtained can easily change over just a decade. In 1965, you could arrest someone and just say, “You’re under arrest,” and in 1966, you had to give the full Miranda Warning to a suspect.

But this is where you cast your funnel opening wide and narrow things down. Your story is set in the early-to-mid-2010’s, so many people have cell phones, but the smartphone is becoming more common with the advent of 3G and 4G networks. This means you might have digital photos, but video is going to be rare. Most forensic technology is going to be available, but not used commonly (as the CSI Effect has started to reach its peak around this time with CSI, CSI:Miami, and CSI:NY being on the air).

People are going to have better feelings about police and the authorities, as 9/11 is still in popular memory and cops and firefighters are heroes. This will also be the middle of the Obama Administration, the MCU has begun it’s rise to prominence (Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk came out in 2008, Iron Man 2 in 2010, Thor and Captain America:The First Avenger in 2011) and Marvel superheroes outside of Spider Man and Blade are going to be in people’s memory.

And, with the understanding of the era, you can do call-backs. For example-has the department changed how it is organized only recently and people are still making sense of the new rules? Somebody could inadvertently walk in with a piece of information you could need.

You now have a whole lot of context and places to ask questions about how things are handled, and what things are done. They might remember somebody as looking like that “nice blonde boy with the long hair in that comic book movie” and drilling down from those kinds of details. A smartphone like an Apple iPhone could be a sign that the person is very well-off, since data costs along with the phone costs are so high.

From here, you now have all these little details that you can add to your story, organically, and help improve reader immersion. And, you have more things to research, add to your notes, and discover before you start writing.

Use Wikipedia (But Don’t Trust It Exclusively)

For many people-including writers-Wikipedia has been one of the best things to happen on the Internet. If you quickly need to find out some information on a subject-from corsets to coral reefs-you can punch the name into Wikipedia and get some basic information on any number of subjects. And Wikipedia is very useful for that kind of research.

But Wikipedia is a wiki by definition, which means that it’s possible for people to edit articles at just about any time as long as they’re allowed into the system. There have been a number of scandals involving wiki edits for a number of causes. And since the system is dependent upon the direct integrity of the people creating posts, there has been a number of incidents of bias showing up.

The best way to use Wikipedia is like a yeast starter for beer-it is definitely where you start from. It can provide you with an overview of your subject, it can provide links that can lead you to other websites, it can provide you with longer descriptions you can use to punch into Google Search and find out what’s out there.

Just remember to take what you read there with a grain of salt.

Checking Out Websites For Information

Websites are very helpful for information. If you need to figure out how to get your main character from Forbidden Planet in New York to Sushi Nakazawa? Google Maps (and it’s less than 20 minutes if you catch the right combination of the L and 1 trains). What is that fancy armor thing that every Space Marine has huge ones of? That’s a pauldron (and it’s shaped that way on the miniatures and in all the art because the original artist liked huge pauldrons). Why is the British Army called the British Army and England’s navy is the Royal Navy? Because the Army was raised in a different manner than the Royal Navy and involves a different series of steps.

Google has probably done more to quickly do research and find things out. Need to find a scholarly article on a subject? Use Google Scholar and find the references you need. Google Books offers thousands of out-of-print books for you to look at and review. And, by searching on Google, you can then go to websites that have the information that you need.

One word of warning-you want to watch for bias. Not only are we talking about websites and posts that are slanted maliciously, but also people that have just taken information from any source they can find and were not very critical about it. A good example is the history of corsetry. One of the biggest issues and…myths?…about corsetry is how Victorian-era corsets in general were bad for women and were on the same moral scale as Chinese foot binding. I knew a lot of people that did costuming and professional corset making, and there was none of these issues in their creations and they would laugh about these stories.

And yet…

…the horror stories were actually a mixture of facts and myths. The first and biggest one was that most of the corset myths came from poorly fitted and poorly worn corsets, both of which made things worse. Since most corsets in the era were ordered by catalog and by mail, you sometimes got very badly fitted corsets that were not cheap and people struggled to wear them after spending all that money. Then you had people that clearly were tightening them too far-and makers that would corsets that could be tightened too much, because obviously people wanted them.

Finally, you had the Victorian dress reformers, who would exaggerate any bad stories, exaggerate any issues, and all as a part to “rationalize” female fashion. Victorian dress reformers were a part of the wave of Victorian-era feminists and suffragette movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, and both tended to have a lot of overlapping membership.

And this overlapping membership means that you can find some of the strangest connections if you’re willing to look long enough. This means you have more material for your stories, because connections between people and groups means you have more possible details to share.

Show Your Local Library Some Love

Libraries are very important for somebody doing research, even if you only have a small library to work with. Often libraries not only have books on the subjects, but periodicals and more “long form” research materials, which can be very useful for getting more details on the subject you’re writing about. Many main libraries will have older newspapers and periodicals on microfilm and in storage, which can help you to get a sense of the era you’re writing for.

If your local library doesn’t have the books-either in the library itself or at another branch-ask about Interlibrary Loans and if you can find the books at another library or location. Just remember to return the books on time!

Is there a college or university near you? Their library might have the information that you need, as many college libraries have larger and wider collections than most public libraries. They may also have specialized libraries in the subjects that you’re studying or specific periodicals.

Unless you’re a student, you probably can’t check out books, but you could browse and make photocopies of the reading material there. Check with the front desk before you come in and remember that most college libraries use the Library of Congress classification system, not the Dewey Decimal system.

Finding Books On Amazon

Amazon.com has probably done more to help people to find out-of-print and rare books that most bookstores will not understand when you want to buy a copy. One of the favorite books that I read when I was younger-read until I destroyed my Dad’s paperback copies-was The Umpire Strikes Back. Written by Ron Luciano, he talked about his time as a Major League Baseball umpire in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of great stories and the “behind the scenes” history that was always more interesting than a dry recital of facts and figures.

Not a single bookstore around me carried it-after all, it was a paperback book from the 1980’s that had probably never been republished since the 1980’s. 

I can get it on Kindle instantly or order a new paperback copy at any time I want.

And that’s not the only thing I can find on Amazon. Small press publications on niche subjects such as World War I alternate history, comic books that are out of print, and a unique take on the cozy mystery-there’s a lot of options out there for you to look at and review.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be critical of what you find-especially in older books that might not have known what people would have discovered later. But even these older books can provide an insight into the world that the authors lived in, little bits of historical data that can give your writing and your world a more “lived in” feel to it. 

Conclusion

For the fiction writer, there’s a lot of places and ways that you can do research. And all of this research will lead to better stories, because you can spend more time writing the story. You can have the facts to hand on where your characters are going, what they might do when they get there, what they might be wearing, and what they could be eating or drinking.

You might use very few of these details but having them handy could mean that you can plug them in to fill a hole. Or inspire other ideas for your stories. And this kind of research can be a pleasure in itself, as you often discover things that you never knew. It’s like hunting for history-and discovering things long hidden that you can share with other people.

All of this just helps to make your stories stronger and makes it harder for that book to hit that wall in frustration.

We Got Rain!

It’s been a long time since we had rain, real honest-to-God rain and it was great to see and hear the weather in action.

Writing has been slow again, mostly because of my own personal mood has been sour. Mostly just plot work and note-taking.

Oh, and irritation. Amazing amounts of irritation. I’m not sure if I can blame Amazon for the end of most bookstores. Because as far as I can tell, most bookstores were run by people that had absolutely no clue how to run a business in general or specific. Or comic book stores, with the added bonus that there is so very little that I want to read or see these days.

…what do my fellow younger geeks like these days that doesn’t make me want to consider every bad Pacino rant ever?

Back to the gym on Monday. Life is interesting.

So, What’s Next?

That’s the big question, isn’t it?

What’s next?

New job has been a good, busy time all around. I’m currently on my first week of full-time advertising work, and discovering the limitations of the mediums that I work in.

Not the least of which is what happens when your boss doesn’t believe in them.

Waiting on my diploma to arrive. I didn’t go to my graduation ceremony because I didn’t want to get stuck in a crowd of coughing, sick people.

I hate the idea that I might be too old for conventions. I went to FanimeCon and KublaCon this year and I was not impressed. Or happy that I put the effort in to go to them. It might also be that I haven’t been to a con in nearly two years, and I’m out of practice.

Could be both.

Writing for The Winter Solist has been progressing. Not quite as fast as I’d like, but I’m getting there. Note-taking for A Roman Solist has been continuing.

…and, going back to the gum, starting off at three days a week and working my way up.

Fingers crossed.

Every Time You Think You’ve Gotten Out…

…you get dragged back in again.

So, between school and my internship and running errands and chores, I’ve had very little time to write or make blog posts, or do anything other than…

Well, school, internship, and running errands and chores.

But, I have Spring break and because gas prices are so insane, I won’t be going anywhere except my internship (I could take the time off, but I need the experience) and I could get stuff done, such as my various writing projects. I’ve had to put a lot of them on the back burner because I needed to stay on top of my homework.

…then, a few weeks ago, my father broke one of the bones in his foot and it’s been healing very slowly. His doctor extended the time he has to remain in his boot and not doing any heavy work, so I’m having to do more and more of it.

But, that’s fine and we’re ahead of schedule…

…then Mom get diagnosed with diabetes. And, now we have to change everything around here-diet, sleep times, habits, and guess who gets drafted in to help…because, I’m clearly “not doing anything.”

I don’t mind helping, it’s Mom and she should have been getting out a bit more, exercising more, long before this and I can’t even use a cookie-on-a-stick to provide some small amount of motivation for her to walk around the block with Dad.

…it’s been a long three, almost four months. But, I have to admit there are some good things. I’ll be getting my degree in May, I will have options for work, I might even have some actual fun at FanimeCon this year.

…but, something is going to happen, I’m just afraid of that and the dread doesn’t help any.

The Process of Projects

With school coming up, I”m trying to figure out how many things I can get done…especially since I have quite a bit of writing and document creation to do. And, my school will be going for remote learning at least three weeks (I won’t have to commute at least…), so that means I have some time up at the front of the semester.

But, there’s a lot of projects. Some of which I’m going to have to do from scratch because some of my older projects don’t exist anymore-and I need about four to six projects for my portfolio to provide when I apply for an internship. I think I have two or three projects that’ll work out-and have to make one to two more. Fingers crossed.

So, on the grounds of “things I’m trying to do,” I’m not able to post a new webpage/blog today. Just got a lot of things to keep track of.

But, it’s going to be exciting for the next few weeks…

Being Thankful This Year

It’s hard, sometimes, to remember that there are things to be thankful about.

The writing has been harder this year, but it’s getting somewhere. I’m dealing with far too many issues with California EDD and other government agencies. I’m convinced that I’m the only one that can see the monsters out there, the ones hiding in human skin. I’m not finding any job that wouldn’t be a disaster on so many levels. Entertainment has driven me to dive through my DVD and BluRay collection, lest I take an axe to the TV. Oh, and I’m capable of dealing with far too much bullshit than I like.

But.

I have my health. It’s still in reasonably good shape. I’m not broke and won’t have to wonder if I need to pay for medications, food, or rent any time school. I am going back to school next semester and will finish my degree program, which will look better on my resume. The Winter Solist is progressing, I’m almost near the big plot revelation and the large dance number. A few concept stories are being outlined, including A Solist In Rome.

I have my family. They’re good people and I love them.

It hasn’t been a good 2021, for the most part. I feel like my life has just been some kind of holding pattern since March 2020. But, it hasn’t been bad, and I can live with “okay” for now.

Attacking Your Brain With A Q-Tip…

…through your ears.

It’s been…hard to write. I don’t know how it is for other people, but looking for work is like dating for me. I hate the process of dating, especially the first few dates, because…you don’t know. You don’t know what works, what doesn’t work, what thing that you think is normal and expected won’t end everything right there. And…you’re left hanging for hours, days, weeks…and wondering if you should try something else and what you did wrong…

And, job fairs are even worse. It’s like speed dating, but with more possibilities of things going wrong.

Yes, it’s been hard to get anything done that hasn’t been job-hunting or psychological/social survival.

At the very least, I’m probably up one Taco Bell meal in sales of Solist At Large, so that’s something. (And, waiting for the day that I can measure my sales in something a little more substantive than that.)

Hopefully happier news coming up. Fingers crossed.

Coming Up On December

Well, it’s 11/30 and I’m going to have to talk about December plans.

Got in a fight with my psychiatrist-I went back to my old medication choices and started falling asleep and staying asleep without issue. We’re going to talk about this on Wednesday and hopefully it won’t be another medication disaster like the last two or so weeks.

I’ll be registering for a certificate program at my local JC (Marketing, btw) next week, so I can finish in May and start really looking for a new job. I am tired of mostly entry-level jobs and I think that 2021 isn’t going to be good for those kinds of jobs, either. Such is the nature of things, and marketing not only helps me with employment, but getting more books sold.

I hope.

In general…everybody’s down, even more than usual. The news is depressing, there’s nothing new that doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists in sheer frustration, and it’s not going to be the most exciting or interesting of holiday seasons this year. And, after the “excitement” of the last year, I would prefer a quiet ending. So, if anybody is reading this is planning on releasing zombies or any of the other cliche ways to make things worse, please don’t. Do something new and original-like turning 1% of the COVID-19 survivors into futa catboys and catgirls. Something like that.

On the book and publishing front-

  • The Winter Solist-Coming into spitting distance of the first proper draft, where I assemble all of the completed chapters into a single document. I think I’ll have to extend and revise at least the first third, as a lot of the extra plot padding was cut from there. When I get the book up to length, I’ll be doing the final editing, working on the Daz3D cover, and starting to plot out the third novel, A Solist In Rome.
  • Unknown Erotic Urban Fantasy Novel-I do have a rough “series” title for this book. I’m currently calling it “The Ethical Succubus,” and there’s a definite isekai flavor to the story I’m telling. If this does get out into the wild, I’m seeing a four to five book series.
  • Other Projects-No changes on the other projects, but I hope to see SOME kind of progress after the first of the year.

Back to writing and hopefully getting some more work done.

Writer’s Status (Ain’t Dead Yet-I)

So, I “technically” lost my job in August (formally separated vs. furlough) and had to switch over to a different health care provider. Which, fortunately enough, was through Covered California and Kaiser. And, sadly because of the Crow Flu, I can’t see my psychologist in person. We had a few on-line video cat appointments, and she wanted to get me off my current medication for insomnia. I can’t blame her for wanting to change medications, the medication I use has issues-you can build up a tolerance for it, it does have some issues at higher levels (which I was close to, but not at yet), and she was hoping to move me to something not as rough.

However, I’ve had issues for years with being able to turn my brain “off” for sleep, and I also had issues with what I call “hiccup sleep”. “Hiccup sleep” is when you sleep, wake up for a bit, and go back to sleep again. Not the most helpful thing for getting a good night’s sleep. Oh, and sleep apnea, which means I have a C-Pap. The medication I was using did well for what it did, and I had the rare insomnia run-slight more over the last few months. So, I’m in the process of switching over from medication A to medication B, and doing well on half-and-half. Last Friday was when I completely cut out medication A (old) and was entirely on medication B (new).

Worst insomnia I had for years. Pretty much small skips of sleep, oversensitive for the C-Pap machine, etc, etc, etc. So, I do some research and discover that getting off medication A takes a few days to clear out my system. Okay, let the psychiatrist know and take a slightly higher dose of medication B for Saturday night’s sleep.

About as bad as Friday night. I think I got some more sleep, but not that much more.

Sunday night? Upped the dose, and keep trying. Didn’t sleep well at all.

Monday night? I actually got a night’s sleep. Yay!

Last night? Took me nearly four hours to get to sleep and got about four hours of sleep.

Tonight? We’ll see. I’m hopeful…

Anyways, about my writing progress-

  • The Winter Solist-At about 2/5th to 1/2th of the first draft, and hope to get close to a finished first draft before the end of the year. I’m happy with what I’ve got so far, and had to do several “for plot” revisions.
  • Unknown Erotic Urban Fantasy Novel-No title yet, not even sure if I’ll be publishing it or just writing it to clear my palate, but I’m writing it anyways. Worse case, it’ll give me an excuse to figure out how to write erotic scenes better.
  • Other Projects-Nothing to share just yet, fingers crossed for one project idea that I will be working on after the first of the year. No details yet.