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Steps to Research Success


Research is the foundation of writing. When we draft a novel, part of our world-building may involve the collection and examination of information on Ancient Rome, modern-day Russia, or the effects of global warming on hummingbirds. Regardless of the subject, research will provide a basis for our words. Granted, some research can be as simple as making a phone call to your local police department or typing a query into Google. But what happens when the research gets tough?

illustration of author

‘Create a plan of attack before pounding the pavement…’ Illustration by Josh Quick

Some writers are so intimidated by the idea of research that they forgo the process altogether even though research should be as satisfying as writing. As the old saying goes, “If you’re not enjoying your research, you’re writing the wrong book.” Let’s look at ways to make the research process quick, painless, and positive.

Be Joe Friday. Dragnet, a cop show from the 1950s, featured a detective named Joe Friday, whose catchphrase was “Just the facts.” Joe rebuked gossip, extraneous details, and speculation. This is the same mindset we should use when conducting research for a project. Track down the source and settle for nothing less than verifiable facts, data, eyewitness testimony, science, et cetera. If finding the source material proves impossible, verify the information through three reputable secondary outlets before incorporating those findings into your work.

Be Attentive. Istanbul was Constantinople. Things change. What we were sure of yesterday, may be false today. As the head of your research department, keep abreast of changes by double-checking even those things you think you already know.

Be Organized. Create a plan of attack before pounding the pavement for relevant sources. Pinpoint the specific topic for research to avoid wasting time. For example, narrow things down to the aftermath of the Third Punic War rather than the broad topic of the Roman Republic. Use folders to organize relevant findings, giving each section or chapter its own file.

Be Friendly. Conduct a personal interview if the information is accessible via an expert. All that’s required to be successful is a little preparation. Local universities are a great start for this as are professional organizations and clubs. Research your interviewee and their area of expertise ahead of time to maximize your interview window. Once you’ve done the homework, formulate questions and make the inquiry as professional as possible. Whether in person, over the phone, or via email, your interview should bring out the best in your subject.

Be Collegiate. Using your town’s college or university library is often more effective than going to the public library. You’ll gain access to electronic databases that offer scientific studies, research reports, statistics, and expert opinions not available on the Internet or in your average bookstore. Of course, you’ll still need to verify the material by cross-referencing the author’s qualifications with other noted experts, ensuring the work is current, and pinpointing the purpose of the materials (i.e. not a company’s promotional materials disguised as a research study). The librarian will be happy to assist you, and most universities offer free library cards to local residents.

Remember, audiences are notorious for finding the smallest thread of illogic and asking WHY, WHY, WHY until the whole story unravels. One false statement or inconsistency can destroy an otherwise solid story. That’s why research is an important step for writers of all levels and genres. Be proactive and learn some definitive research techniques. Three books that may prove helpful are The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff; The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth and Gregory Colomb; and Researching Online for Dummies by Reva Basch and Mary Ellen Bates.

Andrea Johnson (Guest Blogger)

Andrea J. Johnson is a writer and editor who specializes in commercial fiction. She holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Seton Hill University and a copyediting certification from UC San Diego. Her craft essays have appeared on several websites, including LitReactor and Funds for Writers, and she’s recently completed a new cozy courtroom mystery novel. To learn more about Andrea’s work, follow @ajthenovelist on Twitter.