The Importance of Research
Hi, Inkspot readers! Today, I want to talk about how I do research. It helps that I happen to be married to a mystery writer. His name is Will Thomas, and he’s written eight books in an award-winning mystery series involving two Victorian detectives named Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn. For years, he’s said that research was his favorite part of writing, and because we love England and reading classic mysteries by authors like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, I could see why. What’s easier than picking up a favorite book and soaking up the ambience and mystery that the writer has created entirely for us?
For years, I was happily in the background of my husband’s writing career, typing for him, editing here and there, and working as a research assistant to help in any way I could. And then one day I realized that all of the behind-the-scenes work I had done was not only for his benefit; I was accruing a great deal of information that could be used for a novel of my own.
Set aside the fact that I had told myself I wouldn’t write a book set in England, or that I wouldn’t write a mystery. It turned out that those years of research and life experiences made it an easy choice for my debut novel, The English Boys, when inspiration finally hit. So, I’d like to share some of the tips of doing great research when you’re writing a novel.
Whenever possible, visit the location you plan to write about. I was lucky enough to have a husband who had set his books in London and wanted to do research there. Most of the on-site experiences occurred before I ever began to write my book. I had stood on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, without knowing that the opening page of my future novel would be set in that very spot. Several scenes from the novel were written from direct experience, too: the pub where Daniel and Marc discuss the murder of Tamsyn Burke, as well as the courtyard of St. Mary Abbots Church in London near Daniel’s flat. Having spent time in that courtyard added to my ability to describe it to the reader. It helped to know the hustle and bustle of the city and its rhythm before I began to write.
But, of course, we are not always able to travel to the town or country where our novel has been set. In that case, material gained from independent research can help give you the sense of realism you want in your book. Here are some tips to help.
Read, read, read, and hit the library hard. The library is an excellent resource for anything you want to know. You can’t assume that everything you read online is accurate. Make sure you back up your suppositions with facts that you can pin down in actual books. Although many libraries are making the move to provide more digital than print information, interlibrary loans allow you an opportunity to access information your own library might not have. These are usually available for a very small fee and give you a wider field of information for your writing.
Go online to look for videos. In my second novel, I wanted to have my characters walk a particular path close to an actual river, in a place I had not been to before. Believe it or not, when I Googled it, I found a video of someone who had walked the path, filmed it on their camera, and uploaded it to YouTube, which provided the very experience I needed to bring a chapter alive. I could “walk” that path and see precisely what my character would see when I wrote the scene.
Know your facts. Because I write crime novels, I always do research into the laws and statutes specific to the location about which I am writing. I also make it a habit to read newspaper articles from that area, which helps give my writing a finer sense of definition and purpose. It’s important to be as authentic as possible so that your readers are satisfied.
Keep a journal. I record all kinds of facts and trivia that appeal to me, some of which will later appear in a book. The things we ourselves learn as we go along in life add touches of realism to your story.
Know your characters long before they appear on paper. I once had the opportunity to hear an interview with the late author Henning Mankell, who wrote the Wallander series, and I will never forget his advice: know everything that will happen in the story before you write a single word. While most of us won’t know the whole story before we begin - novels are often organic and morph into something interesting along the way - I’ve tried to get to know my characters in a deeper way than I once thought I would. I write practice scenes and character sketches to see how they speak and behave. I get to know their feelings and habits to understand the conflicts they’re dealing with long before they are faced with whatever situation I am going to put them in.
Interview sources, whether in person, by email, or by phone. For my second novel, I emailed Harrod’s department store in London to ask them a particular question to help with a scene. They were most helpful, and with that information I was able to add a detail to my book that will matter later. Over the last two or three years, I’ve spoken to many direct sources who were able to provide information that I couldn’t have gotten any other way.
A well-written novel is one in which the research shines. And it happens to be one of the most interesting parts of writing.
Thanks, Julia! I've never thought about looking online for videos before--I'm going to try that today! Do you do most of your research before writing the first draft or just enough to get started? (Is there such a thing as being a pantster when it comes to research?)
Julia Thomas is the author of The English Boys, published by Midnight Ink, which earned a starred review and was named Debut of the Month in the July 2016 issue of Library Journal. She is married to author Will Thomas, who writes a crime series set in Victorian London. In addition to writing, she loves reading, photography, and playing with her three adorable Pekes.