Research. For some fiction writers, it’s the best part of the process. For others, it’s a torturous chore. But either way, it has to be done if you want readers to believe in your story and characters. Because my novel, Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, was set in Victorian England, the research process was intense and lengthy. But it hammered home some crucial aspects of doing serious research. Here are my five biggest takeaway lessons:
1. DIG DEEP.
It’s nice to think that Wikipedia and other free online sources will be all that you need, but unless you’re writing a middle-school paper, they won’t be. Go beyond your computer, to libraries and to the “real world.”
You may also have to spend some money. When writing Bodkin and Whitechapel, I had to spend $54 for a library in England to create a PDF of rare archival material (a typescript of personal diaries) for me. There was no other way to read it except to fly there. But that $54 (and hours of emailing back-and-forth) was well-spent because it provided details and a character foundation that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
2. GO TO THE SOURCE
For fiction writers, interviews and first-hand reportage remains the gold standard. If you’re writing about a train conductor and you don’t interview an actual train conductor, you can’t really expect to write the best story possible. Sometimes just a five- or ten-minute chat will yield better information than days of reading.
One thing I learned was that when you’re writing about a non-contemporary time period (e.g. the Victorian era), read materials from that time period—not just books about it. For example, in addition to the diaries mentioned above, I dug up books written by Victorians about charity and poverty, and these were extremely helpful to understanding the zeitgeist of late 19th-century England. Another tremendously beneficial exercise was reading facsimile copies of London Times articles from the 1880s. That is, PDFs of the actual article in the Times, with the original font, layout, advertisements. No other aspect of my research was as helpful to creating an authentic Victorian tone and feel.
3. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ACADEMIC LIBRARIES
Public library systems in major cities are great and will often have most anything you need, but the libraries of large universities are even better. I found those Times facsimiles through the University of Pennsylvania Library’s website.
Even if you’re not directly affiliated with that school, most academic libraries have reciprocal arrangements, so don’t be afraid to try. Or beg a friend to “lend” you his or her access – they may be able to log you in to the school’s library website to access tons of great online resources and scanned materials.
At the least, most schools allow non-students into the library at certain times, so you could find the book you need and take copious notes (or pictures of the pages with your phone). For example, if you live in New York City, NYU’s Bobst Library is somewhat accessible for visitors. Also, foreign-country university libraries (especially in English-speaking countries) are usually willing to help if you email to ask nicely. (The hardest part is hunting down the right person to ask—do that first.)
4. DO NOT USE YOUR RESEARCH TO SHOW OFF YOUR RESEARCH
The information you uncover with your research should infuse your story without necessarily being explicitly in the text. Think of it like making tea: the information you find is like the tea leaves. You don’t drink the leaves: you use them to create a smooth, consistent brew. That also means you should take plenty of time to digest your research.
A decent rule of thumb for research is that only about 10% of it should directly end up in your story. Usually one or two authentic details are more memorable than twenty of them. If you try to cram everything you’ve found into your story “to make it realistic,” you’ll just make it boring. Remember, you’re a fiction writer writing a story, not a scientist writing up data.
5. DON’T CONFUSE RESEARCH WITH PROCRASTINATION
Research is hard, but writing and revising is harder. Avoid the temptation to endlessly research to put off the really hard work. It’s a fine line, but usually you’ll know when you’re “full” and not really absorbing anything new. In fact, diving in and banging out a first draft, and then going back to research, is often more effective. Too much information before you start drafting can be paralyzing.
Also keep in mind that you’ll never know everything. If you’re writing about an earthquake, you’ll never know everything about earthquakes because new knowledge is being uncovered by seismologists even as you’re writing. Stay focused on what’s really relevant to your story, rather than trying to become the world’s expert.
Research can be arduous and time-consuming, but it’s also the best way to generate new ideas for your stories and characters. Whenever I feel “stuck,” what “unsticks” me best is learning new stuff. So if you start researching and find that your original story plans are disintegrating, good! Be grateful. Why would you want to write something that rings false? Fiction may not be “fact”—but it still has to be true.
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M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a freelance and journalistic writer in Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as publishing short fiction in various literary magazines. Keller is the author of Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, the other side of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde that reverses the classic tale by bringing forth the saintly counterpart of a ruthless banker. He lives in Philadelphia.