Writer’s Digest just published my third article in the 100th anniversary edition of their magazine, which reaches about 70,000 subscribers across the country. The magazine also published my first article last year about how to craft the perfect media pitch and my second article in April about how to create successful book media kits.
My new article appeared in the November/December issue, specifically in the regular IndieLab column that follows trends in the self-publishing business. This article focuses on my experience conducting journalistic research for both The Black Lens and my upcoming novel, Real Girl, which my agent is currently pitching to publishers. Here’s the full story:
How to Research Like a Reporter
Too many writers start their stories without any research. Even those who do a little “research” barely scratch the surface, sticking to what they can Google. While the reasons vary, some authors find the word itself intimidating. Others assume research only applies to scholarly nonfiction works or autobiographies. But many writers don’t even know where to begin, especially when they’re still trying to figure out the direction of their story.
This can lead to a lack of focus that grinds the story—and ultimately readers—to a halt. Research can help give you that focus to guide the story, because it opens your eyes to those little details that will immerse readers in your world and propel them from beginning to end. This column will teach you how to research like a reporter so you can enrich your stories, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
Why You Should Research
Research grounds writing in reality. Every story must be believable—even the most speculative work—and research helps readers feel immersed in the world you have created for them. That is essential for nonfiction, but even crime thrillers and sci-fi novels need to remain grounded. Lisa Gardner, a No. 1 New York Times bestselling thriller novelist, says that “Research should meld seamlessly with the tightly woven fabric of your fictional world, giving the reader a satisfying feeling of being simultaneously swept away, while remaining anchored to a world they know and understand.”
Three Ways to Research
Research can involve many strategies, but here are three of the most helpful:
- Interviews: Start by identifying the people who know about your subject the best, then ask them the seven main questions of any good story: who, what, when, where, how, why, and so what? For my crime thriller The Black Lens, I interviewed survivors of human trafficking, along with police officers and social workers who try to help them. For my sci-fi thriller Real Girl, I spent hours talking with cybersecurity experts, virtual reality coders, and even manufacturers of artificially intelligent robots. Each interview took my fictional story to a whole new level of reality.
- Exposure: Personal exposure helps your readers focus on the five senses that are sometimes missing from books. Start by reflecting on your genre. If you are writing historical fiction, tour old sites and read ancient records. Maybe you’re drafting a mystery that involves a murder by shooting but have never fired a gun in your life; sign up for a gun class and learn what it feels like to load, discharge, and clean your weapon.
- Travel: It doesn’t matter if you are writing a young adult novel or an autobiography—every story needs a strong sense of place. Travel remains almost one guaranteed way to give your story that sense of place, but it doesn’t have to be an expensive trip overseas. For The Black Lens, I drove to some of the grittiest streets of my own city to see how social workers help sex trafficking victims at night. For Real Girl, I flew to another state to tour a manufacturing center of lifelike robots that people can interact with through virtual reality. Think about where you could go to make your story even more real, immersive, and ultimately believable.
How to Use Research
Whatever you do, don’t dump research into your story through blocks of text with technical jargon that explain everything. Show, don’t tell. Weave your research in methodically throughout your plot, characters, and setting, remembering that less is more. Always ask yourself: Does this information advance the story, or just show off how much you learned?
“A writer cannot do too much research, though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel,” says George R.R. Martin, bestselling author of A Song of Ice and Fire series, which was adapted into HBO’s Game of Thrones. “Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.”
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