Research Can Be Fun Too!

If you’re a writer like me, you might start out with an idea for a story (or book).  Maybe you map it out a little, plan the characters and plot.  Then you probably start writing your scenes.  Well, I imagine some writers are more organized than others.  I imagine a lot are more organized than me.

At some point during the writing process, I come to a complete stand still.  Why?  Well, because any creative endeavor requires food.  Am I talking about real nutrition, the craving our bodies have for sustenance?  No, not really.  Most stories require a little bit of research.

Now, some writers may do the research beforehand.  I don’t.  I write all that I can first.  I get to know my characters and I write the scenes I can.  Then I say, “Okay, what are we missing?  What don’t I know that I should inform myself of?”   Sometimes, on my good days, I look up the information as I write.  It halts progress a little, but at least I have the facts I need.

In historical romance or historical fiction, this endeavor could get very detailed.  You may have trouble finding the information.  Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll be so overloaded with it, you may have to be selective about what you use.  

Some writers might use their local libraries to do research.  A few may find that library lacking and decide to find what they can online.  The internet is a great resource if used correctly.  I have used Wikipedia a lot, both because it is known for its accuracy, but also because it is user friendly.  For historical research, it’s best to evaluate your sources.  If it comes from a history site, you’re probably okay.  If it’s a random comment someone has thrown on a forum  without any links to back it up, it’s probably not a good idea to use at all.  Most of us learn these techniques in academic writing if we’ve ever written essays or research papers.  I’m just reiterating it.  Going straight to a textbook is always good, but in lieu of that, you still have to do your homework.   

I have seen a lot of helpful books on Amazon that you can buy.  They cover whole eras.  These books can be either political in theme or just simply helpful tools for writers.  There are some wonderful titles I have on my Wishlist.  If you’re writing about pirates, maybe you would like to try Under the Black Flag:  The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates or A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.  If you’re writing about the Medieval era, how about The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England:  A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century?  Have I read these titles?  No.  So I’m not endorsing them in any fashion.  There are simply some great books out there that you can buy.  If you have the budget, you might consider this option.

Whatever avenue you choose (maybe it’s a combination of them), evaluate your sources.  For some of the feminist viewpoints in Upon Your Return, my historical romance, I found a dissertation online about it.  Then I researched the student’s sources to back up those facts.  Fara, the main character, had a time ruminating on the rise of feminism from her contemporaries.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this topic.  Even the smallest work may require research.  I have written stories that don’t require much.  I looked up a city and local points of interest.  That was the extent of it.  And that’s fine too.  But, for a book, you are probably going to have to break down and do your research.  Probably a lot of it.

In Upon Your Honor, the sequel to Upon Your Return, I enjoyed finding lots of information on the different ports the characters visited.  I did not realize how much fun that would be.  Was it time-consuming?  Yes, but it was worth it.

I recently busted my butt to finish writing a paranormal romance short story.  The limit on word count for the publisher was 15,000, which made me more than a little nervous.  I managed to get it to 14,950, but I digress.  What made it paranormal was the Wiccan religion.  The main character was a witch.  So, I definitely had to do my research for that.  Since the character did spells, I had to find real spells.  And I had to include any materials she might use for them.  I found a lot of Wiccan sites, but I made sure that the spells I used were common knowledge, not something made up.  And the elements used in such a ritual had to be used for good, not evil.  For example, blood is not used in the true Wiccan religion.  That would be sacrilege to the purpose of Wicca.  I also looked up the meaning of certain herbs so that I could use those in the story.  I won’t even go into the importance of candles here.  I didn’t do too bad with the story, though, because one of my beta readers was Wiccan (a fact I didn’t realize before) and she said I grasped the religion very well.  So, that made me feel good.

My point here is that even in a short story, research is essential.  Even if you use a fact here and there, I think it makes the story seem real.  With setting especially, we have done our jobs if we can describe a place well.  In my historical research, I spend a lot of time pouring over journal entries from the time period or reading descriptions of places and comparing them to what I have learned about a place in order to understand how it should look.  A lot of the descriptions in my sequel came from actual accounts.  Of course, I formed a picture in my head and put it in my own words, but I wanted to be as accurate as possible.  And if I can make a reader feel like he or she is in that place with the characters, then that is all the validation I need.

So, do your research, check your sources and use that information to create the best story you can.  Your readers will thank you.


  1. Research is very important, especially in historical fiction. Even fantasy and sci fi the world needs to be plausible. Willing suspension only goes so far. The sort of folks who read these genres will notice if your world-building is poor and that, in turn makes for a poor story.

  2. Interesting helpful post, Marie. Yes, research can be fun and it does take tons of time. I haven't read Upon Your Return yet, but have it on my kindle & it will be interesting to read into the history. I have 3 books I bought for a future book I started on, just need to take the time to read them.

    About the importance of being correct and doing our research. I'm sure I spent 1,000's of hours doing research on my book. My inspirations came, in some form or other, from real life and of course I wanted to be accurate in the details. On a review someone gave the other day (which wasn't bad, a 4 star) the person said men in brothels don't act like I described. Yet, in some of my readings I found that some woman prostitutes, in earlier years, were mistreated (look at the sex slave crisis that's going on today). Maybe this person didn't remember that this was set in the 1950's. On my next book I'm going to outline all my research & find a way to list it in the book. Yes, it is important to do research & a book is better taken if it's accurate, so on my next book I think I'm going to outline my research and have it listed in the book.

  3. I understand what you mean, Kathleen. It's not a bad idea. Even though I researched my book as well, I have had the occasional person question me on those facts. I think that is why you will occasionally see a note to the reader in a book, describing what is true and what is fiction.

  4. I often say my characters lead me on a merry chase, bring me to far-off lands and putting me in situations I know nothing about. Needless to say, countless hours are spent on research; be it online, at the library or interviewing folks directly. The depth of detail required for a historical romance is mind boggling. You need to virtually become an expert on fashion, furniture, and food, on genealogy, botany, geography and meteorology. You need to know folklore and legends. If you have a ship, you need to know every gun, mast, sail and function of each crewman.

    If you are throwing a London Ball, you need to be precise if it is during "the season" or the "little season". You need to know which kind of flowers are in bloom at the time so you decorations are accurate. You need to know which materials would have been used to fashion the gowns, what accessories would have been worn with it, and even which street the dress shoppe would most like have been on and the route you took to get to the shop. You need to know what food and drink you would have served, what music would have played and what dances would have been danced. Would the ball be a one day event or would it be a house party culminating in a ball. What events and accommodations would you have for your guests who were staying for more than one night? What mode of transportation did they use to arrive at the ball?

    I could go on and on. At times it becomes so exhausting, by the time you've finished writing the scene you feel you HAVE just hosted a party for five-hundred guests. But, that is the type of detail needed to physically transport your reader into your story. The trick is for the reader to simply be able to absorb the surrounding and not be distracted by them. Now I’m digressing.

    Yes, research is vital to add to the authenticity of your writing. But it can be also fun if you start getting excited about what you are researching. The research itself can transport the author much the way the author transports her reader.

    Thank you Marie for yet another wonderful article! I so enjoy reading what you write.

  5. A part of what I do is create graphic novels and a fun part of my research is doing searches for images to use as reference photos for the drawings. I find that the photos I look at often inspire a certain "camera" point of view or even an expression, or I'll find one item while looking for another that works so much better. But there are things like period pieces, too. I am currently working on a story that takes place during the Great Depression. Sometimes I don't know if certain inventions were either invented yet or even in common use, so I'll do an image search on Google, for example, just this morning I needed to find out if they had flashlights in the 1930s. So, I did an image search for "flashlight 1930s" and saw not only that they were a common item by then, but what they looked like. The images put me in the era and helped me feel what it was like to see those things, and to deepen my own sense of context for my story.

    1. Exactly, Mark. I spend a lot of time looking at old pictures just so I can describe a place the way it looked then.


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