The Power of Research in Fiction Writing


So you decide to write a novel. After all, it’s nothing like writing tedious research papers for a college class, right? Wrong. Writing a novel – or any story for that matter – involves research. The product is creative, hopefully more so than a college-level research project, but the process can feel a lot like homework.

Even surreal and fantasy stories require investigation. In fact, these genres often need more preparation a true-to-reality setting. In the end, the important thing is to do you research before you get started, and here’s why:

Your story needs a universe, even if it’s the one you already live in.

Let’s say you’re writing a story that takes place in your hometown. Regardless of your familiarity with the location, you’ll need to start gathering information about your surroundings to convey the location to your audience. The key is adding specific details.

Consider the following examples:

  1. She drove down the street to her childhood home, rows of tall, familiar trees blowing gently in the wind by the road as she passed.

  2. Her 1996 Honda Civic bumped down Harper Lane toward her childhood home, familiar rows of Hemlock evergreens bending in the wind.

In Example 1, the reader doesn’t glean much about the character. In Example 2, the audience discovers several details about the protagonist: the car she drives (and possibly her financial status), the specific location of the house, and the type of trees along the road. A clever reader might deduce the character is from coastal Oregon or Washington since that is where Hemlock evergreens grow.

Science fiction and fantasy don’t work without the laws of nature.

When it comes to writing fantasy and science fiction, establishing the rules of your universe is imperative. A great example of this is Harry Potter. While Harry’s story takes place in a magical world beyond the reader’s experience, JK Rowling takes special care to establish the rules in it.

In some cases, these rules direct the story. Harry’s wand, for example, shares a special connection with the wand of his enemy. Rowling establishes this connection early in the first book, even though she reveals the consequences much later.

These details, the “laws of nature,” anchor the reader to the story. Without them, tension and resolution are little more than deus ex machina.

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