Agent Jacqui Lipton explains why it's important to do research, even for fiction.
A long time ago in a galaxy not very far away, I tried to write sci-fi and fantasy. I loved to ask “what if” questions and create new worlds that reflected characters, settings and conflicts from the depths of my imagination. One of the great things about those genres is how much you can make up. Of course, even in speculative fiction your world building has to have an internal consistency and cohesion, but if you want the grass to be purple or the sky to be green, you can try it out.
Writers of realistic fiction have to stick with the facts to a much greater extent. There’s still a ton of world building and character development to do, but the realistic fiction writer has to make things make sense as they would in the real world. This goes for setting, character, conflict and all those little craft elements that make up your story. Even if your realistic setting is a fictional town or city, there has to be enough “real world” authenticity for the reader to buy into the story.
This sounds like a pain in the butt, but it can also be a lot of fun—at least if you’re a research nerd like me. Actually, with my academic background, my problem is that I often go too far down all sorts of research rabbit holes and don’t know when to stop.
How much to research will vary from project to project and likely author to author, but there are some tricks and traps I want to share with you in this blog post.
What do you do if parts of your story take place somewhere you’ve never visited yourself? If it’s within your means (time, money etc.), you can always try and visit that place and take some notes. Otherwise, Google can be your friend. If you want to write a realistic, engaging and immersive setting based on a real place, you should ideally do some research to make sure the streets are where they’re supposed to be, the natural landscape includes the correct flora and fauna, etc., and the temperature is accurate. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read stories set in Melbourne, Australia (where I grew up) and it’s immediately clear that the author has not only never set foot in Australia—understandable because it’s a long way away from the U.S. and expensive to get there—but also hasn’t done any research about the place. There are no koalas and kangaroos wandering around the city streets—unless you’re writing about a post-apocalyptic future where marsupials rule the world.
Systems and Processes
If you’re dealing with a particular system or process—like a school system, a sports league, a government authority etc.—the same thing goes. For example, if your protagonist is going to get in trouble with the law, make sure you understand how the relevant procedures would work in that situation: and in the relevant place at the relevant time. If your protagonist is going into foster care or has a special education plan, same thing goes. In other words, you can’t just make this stuff up or the story won’t ring true. The reader will be asking: Does that really happen instead of engaging with the narrative. Again, even if your story is set in a fictional town, what is the likelihood that town will have completely different rules about how schools, offices, businesses etc. work?
Businesses, Buildings and Events
If your character is applying for a visa, or going to the zoo, or going to a well known music festival, make sure you think about things like: opening hours, ticket prices, security protocols, distance and time needed to get from the character’s house (or wherever they started out) to the place they need to go. These are usually pretty easy things to research, particularly if you are dealing with a contemporary time period, but if you are writing about something that happened in the past, it might be a little harder to dig up this information. You may need to enlist the help of a librarian or find someone knowledgeable about the particular place and time you are writing about.
…no amount of beautiful writing will stop an agent or editor from losing the thread of a narrative that doesn’t make logical or factual sense, particularly if the information could have been easily researched.
Unless you’re writing historical fiction set in a period in which you personally experienced something, it’s not enough to say: “This is how it worked when I was at school/on the local soccer team/trying out to be a cheerleader.” The sad truth of the world is that the only constant is change. Things change. Things may have changed since you experienced them. So even if you think you know how something works, where something is, what a place looks like, make sure key issues haven’t changed.
For example, if you’re writing about a character in a gifted children’s program today, make sure you know how the system works today, even if you experienced that kind of program 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Chances are the laws or procedures have changed since you experienced it.
Again, Google can be your friend here.
Be aware of when your story is set and make sure social attitudes you describe mirror those prevailing at the time. That’s easier to do with contemporary realistic fiction because we can observe the world around us to gauge social attitudes to issues like, say, the Covid vaccine. But if you’re writing historical fiction, it’s important to think about prevailing social attitudes to key issues at the time, particularly if you reference those issues in your work: attitudes to politics, the economy, cultural differences etc.
A note for nonfiction authors...
… and fiction authors with fact-heavy elements in their work. How do you go about finding your research? Obviously, you have to do more than a Wikipedia search if your narrative relies heavily on factual information. And for some subjects you’ll likely find way too much material available, while with others you may find very little. A trip to the library (in person or online) is often advisable. Google searching to find experts in the field and interviewing them can also be helpful. For all its downsides, digital technology does make these connections a lot easier.
The Bottom Line
Of course all of this is a general overview to get you thinking about research—and how, and how much, you may need to do for your works in progress. Your mileage will definitely vary from project to project. But be aware that when submitting to agents, no amount of beautiful writing will stop an agent or editor (or any other reader) from losing the thread of a narrative that doesn’t make logical or factual sense, particularly if the information could have been easily researched.