By Karen Randau
Research is a key to captivating writing. Whether you’re composing a novel, a blog post, or an email, accurate facts improve authenticity and entice readers to the next sentence, paragraph, page or chapter.
A novelist friend summed it up when she said she researched a topic all day to write one sentence. You don’t want to spend a day exploring every clause, but some passages are worth a deep-dive.
For my novels, I’ve investigated weaponry, Iraqi antiquities, luxurious hotels, panic attacks, marriage rituals in Honduras, brewing tea from a poisonous Scottish flower, bomb-making techniques for major and minor impact, the progression of a disease from food poisoning to a brain disorder, a remote spot in Russia, and more than I ever imagined about the spies who live among us. My current research explores the long-term consequence of a coma and how to recover.
How Much Research Is Enough?
Every detail matters in marketable writing, but how do you know how deep to dive into a topic? And how do you know how much is enough? For my research, I’ve expanded on the who-what-when-where-why technique I learned in journalism school.
Who: Understand every character beyond the color of their hair and eyes. Consider their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers. What are their favorite colors, fragrances, music, sports, fashion, and phrases? When outlining, do this for major characters. As you write, consider the “who” for every scene. Ensure that each sentence articulates who is doing what to whom. To research the “who,” I find celebrities who represent what I’m creating and keep them in mind as I write.
What: The big “what” is the framework of your story, the overall theme. But many smaller “whats” construct the full architecture. What is the role of each character? What happens in each scene to propel the story? What is the next big twist or the ending hook of each chapter? What drives the antagonist and protagonist? Research can help by understanding similar real-life situations.
Where: Construct a setting readers experience with their senses, and transport them to that place. What large and small details can we see? What does it smell and sound like—and how does the character react? When a character touches something, what do they feel against their skin? Many writers research by traveling to the places in their stories. Others learn about potential settings through websites such as YouTube, the experiences of other people, and artificial intelligence devices connected to a phone or computer.
When: In what season does the story occur? What time does each scene happen? What is the story’s timeline, and how does each scene contribute? Research can help you get this right. For example, when it’s summer in North Dakota, it’s winter in Bolivia. Certain flowers only open at night, others in the daylight. Research details to save readers from tripping on your mistakes.
Why: Why include each character in your story? Why do they do what they do? Research can give you reasons for including or deleting people, places, and things in your writing. For a weekly news column I write, I’ve researched things like why one country hates another—and the answer goes back millennia but contributes to everyday modern life. It affects current world politics and diplomacy. This type of detail might take hours to understand enough to write an informative yet stimulating sentence.
How: How does each scene or character drive the story forward? How does a character achieve their “what”? How do you make a bomb merely to scare someone? How does an electrical fire start? For a contemplative mood, how does an ant travel through grass? How does a character’s mood manifest physically?
To research the who, what, where, when, why, and how of your writing, I encourage you to use the internet, travel, conversations, and artificial intelligence for accuracy, authenticity, and intrigue.
Karen Randau is the author of the four novels in the Rim Country Mystery series and one of seven in the Tawnee Mountain Mysteries novellas. Her most recent novel is Deadly Payload, is now on Amazon. Connect with her at facebook.com/karenrandauauthor or learn more at karenrandau.com.
Learn more about strategies for selling your writing work in the Writer's Digest book, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published by Windy Lynn Harris.