Do you think that research is only for nonfiction writers? Wrong. Novelists must get their facts right, too. Here are some things I research.
Characters: Research Psychology and Tropes
I often research behavior from a psychologist’s point-of-view. I want to know the typical stages of grief. Or what are some common character traits of a leader. What does it mean for someone to be the third-born in a family.
I’m looking for typical behavior in a certain situation by a certain group of people. I don’t necessarily follow it exactly, but it gives me options and possibilities. When I researched the stages of grief, I found five typical steps (though some argue it’s four and some say six): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. IF I organized a story around these stages, Denial would be Act 1. Act 2 would include Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. That would leave Acceptance for Act 3. Do you see how that gives a novelist a loose structure to write within? Huge variations are possible at every stage, but by following this, I get the emotional journey of someone grieving.
Tropes are another easy place for inspiration. A trope is a typical literary device for a certain genre or situation. In other words, like the stages of grief, it tells you what COULD happen in certain places of your story.
Go to TVTROPES.org and click on FILTERS. You’ll see a variety of genres, narrative types and universal tropes. I clicked on Combat and found these tropes: Combat commentator, helicopter blender, curb stomp battle, there is no kill like overkill, all your colors combined, air jousting, apologetic attacker, shadow pin, impaled with extreme prejudice, and so on. These are typical tropes that COULD happen during combat. If you click through to one, it also gives examples of the trope in various genres.
This is a kind of character or plot research that helps me figure out plot, especially when I’m stuck on what comes next. I look at the possibilities for fights and then figure out which one works best in my story. By knowing that has gone before, I can more easily figure out how to do it in a fresh and different way.
Plot: Research Setting
Tropes work well for plot, as well.
Plot research often entails something about geography. Often a character is moving across a certain terrain and I need to know something of the landscape, plants, animals, distances, and so on. If it’s set in a real place on Earth, I look do a couple things. First, I look at photos on Google, Flickr, and Google Earth. I love Google Earth‘s ability to drive along certain streets. Or you could fly from your location to a designated spot. Fascinating stuff. While looking over a location, you can measure distances, pull up photos, and more.
For a recent story, I flew around Mt. Rainier, Washington. I virtually traveled roads, measured the distance between a couple places, and checked elevations. The story would be false and riddled with errors without the confirmation of details.
Culture: Research Time Appropriate Details
The culture, especially of historical fiction or science fiction, must be consistent and believable. For historical cultures, there’s just lots of reading to do. What sort of clothing, food, houses, transportation, etc. are used? For science fiction, think about Edgar Rice Burrough’s novels about Barsoom, the culture on Mars. He invented other races, strange animals, fascinating religions and political parties battling for control of Barsoom. They all ring true. Science fiction/fantasy writers must invent a culture and then remain consistent to it within the story. Historical and contemporary writers must nail the time period of their story. All of that takes research.
Especially in the beginning phases of writing a novel and in the revision phase, I do lots of research. When I’m chugging out words, not so much. I try to let the story flow at that point. So, I do enough world building to be able to write the gist of the story. Then, in the revision phases, I go back and research the tiny details that will give credence to the milieu of the story.