I set out to write this blog post, in part because I was planning to write a novel about a historical event. Yet, beyond having a vague awareness of museum and newspaper archives, I really wasn’t sure what type of research I needed to do for my creative writing project.
So I called up my friend, Liz Walker, who wrote a mystery novel set during WWII (which won a prize!), to chat about her research process. What surprised me, was how similar it was to the research I put into most of my writing.
That statement does require some qualification… while every piece of creative writing requires background research for accuracy and details, historical fiction requires significantly more research.
For example, Liz had no idea that Londoners don’t describe locations by blocks. So the pub isn’t three blocks away… it’s around the corner from the church. She had to remove over 30 references to blocks in her manuscript!
Different Types of Research For Creative Writing
If you’ve never written anything before, there’s actually quite a bit of research required to turn out a decent piece of work.
- The craft: First you need to know how to write. It’s important to learn about the language and craft of writing, particularly in regards to the genre that you’re going to write in. For Liz, this meant learning about how to develop a mystery. She spent a bit of time reading a lot of Agatha Christie along with more contemporary mysteries.
- Historical and cultural knowledge: Pretty much every topic, from a sci-fi adventure to a fairytale set in another country, begins with historical and cultural research. It’s important to explore relevant books, documentaries, archives, etc.
- Personal interviews: Interviews are an excellent way to get a deeper look into your topic. This personal knowledge will infuse your writing with a sense of actually having been there by giving you details that only a local would know.
- Details research: There are all sorts of little details that make your writing feel real. Like making sure your characters are wearing the right clothes and using the right technology. This is how you get the right voice and tone for your story.
The Research Process
Writing is a very personal activity. Everyone will have their own research process and every genre will have its own research requirements. Regardless, there are three stages of background research for most creative writing projects.
1. General Research
When first starting a project, you might know the general area that you’re interested in, but not specifically what aspect of that project you want to explore. Liz was interested in the role of women in WWII. However, that’s a really broad subject. Starting with general research allows you to explore exactly which aspects you want to write about.
Here are a few general research techniques:
- Do a keyword search for the topic at your local library and read as many books as possible on the subject.
- If possible, interview people with personal knowledge on the subject, you might find something in their stories to inspire you.
- Watch documentaries, go to museums, explore every facet of the subject area.
2. Focused Research
Once you have narrowed down your topic, then you’re ready for focused research. In Liz’s case, she decided to focus specifically on the 1942 Dieppe Raid. Here are a few of the ways to focus your research.
- Read every book available on the topic, including any personal accounts and compilations.
- Read archival news articles on the event.
- Explore national and regional archives, both online and (if possible) in-person.
3. Double Checking Details
Once you start to write you’ll probably need help with developing authentic scenes and providing details. In general, I always believe that it’s best to keep writing whenever inspiration hits you, so just mark any details that you want to double-check then do the research later.
The internet is amazing for helping with specific details.
- Maps: Google maps are great. You can virtually “walk” down the street to see the stores that are there, etc. However, if you’re not setting your book in the present, then you’ll need to delve a little deeper. For example, the National Library of Scotland has WWI trench maps online. Other cities and regions also offer historical maps.
- Clothes and technology: The internet is full of websites that are focused on a particular time period or piece of culture. You should be able to find out everything you need to know about fashion, culture and technology.
- Language: The Google Ngram Viewer is an amazing resource for historical writers. It searches books to determine the popularity and use of a particular word. You can even check the difference between British and American usages. Even if you don’t need to check the usage of a particular word… it’s still a pretty fun tool.
- Google Alerts: Setting google alerts for your topic lets you know whenever anything new comes out. It allows you to keep up with the latest information, even after you’ve started writing.
- Sources: Save a record of all your sources, so you can go back and double-check if needed. Buy any books that you might want to refer to over and over again. If you’re working off a website, you might want to save a screenshot, in case the website goes down. It’s also important to save a list of sources so you can give credit in your acknowledgments section.