So there’s this funny thing called “research” that creeps up on unsuspecting writers. There are two sides to this: Some want to write without having to do any research (*cough cough* me). Others have to limit themselves on how much research they’re allowed to do or they’ll get carried away. Regardless of which side authors fall on, research is a necessity for most.
How much research is necessary is dictated by the book. It varies by genre, setting, situation, etc. But, for the most part, it’s important to get the facts straight. Readers pay attention, and it throws them when something is almost right, but there’s one thing off. It takes them out of the book. They’re no longer immersed in the story, which is the exact opposite of what writers want.
Writing in the thriller genre, I work in today’s world. Therefore, I need to know the basic layout and feel of cities (even if I do end up butchering it; then I can claim it was “for the book”). I need to get whatever the topic of my book is straight so I can figure out where to stick to real life and where to deviate. My books have a lot of technology in them, so I need to know how that technology works. For historical fiction, it may seem obvious that research is pivotal. Readers pick that book up partially so they can experience what 12th century villages were like. Fantasy may not seem so obvious. “They can make up their world so what do they have to research?” However, a lot of fantasy has basis in the real world, or some basis in our scientific principles (e.g. how physics works, gravity), so they need to research in order to create their own realistic imaginary world.
When to do the research is a matter of preference. Some authors do it before plotting, some do it before writing, some wait until they’re in the moment and need information. I (now) do mine early on, though I usually do some research throughout as I come across things I didn’t think of in planning. The research could potentially change large pieces of the novel, even plot, if done later. For example, I didn’t do any research before starting Deception. After talking to someone who had a basic understanding of electrical engineering (which I do not), I realized I probably ought to look things up. Guess what? I found that EMPs need to be set off at a high altitude. Wait. Crap. That means… oh please no. *sigh* Yeah. I had to change some things. It would have been easier to start my book knowing I had to set it off high up. Instead, I had to comb through it to find any and all references to setting the EMP off on the ground and replace it with a high detonation. Not as easy as “find and replace” when half of the references are “it”.
Another question is how to do that research. Physical books or internet? Personally, I think they both serve a purpose. Books are a great place to start and do the heavy lifting. They take more time to go through, but I get to sift through a lot of data that could bring other tidbits to my story (or act as kernels for another story). It’s also easy to go to a library or bookstore and find an entire section on what I’m researching, and, oftentimes, the employees can help find other books on similar topics. That said, internet research is not without merits. It can solve a lot of quick questions, and they are easier to skim (thank God for Control-F). Also, it comes in really handy when I’m in the middle of a scene and need an answer fast.
For topics I’m largely unfamiliar with, I have found that kids books are incredibly helpful. On the surface, it seems odd, but when I think about it, it definitely makes sense. They explain topics at a basic level, and they don’t expect any previous knowledge. (Plus, glossaries! Yay!)
Research is a very important part of writing, even if it’s thrown into the wind afterwards. It’s easier to claim I did it on purpose. 🙂