Is your next story research light or intensive? #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Is your next story research light or intensive?

I like to put things on spectrums. When it comes to considering how research intensive a story will be, the spectrum might look something like this.

Research intensity spectrum for authors

The considerations involved are:
1. Whether your research can be accomplished mainly through primary or secondary sources: Primary research means the information is collected by you from the original source, like when you conduct interviews; secondary research is when you are reading, for instance through a Google search, information collected by someone else. Because memoir authors are their own main primary source, memoirs are generally along on the less research-intensive side of the spectrum.
2. How accessible the sources are: Do you know someone you can interview, or do you have to route a request through a multi-national’s media relation’s department?
3. How much time will be spent researching: For instance, have you chosen character professions you understand, or do you need to read a few books on forensic pathology?

My first book (the one I fondly refer to as my ‘practice’ novel) fits into the first category (based on events I had experienced), though maybe a smidge to the right of it, because I did age my characters down from college to high school, and so I spent a fair amount of time researching youth trends (clothing, slang, etc.) I also visited a couple of high schools and worked with beta/sensitivity readers who belonged to the diverse cultures I was attempting to respectfully represent. Yes, there was a lot of research, but not nearly as much as what I had to do for my second novel.

I switched genres to adult thrillers, because I had an epiphany that I would be better off writing for the bookstore section I’m usually drawn to (and I was right.) When I conceptualized the idea, I was cognizant that nothing in my life was thriller worthy, and so I was consciously aiming for category three (characters and setting I know a lot about) as far as how research intensive I wanted my story to be. This may not be true, but I was worried back then that unagented authors have a harder time getting potential interviewees to give them the time of day. I did have a police detective in that story, which I knew nothing about, but we don’t see him in his professional role very much in the story, and that was purposeful on my part. If I had played up the police angle, I would have had to do a lot more research.

Is your next story research light or intensive? #authorsMy third novel, which I am currently writing, is on the right of the spectrum (way out of my wheelhouse.) It’s a police procedural mystery set in a Nova Scotian town that I had only visited once a few years back. The story takes place during a particular annual event that is fairly unique to this town, so I booked a flight and rental car on points, and off I went. Two weeks, a couple thousand photos, and nearly one hundred interviews later, I came home and started plotting. As I did this, more need for primary interviews from specialists arose. One mistake I’ll never make again is underestimating lead time specialists may need, because this put me a month behind my optimistic schedule.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

Have your novels been less or more research intensive? Do you consciously aim for one or the other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you to Freepik for the image I used in the spectrum graphic.

76 thoughts on “Is your next story research light or intensive? #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. There is a point of diminsihing returns on research. You don’t want to make stupid mistakes, but the reader is entitled to a story more or less free of scholastic information stuffed in the nooks and crannies. My take on that is “Moby Dick”. Remove the whaling how-tos and you have a short story about an obsessive whack job who has murderous designs on a large sea mammal. Moby Dick as written by Hemingway. I have a novel in the works where one character I can do in my sleep and the other, a female, runs off to Cambridge. What I need to know about Cambridge is setting, and the more elusive “attitude”. I learned early on in another novel around something I understood well that name brands and product minutia have no place in the mainstream. Hot rodders and musicians might find it lacking, but professionals in those fields make up .04% of the general population. There’s the diminishing returns. Robert Parker got too caught up in describing Boston restaurants, somebody mentioned it, he stopped. You need the flavor of New Orleans or Galveston or Boston or Cambridge, you don’t need a travel guide any more than you need to bullet point the DNA process. People read storeis about people for fun, and stories about processes because they are boring or in school. My .02. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes!

      I find this particularly true when I’m reading books set in places I’ve lived for any length of time – it always feels like authors are trying to shoe-horn in charming little references to make the setting more vivid. The problem is, if I’ve lived there then I don’t need to be told what it’s like, and if I haven’t then I just end up feeling alienated by the in-group mentality.

      I’m setting my current novel in Boston because it’s a place I’ve visited, but I don’t run the risk of getting too familiar.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Amen – I read a ‘reluctant detective’ type novel set in the Bahamas/Caribbean and it was a well written, likeable short story mashed into scene minutia/travelogue that almost buried it. Show me the colorful houses, throw in some reggae and some “Hey, mon” dialogue, move on. Take me there, don’t show me the cracked paint down every alley…

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent post! I honestly thought my current novel would be research light-ish, but it’s been more intensive. I’ve had to look up causes and effects of nightmares, the stages of grief and how different people handle them, psychological issues from grief over time (even talked to a psychologist who “diagnosed” my MC), and various other things.

    I like your breakdown and the questions. I definitely should have considered those in the beginning.

    3 Questions about Epistolary Writing — Author Toolbox

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I haven’t written too many stories where I specifically set out to do research. Rather I often find myself drawn to certain topics; careers, regions, periods in history, and at a certain point, sometimes, a specific story starts to take shape.

    Sounds like you tend to do much of your research up front. Do you ever feel like it might be better to do your research simultaneous with the rough draft? Let the writing process dictate what questions you need to know?
    Then again, if you outline really well, I imagine that would serve the same purpose.

    There was one instance where I started researching extensively, but during the second draft a substantial amount of what I had researched and found interesting was revealed to be erroneous to the actual story, and in some ways the fact that I’d invested so much time and energy into that research made me mistakenly hang onto it for far too long.

    I will say I love the fact that we live in the age of the internet, and not just text and images, but actual video documentaries. Granted, there’s no substitute for live experience, but I feel like it’s wonderful how much one can accomplish via second hand information, if first hand is not an option.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a mixed bag for me. I probably do as much research beforehand as I do during my drafts combined. With the preparatory research, I need to get to a point where I know my story is plausible, then I’m good to dive in. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Informative post, Raimey. I tend to write about things of which I’m familiar or have read a lot about. Your approach is logical, and I clearly need to do more direct research than I’ve been doing. One of my favorite authors is Michael Connelly who writes crime thrillers. It’s not a mystery as to why he’s so good. He used to write the crime beat for the LA Times. btw Lovin’ hopping around for my first time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post. I have to do a lot of research on folklore for my books — and finding the original sources of a tale usually proves to be a lot more fun (and darker) than modern versions. It’s time-consuming, but well worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post, and a great way to think about research. I tend to write stories about things I’m exposed to a lot (lots of environmental issues and intergenerational conflict), and I certainly lift elements of my real life to put into fiction, but otherwise I try and go outside of my experience. But I do try and do research online and ask beta and sensitivity readers for comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a great idea, putting it on a spectrum. Sometimes when I come up with an idea I go “how much research is that gonna take?” and consider its merits based on just how much research I want to DO. I do love research though, especially if it’s something I really want to learn more about. It’s one of the best things about writing for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hats off to you on that infographic! I don’t know how you even come up with these things. I really like the breakdown you provided on each level of research intensity; I know, I never thought of researching for stories this way but now that I’ve read it, it totally makes sense.
    I usually write novels with characters whose circumstances are, literally, a world apart from mine, as in, different continent, race, occupation, all of it [the Internet is my friend ❤️]. I think the only similarity most of my protagonists and I have is of moral disposition – and even then, sometimes, they need a bit of a push to get to where I stand. But I have always loved researching, being once a history student. Truth be told, I’ve been known to delve into examinations of anthropological nature just to come up with an ancestral backstory for some characters [absolutely unnecessary but so much fun]. Let’s see… my longest running commitment to researching a career is to sign up for a 12-week online course on cattle raising in the American south 🐮 Moo!


  9. For my first 3 novels, I lived an worked in a ski resort for 6 years. This was my primary research. For my 4th novel lived on a sailboat for 9 years. Again primary research. First 3 novels are mysteries that take place in a ski resort. Fourth novel takes place in the Bahamas on a sailboat. I like the experience or personal research. Of course, I do in person interviews, and use the internet too!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bravo to you, Raimey, for actually going to and interviewing experts in Nova Scotia for your next book. And another key piece of advice you offered your readers was that once you returned home from your researching expedition, you began your plotting of the story. Plotting helps a writer know where she’s going in the story and where she still needs to research or ask questions to make the story seem real to the reader. As I’ve said, bravo.

    I agree with a lot of your commenters that reading and watching movies count as research for their particular stories. I also count reading and watching videos as research. For my YA short adventure stories, I begin with a place my family and I camped at and then learn new skills, such as cross-country skiing for the most recent story I sold to Cricket Magazine.

    Thanks for all you do to make Author Toolbox such a success.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is a great way to assess how much research you need – and I love the graphic showing the spectrum.

    As an alternate world fantasy writer, everything I write is pretty far out of my wheelhouse, but it’s more about creating my own world than direct research. But everything I learn about our world is also a form of research, because it informs what I build on my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. At some point, I’d love to hear more about how you construct your interviews. I’ve kept my stories secondary-source focused because I’m intimidated by the idea of trying to ask the right questions without offending someone, or boring them, or …

    It would be really neat to hear how personal interviews were different than procedural/professional ones

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I already wrote the post! I’ll email you the draft, because I’m not sure when I’ll get around to posting it, because I’m traveling at the moment, and I need to be at home so I can create the accompanying graphics.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Great infographic and breakdown of research intensity. I always add more than I probably need to. With a background in research, it is hard not to. Like Ronel, I love chasing down a good folklore origin or historical origin to fantasy concepts that are common today. I love that you traveled to research your novel. Of course, now I am seriously contemplating moving the setting of my novel to Australia. I will need a least a few weeks there for research of course. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I like how you created a spectrum Raimey. And I think most of my ideas tend to be heavy on the research. I love to travel too to visit these places and I am hoping to take a road trip to Dallas Texas this summer myself. A Nova Scotian town sounds really interesting. My mother and father were missionaries out in Nova Scotia years ago. They loved it there. They lived their for three years and I love hearing their stories. 🙂 I wish you much luck Raimey.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I probably research too much at times but I always try to give at least one of my characters (no matter how small of a character) a little bit of my personality. It may be vain of me, but at least there is one character I don’t have to do too much researching for.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. My last novel, currently with betas, is set in WWII, so I did extensive research on the war, the homefront, midwives, nursing, psychological/mental illness, and the 1945 World Series (go Tigers!). I hope I didn’t pack so much into the story that it’s a snooze fest. I tried to concentrate on the MC’s feelings more than the research, but still…
    Thanks again for a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Great post and so interesting to learn about the research you have done as a writer. I was thinking of all this as I saw a book by Margaret Atwood the other day at a bookstore. I had seen the series on Netflix and the research was clearly intensive and faithful to the plot. The book I am making reference to is ‘Alias Grace’. Thank you for sharing 😊 best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post. I love the lengths you went to get the details right 🙂

    My latest project is so research intensive!
    My characters are based on those from Arthurian Legend, and there’s so much to cover.

    Luckily I did my degree in history, and I adore research. I’d say I probably go out of my way to write things which require more research, as distracting as it can be sometimes!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. My works, like yours, have varied. My first novel took place outside of my own city but in a city I knew quite well. It was a bit harder to write because I had to recall the streets and places from memory. My second novel was set in my own town. I interviewed a police detective to get a feel for the police angle, but created an amateur sleuth to avoid being too “police-y” My third novel took place in an area I knew quite well after having visited it and getting a lay of the land. I love the idea of visiting a place and really studying it and its people. Perhaps that will come with a later work. Thanks for this clarification.

    I will add, however, that there’s much more to research than setting and timing. Dialogue (the way people speak) without dialect is quite important and in need to research. I’ve written several posts on just this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. So far the majority of research I’ve done has been from secondary sources with only a few pieces from personal experience. I haven’t had the occasion to interview anyone as research but I daresay it would prove fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Very interesting post! I love research because I can always learn something new and interesting and I think learning stuff is the driving forcein my life.
    My “most extreme” research was when I travelled to Glasgow from London for basically one day, in the hope of finding a coffee house where my MCs could meet. And I did find it 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I do my research via library and online Google searches. For my young adult fantasy book (currently on hold) I went to my local library and searched for books about witches, the Wicca religion, numerology and familiars. Even took out and borrowed a magical almanac, a spell book and a witch arts and crafts book. I also noted the book titles and authors just in case I need to revisit them again.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I think you might have pinpointed one of the things I’m currently struggling with in my current WIP. My first novel was definitely towards the left hand side of the spectrum as it was set in a fictionalised version of the town I was living in at the time, and was also fantasy so I was able to invent a lot of it, although I researched mythological creatures and local myths etc. to make sure it had some kind of foundation in reality. My new WIP is set in a town I haven’t had chance to visit yet, though I do plan to, and is a bit more of a contemporary, so I’m finding it more challenging to write than my first novel. I think I need to take a step back and do some more research, create more of a bible for the characters, setting and story, and then come back to drafting. Hopefully that will make the words flow more easily when I sit down to write. Thanks Raimey!

    Liked by 1 person

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