Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy

30 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Unless you’re writing a book about your own life, chances are you’ll have to do some sort of research before you can say your novel is finished. (Even if your book IS about your own life, you’ll probably have to refer to your family albums, at the very least!) Historical settings, legal proceedings, and medical conditions are just a few examples of story components that would require research. The object of this post is to suggest a strategy for research that will provide the authentic details you need without bogging you down in the process.

Step 1 – Make notes about the factual issues that you will need to research.

What will you need to learn to ensure that your story is authentic and appropriate for its genre? (I mention genre here because some genres have higher standards for accuracy than others. A “police procedural” mystery will require far more exacting details than would a contemporary fiction that includes an arrest in the plot.)

Once you’ve made a list of topics and facts you will need to research, divide it into two categories – “big picture” and “important details.”

“Big picture” knowledge is the information you need as you create the over-arching idea behind your novel and start your first draft. Examples would be:

  • In pre-Columbus North America, were horses a part of daily life?
  • Would a heart transplant be an option for a pregnant woman?
  • How long does DNA evidence last at a crime scene?

What qualifies an issue to be in the “big picture” category is the fact that it is at the heart of your story and essential for your concept to make sense. For instance, if your novel is about a crime that was committed aboard the Titanic, and how it is solved in the present day by the use of DNA evidence, you need to take the time to research these facts at the outset. What you learn about DNA evidence will have a huge impact on the course of your novel.

Step 2 – Attack the “big picture” issues and gain knowledge about the facts that will help form the spine of your story.

If you know that there is an area of study that is a major component to your plot, investigate that area as you form the seed of your story. If your story is set in Vietnam during the war, study up on the geography and the people. If your story is about an astronaut who makes an error that threatens to kill his entire crew, get an understanding of space missions and how they are structured and staffed.

Step 3 – Firm up your concept and dive into your first draft.

This is why you divided that list from Step 1 into two categories. The second category – “important details” – can be put aside for now. I’m not saying that you won’t have to look up those questions and answers eventually.  What I am saying is that you don’t need to know every detail of life in revolutionary France before getting started writing your rough draft. Authentic details will be required before you turn in your final draft, but you shouldn’t let research prevent you from getting started. If one of your characters lights a candle to read by, and you find out later that gas lamps had replaced candles ten years before your story takes place, that detail can be fixed in the revisions stage.

Step 4 – Firm up the details and make your revisions.

This step is where you need to add accuracy. What kind of gun would a pirate have used? Did matches exist or would the main character light a wick from the fireplace? How long did it take to travel from Glasgow to London by carriage in 1814?  Now that you have your first draft down, you can take the time to get the facts straight without interrupting the flow of your writing.

Do you do a lot of research for your writing? What process do you use? Do you have any ideas to add to the above? I look forward to reading your comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

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10 Responses to “Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy”

  1. Stacy Green June 30, 2011 at 12:10 AM #

    Great strategy for researching! I’m definitely a big picture tackler, and then I tend to research as I go. Ideas pop in my head, and then I wonder how accurate I am. And everything’s got to be spot on, even the smallest details. Fortunately the Internet has made researching MUCH easier. I thank God for Google every day!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 30, 2011 at 6:35 AM #

      Hey Stacy, Yes, Google is a wonderful tool. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got by without it! 😉 Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      • Stacy Green June 30, 2011 at 1:37 PM #

        You’re welcome! Your post is timely for me, because today I did a blog post on new research that shows Jack the Ripper could have been a woman, and people are telling me it’s great book to write. And it’s a fantastic idea, but man, the research for something like this would be completely overwhelming. I wouldn’t even know where to start!

  2. Rowenna June 30, 2011 at 8:48 AM #

    I find that if I research too much up front–or let myself stop drafting to answer reserach questions–I’ll never get any writing done! Research is fun for me, and leads me on a million different rabbit trails. So first drafts have a lot of comments, added while writing, that say FACTCHECK in bright colors. 😛

    I like to combine research and brainstorming–you never know what fascinating tidbit you’ll find that will take your idea for the story in a new–and better!–direction.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 30, 2011 at 10:11 PM #

      Hi Rowenna, I LOVE your idea of marking the places you should factcheck in the margins of your first draft. I’m gonna give that a try! 🙂

  3. Wanda Vaughn June 30, 2011 at 11:44 AM #

    I am so glad you posted this. I’m doing preliminary research for a MG historical fiction book set around Sloss Furnace in the 1930’s. For a terrible moment or three I was afraid I’d have to become an expert on casting pig iron and what all the miles of pipe are for. I’ve put off starting from fear of researching the wrong things. Thanks to your post, I hope to make my list and get my thoughts in order.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 30, 2011 at 11:05 PM #

      Hi Wanda! Your story sounds so cool! I’m glad you liked the post and I hope the strategy works for you. 🙂

  4. Allie June 30, 2011 at 6:23 PM #

    Lol thank you so much for this post. I’m currently working on a story that contains quite a bit of basic medical knowledge. I am also working on getting my CNA certification. It has given me some more basic medical knowledge. It has helped me so much when it comes to basic procedures. I knew quite a bit about what I am writing before. My family has a history of being in the medical field. But it helps to have SOME hands on experience. Things like that have helped me with my research.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 30, 2011 at 11:14 PM #

      Hi Allie! I agree that having some real life experience can be really helpful. Thanks so much for your comment! 🙂

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  1. Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy (via Let The Words Flow) | Of a Writerly Sort - June 30, 2011

    […] by Julie Eshbaugh ~~~ Unless you’re writing a book about your own life, chances are you’ll have to do some sort of research before you can say your novel is finished. (Even if your book IS about your own life, you’ll probably have to refer to your family albums, at the very least!) Historical settings, legal proceedings, and medical conditions are just a few examples of story components that would require research. The object of this post is to s … Read More […]

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