On Research for Novels

‏@DaniArostegui asked “Can you write a post on the research process for your novels? How much research do you do for a given book?”

The book I’m writing at the moment, Sekrit Project, was inspired by a non-fiction book. So one of the first things I did was work my way through the articles and books listed in the bibliography. Each of which led to other books and articles and so on. Footnotes and bibliographies will lead you in many wonderful and unexpected directions.

When I’m writing a book set during a different historical period as I am with my 1930s New York City novel I immerse myself in the music, literature, movies, radio, fashion, food (via cookbooks and restaurant reviews) and art and photography—from postcards to news photography to high art photography to people’s snapshots—of the period. Fortunately these days there’s a great deal of that kind of archival material available online. Though I do find it very helpful to spend time with the actual physical material. So I spend time in archives reading letters, official documents, reports, newspapers and magazines and other material.

Magazines and newspaper and books looked so different back then. You don’t fully appreciate that until you’re touching them and turning the pages.1 For instance, I was surprised that so many books in the early 1930s had advertisements in them. I stupidly thought that was a more recent innovation.

For historicals I find the Oxford English Dictionary absolutely indispensable. I am constantly looking up words to make sure a) they were in use in the 1930s and b) that they meant then what they mean now. There’s also Ben Schmidt’s wonderful blog, Prochronism that looks at anachronisms on shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. In which he points out, to take a recent example, that the cliche of “the defining moment” only dates back to 1983.

Schmidt makes great use of Google books’ n-gram viewer, which may be my favourite tool for this kind of research. Here’s the historical graph of the usage of the words “vampires” “zombies” and “unicorns” over the last two hundred years:

The blue line is vampires, the red zombies and the green unicorns. Click on image to go way bigger

Depending on your historical period you should also talk to living people about it. Some of their memories can be wonderfully evocative and useful to your story.

For Team Human the research was considerably less full on. Sarah Rees Brennan and I re-read classic vampire novels such as Dracula as well as catching up on the vampire novels we’d missed over the last few decades. Sarah had me reading L. J. Smith; I put her on to Tanith Lee’s Sabella. All the other research was mostly searching online to see how short the days are in Maine in autumn and stuff like that.

I never wait until I’ve done all the research before I begin writing. That way leads to never writing a sentence. You can never do all the research it’s simply not possible. Much better to start writing and when you come to something you don’t know insert square brackets. [find out if taxis were yellow back then] [what kind of toothpaste did they use] [is “I’ll call you back” anachronistic] etc.

I tend to research the square bracket queries when I’m stuck with the writing or simply need a break from it. Though some days I’ll stop and look things up immediately if it’s easy. Today I had to check if the word “slapper” was used in the 1930s. No, it wasn’t. Not in the sense I needed it. In that sense it only goes back to the 1980s and it’s primarily British. So a big fat no to anyone saying it in NYC in the early 1930s. With my handy OED subscription2 and the n-gram that research took about ten seconds.

My bedtime reading when I’m deep in a project is usually books from the period I’m writing about. That way I’m pretty much always researching.

Hope that helps.

I’ll leave you with a link to Lisa Gold’s blog where she talks about getting more out of your online searches.

  1. Or at least I don’t. []
  2. You don’t have to subscribe. Many libraries have subscriptions that you can access if you’re a member. []


  1. Jonathan Walker on #

    Thanks for the tipoff about that brilliant Prochronism blog! A related topic here is the difference between research for writing history (which I do) and research for writing fiction (which I also do).

  2. Linda Adams on #

    Research is not a strong area for me. I can do it, but my problem is that I’m not detail-oriented, so it’s hard for me to figure out what the right details are and ask the right questions. The questions that are obvious to people who are better with details are not obvious to me. I can do big picture really well, but I struggled enormously with the details. How do you figure out what details to pick?

  3. Justine on #

    Jonathan Walker: Scholarly research = footnotes. Research for novels = no footnotes! Now you know why I left academia. 🙂

    Linda Adams: When you’re doing research for a novel the main aim is to strengthen your novel. So it’s not about what details to pick but about what parts of your novel don’t ring true. What things are you unable to write because you don’t know, say, whether they had zippers back then.

    One of the biggest mistakes novelists make is to have everything they learned show up in the book so the reader is overwhelmed with detail. Don’t let research get in the way of your story.

    On the other hand, read this review of a book set in Russia which shows how shoddy research can ruin a book.

    I think in your case you once you’ve done everything you can to make your book as good as you can and your world building as solid as you can you should ask your first readers to point out areas where they were confused or didn’t know how something worked or found things a bit generic to show you what’s missing from your novel. That’s what I do.

    Hope that helps. Just remember the research serves the novel. Not the other way around.

  4. Heidi C. Vlach on #

    I agree that referencing word origins in the dictionary is a huge help. I write fantasy set on a far-off magical world, so it’s not strictly important that I get the decade right on an English word’s usage. But this fantasy world is a low-tech, rustic one, so I don’t want to use any words that seem modern enough to be jarring. If I’m not sure whether my word choice fits, I check when the word came into use in our world. Anything later than the 19th century means I axe that particular word.

  5. Justine on #

    Heidi C. Vlach: Exactly. I do that with fantasy too.

    The tricky thing is that there are many words that are much, much older than most people think. “Bodacious” dates back more than a century. Many of our swear words date back centuries. I read a letter written by Isaac Asimov in the 1930s where he says something outrageous, immediately following it with a NOT! to undo what he’d just said. Decades before Wayne’s World.

    But when you use those sorts of words in historical contexts, fantastical or not, people think you’re getting things wrong even when you’re not. Very annoying!

  6. Miriam Forster on #

    I love this advice! When I was researching a MG I wrote on dragons in Alaska, I did tons of research around Native Alaskans, the Nome gold rush, tundra, etc. One great resorce for me was the university library. My husband was going to school there, so I had him check things out for me, like the diary of a yukon priest that dated from the time period I needed, or a book of collected Inuit oral tales.

    I also do the inset notes thing when I’m drafting, unless I really can’t visualize the scene without the information, and then it’s TO THE INTERNET. Or to the bookshelf if I’m writing in a Barnes and Noble. 🙂

    I like research in fantasy writing too, because I’m lazy. It’s much easier to look up what, say, a particular kind of monkey looked like and then describe it, rather than coming up with a description all on your own.

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