Are you ready to start your novel? Do you want to make it believable? Not all stories are scientifically sound, but even ones with magic or set in futuristic worlds have a sense of reality that captures their readers. Research is a major part of making any story feel life-like, but it isn’t always easy to know where to start. This guide will show you how!
How to begin researching
Before you start, you need to decide the overall theme or topic of your novel. Do you want to share a life lesson? Do you want to capture a sense of horror? Maybe you want to tell a story about a relationship or a historical event.
You might have an idea what you want to write about already. Whether you do or not, take a moment to ask yourself these questions:
- What kind of story do I want to tell?
- Is it centered around a real-world experience?
- Will it be set in a fictional world or reality?
- What genre will it fall in?
- Who is your target audience?
- Who are the main characters?
If you have all of the answers for these already, great job! But if not, don’t worry. You don’t need them all just yet. You will find the answers as you continue through this guide.
Let’s take the questions one at a time.
What kind of story do I want to tell?
This focuses on the theme or topic of your story. It could also mean the atmosphere – is this a comfort story? Something to disturb your readers? Something to provoke thought?
Maybe you want to talk about the effects of pent up thoughts to the human psyche. Or perhaps you want to share a comedic allegory. Whatever it may be, it is what will make your story a story.
Take some time and look at your favorite films, TV series, and novels. What do you love so much about them? What are they about? What message do they tell? Do you see a common theme between them?
Use this information to decide where you’d like your own story to go.
Is it centered around a real-world experience?
This could be anything from a small interaction you had with someone to a historical event.
While that sounds like it only applies to non-fiction novels, it doesn’t have to. A real-world experience can be translated into an essence or idea – for example, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is about military strategy and economic tensions between humans and an alien race, but it is inspired by Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union after WWII.
Will it be set in a fictional world or reality?
You get to decide.
Are you the type of person who finds a setting is essential to the story, and loves reading about details of places in books? Do you like the idea of making up your own cultures, norms, or an alternative society? If yes, fictional world-building might just be your thing.
If you prefer to keep it in the real world, keep in mind the time period* and location you are aiming for. Placing a smartphone in 1854 wouldn’t work, unless you were writing alternative historical fiction.
On that note, you can also place your story in the “real world” but make changes yourself. Many stories include cities and towns that don’t actually exist. Others are inspired by real places. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is placed in a dystopian version of Chicago, Illinois – completely unrecognizable from the real city.
*If you do choose to write historical fiction, spend some time researching the years your story will span. Focus on the customs, beliefs, and lifestyles people had back then. Take lots of notes. Set up a timeline of events to help guide your story. Feel free to reach out to experts for specific questions or even read a diary or two from someone who lived during that time.
What genre will it fall in?
This question might not be answered until you’ve completed your novel. It can be tricky. There are so many options to choose from, and many niches and subgenres.
If you run into trouble defining which genre your story actually falls into, take a look at genre descriptions like this one for more information. If your story contains elements of multiple genres, select the one it has the most of as the one to define it, or research if there is a subgenre that combines them.
Maybe you want to have this answered before you even start. In that case, look at genre charts now and understand what types of themes and characters occur in each one. This will help you get an idea of what kind of conflict your story will have, what the characters will be like, and what your audience will expect.
Who is your target audience?
Your target audience goes hand-in-hand with your chosen genre. Are you trying to attract mystery-lovers? Horror enthusiasts?
But it also includes certain demographics. Are you writing romance for middle-aged, single women? Self-help for college students? Moral lessons for tweens?
Select an age range that might be interested in your story. Then, break it down into more demographics if necessary – occupation, interests, income level.
You don’t want to write a novel about your fixer-upper journey and how you became debt-free at the age of 32 for retired millionaires. That would be for young adults (just-graduated high school students entering the workforce, college students, young newlyweds) looking to gain independence, buy their first house, pay off loans, and start a new hobby or source of income.
Who are the main characters?
Write down each character and start defining who they are – their personalities, their motivations, their conflicts.
It may help you to do a quick Google search for character charts. They are often a good character-building practice and can help guide you when you feel lost. Many of them include details you won’t need in your novel, but they can help you get to know your characters better.
A good reader will notice when there are unseen details about your characters that they might not know, but you do. Whether you realize it or not, those details will bleed into your story. They make your characters feel much more alive.
Continuing your research
As you dive into the details of your story, you’ll want to make sure the information you collect is accurate, relevant, and from trustworthy sources.
When conducting your research, be sure to use reputable sources and cross-reference your facts. This can be especially important for a work of historical fiction, science fiction, or even fantasy.
Get in contact with an expert – not only will they give you useful information and confirm details, but they can offer a different perspective. If one of your characters is a geologist, talking to a geologist and getting their opinion on your character wouldn’t hurt.
When you’re ready, have other people read your novel and ask them for feedback. You do a lot while writing – you won’t catch everything on your own. Readers can help you find any plot holes or inaccuracies.
Writing a novel can be hard work and it’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole while learning about new and interesting things. You can make sure you stay on track while gathering information by setting up a timeline or map of your research. Take lots of notes and write down the source of any information you gather to reference back to later.
Start with your characters. Follow a character chart to learn about their personalities, goals, and motivations. The more you understand your characters, the easier it will be to tailor your research to their stories. Then, move on to your setting. Know the location, the climate, the culture. These details will help you fill in your own story and you gather more information.
You don’t want to have false facts in your story. To get the most out of your research, consider looking at primary sources like diaries, newspaper articles, or interviews with people who experienced something first-hand or are an expert in their field. You can also find credible secondary sources in books, research papers, videos, and even blog posts.
Researching a believable novel
After following these steps, your novel should be believable. The key is relevancy.
For example, if you’re writing a crime novel, look into the criminal justice system. Interview a judge or a police officer. Read up on past crimes to study criminal patterns. Read reports from psychologists to learn different mindsets and apply them to a character.
Focus on your characters and setting, and conduct your research based on what you know about them. Be open to asking questions and always learning more.
And most importantly, have fun with it!