Research Methods

A novel is by definition a work of fiction. The story, the characters, the events are all make believe. In light of this, how do you convince a reader to become emotionally invested in something that is basically a lie? It’s called “suspension of disbelief.” The reader must put aside the knowledge that the book is a fabrication and accept it as a form of temporary reality. Anything that jars the reader out of this state of mind spoils the reading experience by shattering the implicit contract between reader and author.

I experienced just such a jarring moment many years ago, and it has remained with me to this day. I was reading a thriller by a well-respected author of the day. The story took place in the Alps in the dead of winter and was filled with details about the effects of the harsh weather on the characters. The author had them engaging in a stealthy assault on a moated fortress. First they had to cross the moat. They swam it, emerging on the other side soaked to the skin. In sub-zero weather? I don’t think so! This highly successful author didn’t do a reality check, and it ruined my enjoyment of her book.

The way to avoid this type of reader disappointment is to infuse as much accuracy as possible into the fictional story. If you have personal knowledge of a setting, a character’s profession, or a particular quirk of plot, you already have a leg up. But the adage “write what you know” will carry you only so far. Inevitably you will need to write about something of which you are ignorant to some degree. It might be a simple fact you need to check, or it might be the entire premise of the story. In either case, accuracy is essential in order not to interrupt your reader’s level of engagement. Which means, when in doubt, research it!

Informing yourself has never been easier than it is today. The internet is like a vast worldwide library from which you can pull almost any piece of information without leaving your home. If you need to do a minor fact check, you can look it up on the fly, print the documentation, and go right back to your story. If it’s a more detailed issue, you are better off researching it before you begin to write. Then the question becomes how to collate and utilize information from multiple sources. In the old days, manual systems such as index cards were the only option. The computer age allows for vastly more efficient processes. I offer as an example the technique I used for my historical Underground Railroad novel Last Stop Freedom, which required nearly a year’s worth of research from dozens of publications, both hard and electronic.

I began by logging onto and searching for comprehensive books on the subjects of antebellum plantation life, slavery, and the Underground Railroad. I chose the ones I thought would give me the best information, ordered them, and had them sent to my house. I then googled the same subjects, found dozens of articles and historical journals, printed them out, and stored them in looseleaf binders. All of these sources went into my computerized bibliography with each one having a unique identifier.

I then created a file folder for each category of knowledge essential to the story: general information about the 1850's, the life of South Carolina planters, the life of slaves, and the Underground Railroad. Next I created a sub-file in each folder for broad areas such as culture, daily life, travel and transportation, philosophies, etc. I bookmarked each of these files with more specific subjects such as housing, clothing, recreation, health, social structure, daily rituals and tasks — the list was comprehensive.

I began to read. Whenever I came across a tidbit of information I thought would be valuable, I went to the appropriate section in the appropriate file, wrote a summary of that source’s take on the subject, and noted the identifier and page number of the source so I could go back and check it if necessary. When I was finished, each subject had information from multiple sources, but it was all gathered in one spot so I could pick and choose what best fit into the story.

Research is a lot of work, but the rewards are incalculable. Done well and thoroughly, it gives your story the illusion of reality and allows your reader to become a fully-invested silent partner as the action unfolds.

Return to Plan Fiction