Researching your novel: all authors have to do it.
Whether you’re brushing up on your science facts for a detailed multi-book space opera, or digging into the nitty-gritty of life on an isolated cattle farm for a reflective contemporary novel, you need to do your homework.
But homework’s not exactly fun, is it?
Well, before you start flipping through the pages of that dust-laden encyclopaedia, check out our list of exciting and unusual ways to bridge your knowledge gaps without opening a single book.
Method #1: Watch Documentaries
Who doesn’t love a good David Attenborough doco? Sadly, unless you’re planning on doing some insanely detailed physical world-building or your protagonist is an ecologist, chances are nature documentaries are not going to be all that helpful.
Fortunately, documentaries are widely varied these days due to a significant surge in popularity over recent years.
Netflix Australia has over 700 titles listed as documentaries; Stan has almost 100; and subscription television provider Foxtel has seven whole channels dedicated to history, crime and the natural world.
But that’s a lot of monthly subscription services to budget for when you’re a starving artist. And that’s why we like YouTube.
If you’re time-poor (as well as wallet-poor), YouTube has a fantastic range of bite-sized clips less than five minutes long, allowing you to get the basics fast.
In addition to these snippets of information are many full-length documentaries on a vast array of topics.
Need to know about the worst job in the Dark Ages? How about traditional tattooing methods? Or a typical day in the life of an office worker in modern-day Tokyo? Well, YouTube has you covered.
Given its popularity the world over, many renowned documentary channels such as the BBC, National Geographic and the History Channel all have official YouTube pages, where a number of their films are available for free.
They also offer paid services where you can buy specific episodes without having to fork out for that monthly subscription.
But what is it that makes documentaries so good for novel researching? Not only can you get the necessary information in condensed, entertaining packages, but the visual medium also provides us with multiple benefits unattainable from text alone.
As writers, our job is to engage as many of the reader’s senses as possible to fully immerse them in our world.
Does the metallic ping of a blacksmith’s hammer really sound hollow? What does light look like as it disperses off the chrome bumper of a car in the desert?
Audiovisual research enables us to experience sights and sounds, which we can then transcribe for our readers.
Were we to read a blog about a bustling bazaar in Cairo, we rely on the original author’s written description to inform our own senses. Watch a video documentary, however, and we can obtain this information firsthand, giving us more authentic and original data to work with.
Of course, unless someone actually invents Smell-o-Vision, we are still limited by the sensory experience obtained from visual media, which is why we need to…
Method #2: See the World
Being able to tour Europe, backpack through Southeast Asia, or trek through the mountain ranges of South America with a notebook and camera in hand is the quintessential writer’s dream, right?
Unfortunately, the reality for most of us is that packing up and heading overseas for six weeks to research that novel we’ve had whirling around our head for years is neither likely nor practical.
So how can you get that firsthand experience you so badly need?
One way to make your research travels happen is to scrutinise your budget and get saving. Instead of taking your annual holiday down the coast, perhaps consider shifting your plans to a destination more in line with your writing needs.
It’s also possible to experience the ambiance of a specific location by finding similar places closer to home. For Australian writers: Melbourne is often touted as one of the most European cities outside of Europe, with a particular likeness to Paris.
Likewise, perhaps you can gain enough of a sense of Ming Dynasty landscaping by visiting the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour, Sydney.
If you’re set on visiting the actual location for a truly hands-on experience, fortunately, the travel bug is highly contagious.
Thanks to social media giving many users a severe case of #FOMO, numerous guides have popped up online over the years, explaining how to travel on a limited budget – or even for free.
Working holidays, sponsorship for volunteer activities, and several companies provide a range of options to travel the world for free, with some programs offering food, accommodation or even monetary reimbursement.
Living and working in a foreign country imparts a truly unique and authentic experience. So, if you’re young and unattached (or even if you’re not – go chase that dream!), these sorts of initiatives can be fun and inspiring ways to research societies and cultures relevant to your project.
Still can’t justify the expense? Good thing we have the internet! Virtual tours provide the opportunity to explore new places by viewing sequential images or videos of a specific location.
Once again, that’s where our BFF YouTube comes in handy. By searching for a virtual tour of your desired location, you can experience 360-degree virtual reality simulations, some of which are interactive and enable you to pan the camera at will.
You can even take a two-hour guided walk through a realistic recreation of the Titanic if you’re so inclined – the options are that varied!
Method #3: Enrol in a Class
‘Write what you know.’ You’ve heard this before; it’s not new. It’s part of the reason Stephen King’s novels feature so many writers as protagonists.
But you don’t need to become a master of the craft or only write characters who work in professions relating to your skillset.
Crime fiction writers often aren’t lawyers or cops (or criminals…), and they certainly aren’t required to go out and pass the Bar or enlist in the force to write authentically.
Likewise, you don’t need to become a classically trained musician to write a novel about a concert pianist – but you could take a class.
Enrolling in a course is not only a fun way to learn something new; it can also function as a valuable research tool.
Like travel and documentaries, where we can engage a number of our senses, actively learning a new skill provides us with the tactile experience, we can then incorporate back into our writing.
What better way to describe the burn of martial arts drills than actually putting yourself through a training program? How sore do fingers really get after a three-hour guitar jam session?
Even dappling with these activities increases your ability to write about them with confidence.
While Udemy’s often heavily discounted courses provide you with lifetime access, Skillshare employs a subscription-based system that comes with a no-obligation one-month free trial.
If you’re not too keen on splashing the cash, then you can always turn back to YouTube, which has countless hours of ‘How To’ videos across a vast range of subjects.
Does your protagonist need to know how to pick a lock with a bobby pin? You guessed it – you can learn how on YouTube for free.
Whether you choose to undertake a face-to-face class, a paid online course, or learn the basics with a quick YouTube guide, learning a new skill to better your writing is never a bad thing.
You may even unearth a new passion or pick up a hobby or two along the way.
Method #4: Listen to a Podcast
Life is busy, and chances are you’re trying to write a novel while juggling a full-time job, study, or parenting.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be classed as a professional writer, chances are you’re just as strapped for time as the rest of us as you try to balance a comfortable work-life existence.
Whether you’re stuck for hours on public transport, trying to keep in shape at the gym, or dragging the vacuum around the house, there’s still an opportunity for you to research thanks to the fabulous development of podcasts.
Over the last decade, podcasts have absolutely snowballed in popularity.
As of 2019, there are an estimated 700,000 active podcasts available with a combined total of over 22 million episodes. That is a HUGE volume of potential research material.
However, like YouTube, anyone can make a podcast, so it can require a bit of sifting to find a reputable and reliable series.
Fortunately, several known documentary kingpins such as the BBC and National Geographic have also broken into the podcast market. The BBC has a range of free history, documentary and factual podcasts on offer, as does National Geographic.
If you’re looking for a slightly different approach to information, TED Talks podcasts feature fantastic and inspiring speeches from some of the world’s most influential people.
While simply listening to people talk is not going to engage multiple senses like watching a documentary can, the beauty of podcasts is that you can listen and learn on your smart device or from your PC, making them the perfect choice for the multitasking researcher.
Method #5: Hit Up Social Media
Love it or hate it, social media forms an integral part of our modern-day life. As a professional or aspiring writer, masterful use of social media helps to establish a reader base, but it can also function as a somewhat helpful mode of research.
We’ve written previously about the benefits of talking to people for research purposes, and the fantastic thing about the internet is the ability to connect with people across the globe, all with varied and valuable insights into different cultural and socioeconomic demographics.
If you’re writing about characters who are otherwise different from your own race, culture, and social class, then you should connect with someone who identifies with your character to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
An interview is a fantastic method of conducting this form of primary research as it allows you to tailor your questions to the type of information you need, as well as ask followups to get an even clearer picture.
Because you’re interacting with real people, social media is an excellent opportunity to gain insight into a specific life experience without the academic slant you might find in other published research.
However, the anonymity of the internet can also raise questions regarding the authenticity of the resulting information, so it can be a good idea also to back up this data with findings from other sources wherever applicable.
Writing with Color on Tumblr has an extensive range of resources for how to describe POC (people of colour) characters without framing them as Other, and there are a number of discussions on Reddit covering similar topics.
While it may seem a little confronting to ask someone these types of questions, or to check any sensitive content in your writing that you yourself have not lived through, more often than not it’s welcomed quite openly, as people are appreciative you took the time to ask.
Of course, posting questions with the relevant hashtags or conducting polls on Twitter or Instagram can be a little bit like shouting into a void – there’s no real guarantee you will get a response or enough valid data to actually work with.
As such, it’s best to use social media to supplement other research methods and not rely on it solely.
Character research is not the only way social media can be a useful resource for writers. Platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram are great alternatives to travelling as far as location studies are concerned.
Instagram’s hashtags can be a quick and vivid way to find snapshots of iconic destinations, while Pinterest is a great way to collect aesthetics and mood boards you can return to when you need to refresh your creative inspiration.
As they say, a picture tells a thousand words, and having a stash of beautiful images you can turn to when you need to really boost a description is a useful tool to have on hand.
Research is an inevitable component of writing, so you may as well make it fun.
Since the advent of the internet, there’s no need to sequester yourself away in the back of the library with a pile of dense textbooks.
Whether you decide to binge-watch documentaries, enrol in a class or pack your bags for that dream writing adventure, it’s easier than ever to find entertaining ways to research and produce an authentic and informed novel.