Researching for a book: 4 powerful strategies to take your fiction to the next level
Researching for a book – Part I
The blank page is staring at you like hotel room nr. 13 in a horror movie.
No ideas. That is what we dread.
The blank page is said to be every writer’s worst nightmare. But I found that the root of all evil is indeed the blank mind.
You might even have several rough story writing ideas. But what now?
There is a way to escape the horror scenario: research.
Research will deepen your story world, your theme, give you inspiration and fresh ideas. A well-researched book brims with depth, colours and fascinates the reader.
Researching for a book has never been so simple yet so overwhelming. With the power of the internet, we have access to literally everything. This can be a scary prospect if you don’t know where to start, which book or article to read first or which video to watch.
In this article series, I want to empower you with research strategies for fiction (and to a certain extent for non-fiction as well) that will help you make the best use of the media and resources given to us. I will help you find the information and inspiration you are looking for and implement it into your book.
Step #1 Brainstorm your book research ideas
In the first stage, anything is possible. Don’t censor yourself and write down everything you know about your story.
Roz Morris introduces in her book “Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence” a great concept she calls “the hat game”. She makes each note on a separate piece of paper and throws it in a box. Any piece of research that comes across with story potential makes it into the box.
I have a more structured approach to the hat game: I create a “research” folder in Scrivener and structure it with subfolders that are categories for research.
Find categories that make sense for your book, and don’t be afraid to adjust them once you’re in the process. Here are my suggestions:
Worldbuilding (f.e. visuals of Buildings or Interiors/Places, Rules, historical research a.s.o.)
Ideas (literally everything you come up with, then see Step #3)
Use them as a basis, and play around with them until you find the best way to structure your own book research.
If you have an idea that is rough and raises more questions than answers, write those questions down:
How will this work? How will you solve this?
Those are things you will need to find out in the process of further research. But this is how you’ll know what to look for.
Write everything down that you know already: about your world, about your characters, any other ideas you might have. Don’t censor yourself at this stage. Write down questions about things you don’t know. Then proceed to the next step.
Step #2 Places and characters
Visuals are the secret weapon when lacking ideas or details. This is why you should integrate the visual research of places and characters into your process.
A visual imagery of your world and everything that populates it can do wonders for your fiction.
Say you have an underground city: How does it look like, how does it work? You might have a rough idea, but don’t get too hung up on it just yet. Simply type “underground city” in google and take it from there. Look at the suggested pictures. You’ll see how many more possibilities or ideas will open up in front of you. Don’t copy, but let the inspiration drive you to further exploration and thus to individuality and uniqueness.
Create a visual overview.
You can print all the pictures and place them on a board. You can create a Pinterest board where you collect the pictures digitally. This is great for an overall look at your world.
Save them into your Scrivener research folders along with notes, sorting them into your pre-made categories, which will allow you to explore the world in further detail.
The same thing goes for characters, although I don’t like to assign them to well-known and famous actors, and rather make them unique and specific. Still, visual inspiration won’t do any harm. My recommendation is to look at those people who inspire your character’s appearance and describe them on a separate character sheet, adding quirks and special details. Those character sheets will come in handy once you start diving into the first draft.
In your first draft, pictures will do wonders. You will always return to your research folder once you begin creating your world from scratch, reminding yourself of your vision and making sure you stay consistent and detailed with your world.
James Patterson recommends writing with the movie projector in your head, but this inner movie projector will only come to life if you feed it with visuals.
Step #3 Study when researching for a book
This step number one to deepen theme and characters – the study of ideas in science, history or any other field related to your book.
While I still plotted my first novel, I heard Joanna Penn rave about a book she read that explored the idea of the ecstatic state – Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. The concept fascinated me. I read the book and it inspired me to emphasize this idea in my novel. This changed my story and especially my theme into something that suddenly possessed depth and a much stronger connection to reality.
Christopher Nolan takes this principle to a whole new level.
Movies like Inception or Interstellar combine science, interesting principles and ideas with his story world and create storylines and themes that possess depth and reach into the heart of the viewer (not to mention his extravagant talent for visual imagery). In Interstellar, Nolan explores the theory of relativity, making “time” one of the thematic ideas. He also goes into depth with space travel, black holes and gravity.
You can use this principle with any genre. Look at Dan Brown using historical and modern ideas of art, religion and science. Consider the countless historical novels. You don’t have to revolve your story around those principles, but well-researched ideas will seize people’s interests beyond a gripping story and make it more believable.
Step #4 Inspiration as a lifestyle
Make a habit to look for inspiration wherever you go.
Travel, museums, books, podcasts, and films and TV. Films are a great tool for inspiration in storytelling, setting the mood and creating characters if you learn how to watch them the right way and put on the creator lens.
Everything can inspire you if you are on a constant lookout. Become a sponge, absorbing everything around you. The research stage is where this habit will highly pay off, and you will overflow with story writing ideas.
Here’s a little tool for random inspiration: The CURIOSITY App & Website. It’s a great app that will feed you with innovations, principles, all kinds of videos and everything you’ve always wanted or maybe even didn’t want to know. A regular look inside will refresh your inspiration and provide you with ideas.
Effective research is a skill learned by the power of practice.
Sometimes it can be daunting and time-consuming to dig through the endless forest of Google and literature. It’s important to filter here, and not to be afraid to skip paragraphs or read summaries to get the research done eventually.
Be aware that this process needs to be balanced. Have your story in the back of your mind while you dive into research, and see that your research serves it, not vice versa.
If you want to learn how to get the most out of watching film and TV as a writer, download the “Inner Movie Projector” exercise book that will train you to revolutionize the way you view films.