While writing a novel is a creative process, it requires a solid foundation, or the finished product will not ring true to its readers. A good novel will always be built on good research. Obviously this does not mean you can’t make things up, but even the most outrageous fantasy novel requires research in order for the world you build to be believable. You will most likely have to conduct your research at various points in the writing process as well. If you find this difficult, consider hiring a ghostwriter or developmental editor to help you out.
Most of your research will likely take place before you start writing. First, you’ll need to research the genre that you’re writing in. This largely entails a lot of reading. Most writers tend to be avid readers anyway, which should also mean that they’ll be pretty genre-savvy, but make sure you know exactly how you want to position your book before writing it. For example, if you want to write a fantasy novel, do you want to be mentioned alongside J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, or someone completely different? Your preliminary answers to these questions will shape the form your manuscript will take, and they are important from both a literary and a marketing standpoint.
Another factor you will need to iron out before you start constructing your fictional world is its setting. Is it set in the past, present, or future? If it’s set in the past and you intend to stick to real-world, historical details, you will need to conduct research into the way things looked and felt back then, and you will want to make decisions about the historical events you want to include in your book. These details are fundamental in providing your readers with a sense of verisimilitude.
It’s also important to understand your characters and where they are coming from, so even if their personal histories will not be a subject of the novel, you should have some sense of how and where they grew up and how that informs their actions in the story. If the character is very different from you, you can take your inspiration from others. Do some reading, speak to people, travel a little, experience whatever you can to get into the head of the character you are trying to lay out. Character development is especially important, because if your readers can’t believe your characters, they won’t be able to believe anything else you throw at them.
As you write, details that you thought were important will fall away and new ones will come up that might require further exploration and research, but as long as you have a good sense of the basics before going in, this shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. A good editor will be able to help you iron out inconsistencies in your manuscript that can arise from going back into the field, so to speak, in the middle of writing. It is more important not to skimp on details, as your novel will lose its richness without them.
What kind of surprises have you run into researching your book?
Robin Field holds a BA in English and Linguistics from the University of Cape Town where she is currently working toward her Master’s degree in Linguistics with a focus on gender and game studies.