Writing Tip: Do Your Research BEFORE You Start


Research first before writing? That advice might seem painfully obvious, but many writers still seem to ignore the heavy research until they hit a stumbling block. Bad idea!

Whether you’re writing a cowboy romance or a paranormal mystery set in the Ottoman Empire, it’s important that you write with authority. It’s not enough that your story is “set” in a certain place and time; your characters must LIVE there. They should behave according to (or realistically buck against) the known customs of the day. Your characters should speak and act according to the rules of the world you’ve created  (or re-interpreted, if we’re talking about historical fiction). If they do, your readers will choose to inhabit that world, too.

But you can’t be expected to know everything about the Wild West or Constantinople, can you? Of course not. That is where research comes in. Here is why it’s a good idea to research as much as possible BEFORE you begin writing:

  • Clearing roadblocks before they’re raised– You don’t want to write 100 pages of a great love story set in Montana against the backdrop of political corruption and evil railroad tycoons, only to find out that no trains ran through the particular region of Montana you’ve just spent so much time and talent describing in beautiful detail. Do research beforehand and know the believable parameters for your plot and characters.
  • Staying on track– If you do a bunch of research beforehand and then put away the books to write write write, you’re more likely to stay focused on the truly important things like narrative and character development, informed by the research, but not overburdened by it.
  • Staying on track, again– Don’t rely on Wikipedia. Go to the library and read actual books. This isn’t a knock on Wikipedia as a source for accurate information. The problem with Wikipedia is that you’ll get distracted. It keeps you online. Maybe you’ll check your email. Maybe you’ll click another link inside the Wiki article and suddenly you want to squeeze every bit of tangential knowledge you just acquired into the story, rather than sticking to that little fact you were looking for in the first place.
  • Kicking things off fresh– Doing most of your research upfront will inspire you to dwell in the world you’re hoping to get readers invested in. Once you’ve poured it all out onto the page, then you can go back and tinker with the little things.
Yes, you’re always allowed to fact-check as you go. And certainly, you should work with an editor or outside eye to catch any inconsistencies, but you’ll make your life easier and make your writing more productive if you put in the research hours upfront and leave the writing hours for… writing!
-Chris R. at BookBaby
Chris Robley
is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."



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