R is for Research

R is for Research.

As an author, you have two basic needs for research.  First, you need to research markets, including how publishing works.  Second, you need to research specific facts for use in your books. Different strategies work best for each of these goals.

Researching for your Career

As an author, you owe it to yourself to conduct exhaustive and ongoing research about your career. You should understand all the key markets in your specific field, including new and emerging opportunities. This awareness will include familiarity with the major individuals who work in your niche.  (If you’re traditionally published, these players will include agents, editors, and publishers, along with a broad range of people who are crucial to the promotion of your work. If you’re self-published, the players will include contractual service providers, sales outlets, and a similarly broad range of people crucial to promotion.)

You should also be familiar with storytelling and marketing trends in your field.  What sub-genres are selling well? What is the typical price for a novel, novella, and short story? Are there new tools such as boxed sets, bundles, or other novel promotional gimmicks that are having an impact on sales? What do covers look like for books in your area? How are blurbs being structured?

Your resources for this information will vary according to which genres you write.  A good starting place for genre writers is the national group affiliated with their field — Romance Writers of America for romance writers, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for speculative fiction writers, etc.  In addition to having online spaces for writers to communicate, those entities typically have publications (e.g., Romance Writers Report and The Bulletin).  They may also have in-person conferences, sponsored either directly by the organization (e.g., RWA Nationals) or allied with other key players in the field (e.g., the World Science Fiction Convention.)  Of course, there are also specialty publications that focus on individual fields (e.g., RT Book Reviews and Locus).

Social media provide other means of research, bringing together authors with other authors and with readers. Collaborative groups of authors often use private groups on Facebook, or Google hangouts, or Twitter DM groups to discuss their ongoing issues with writing and publishing.  Many of these groups offer emotional support in addition to providing factual data.

Additional research can be conducted in stores—either by browsing the shelves in a bricks-and-mortar location or by studying sales venues online. Of course, you’ll need to read some of those books as well; you should always be familiar with what other writers are creating in your field.  (You may want to emulate those authors, or you may want to avoid what they’re doing in your own work.)

Industry norms change rapidly. The rational writer collects facts and figures, focusing on specific details to gain the best position in a highly competitive field.  It is difficult to do too much research on how our business works.

Researching for your Book

By contrast, it’s extremely easy to conduct too much research for a specific book.

Let’s face it. A lot of us would rather research than write. We’d rather submerge ourselves in reference volumes or browse website after website. Each new fact we learn opens up new possibilities for more exploration.  A quick search for a single fact can expand into a deep dive for hours.

And most books require at least some research. Books that are set in historical periods of our actual world may require vast amounts of research. Authors can safely assume that some reader somewhere is an expert on whatever topics they include in their work. Waving hands and pretending that details are unimportant can doom an otherwise excellent story.

So, authors must walk a fine line. Research, of course, can be conducted in a number of different ways, through various media. It may be completed in print resources or online. It may be done in person or through a librarian or by relying on an expert. It might be done at the beginning of a project, before the first word is committed to the book, or it might be scattered throughout the writing process, on a “catch as catch can” basis.

But research for a specific book can be the enemy of a career author. Every hour spent fascinated by research is an hour not spent writing. Efficiency can deteriorate. Deadlines can be blown.

The rational writer strives to limit research to the specific facts mandatory to a given work. Err on the side of doing too little research, going back to conduct more if necessary at a later date. You can always open up the Pandora’s box of research a second time, or a third. But if you’ve allowed a project to consume all of your resources, you cannot regain what you’ve lost.

So? What tools do you use to stay current on the market? What are your favorite tools for researching specific books? And are you tempted to continue your research past the time it’s yielding necessary results? If so, how do you curb that impulse?

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R is for Research — 2 Comments

  1. One of the biggest problems I’ve found in research is the “unknown unknowns,” the questions you don’t even know you need to ask, until they trip you up and you fall flat on your face and everyone laughs and points.

    It’s especially prevalent when writing in areas that you don’t have personal experience in. Reading can go only so far to inform, because every book is written with certain information simply presupposed. (Historians often are frustrated by primary sources that gloss over facts now forgotten because Everybody Knows That, and to make things explicit would be condescending to their intended audience).

    I often see it in British authors’ attempts to write stories set in America (frex JK Rowling’s recent story about the American magic school). Most obviously, the lack of a real grasp of the sheer scale of the US, but also a tendency to tie their fictions too closely to the Big Names of American history and miss those little details that really make a story *pop* for an American reader, that an American writer is apt to think to research and include. (Twenty years ago, I would’ve commented on the difficulty of getting good local history materials across the pond, but these days, with every little podunk town having its own website with information about colorful local figures and incidents, there’s far less excuse, save not realizing that the questions need to be asked).

    Even here in the US, it can be tricky to write a story set in another region and get it to read right for people who live there. (And this is allowing for the CYA “mistakes” like having a murder take place on the fictional corner of two streets that don’t actually meet, so you don’t have to worry about someone located at a real corner suing you for damaging the reputation of the area). I think everybody can name a book or movie that got their home town completely wrong, because the writers unconsciously carried over assumptions from the regions they were familiar with.

  2. Yep – it can be a real challenge. (I just last night set aside a light romance set in Manhattan, because the first 50 pages included references to paracetamol’s expiry date, among other Britishisms not edited out…)

    Research *should* walk side by side with critiques — and I try to make sure I’ve included at least one beta reader with local knowledge when I’ve set stories in places I haven’t lived (or give characters careers I haven’t had, etc.) I know my manuscript won’t be perfect, but it’ll be closer to correct ::wry grin::