Writing Craft

Research Habits for Fiction Writers | Brandy Heineman

Ready, Set, Research

When it comes to researching books, there have been times when I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I once half-jokingly confessed to a writing buddy, “I have to write a whole book to know what to research.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, you’re going to need to get over that.”

I can’t be the only one who does this, can I? First comes the pure joy of chasing a fresh new story idea, when I love writing and it loves me right back. (You guessed it–I’m a pantser.) Then I hit a blip. An obscure fact or technicality. If I’m invested in my story, I’ll sometimes flag these little issues, telling myself I’ll return to them later. That usually spells trouble down the road when I find out I’ve been writing fantasy without realizing it.

Lately I’ve found that stories often grow out of the research, and that accurate details of places and processes uncover new what-ifs and plot points. The original idea may not even be viable in light of the facts, but just as often, research sends the story reeling in new and exciting directions.

It starts with learning to ask good questions.

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Observation, Interpretation, Application

Have you ever used the Inductive Bible Study method? Essentially, it involves observing the text, interpreting its meaning, and applying that meaning to your life. It’s a good way to study the Bible, and it’s a good way to research a story.

Observe your subject.

We all start with our favorite search engine, but then what? The Inductive Study method teaches students to interrogate the text, and that is exactly what you’ll do with your sources. Read, search YouTube, and scour Pinterest. Visit places if you can, and take plenty of notes. Avail yourself of all the experts you can find to interview.

But don’t stop there. Dust off the five W’s and an H from your school days and start recording observations. Train yourself to intentionally ask Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How to avoid time-consuming mistakes and open doors to details you hadn’t considered for your story.

Interpret your observations.

The Inductive approach considers the context of the details, and that will also help you sort through your research. What will your discoveries mean to the characters and their situations? How will the realities of setting or science drive their actions?

Apply your research.

Once you’re ready to write, embrace the fact that you’ll end up with more information than you can use. Sprinkle jargon carefully, choose the best sensory details, and make sure the research you include serves the story.

For all the fascinating material that doesn’t make the cut, consider blogging about it or sharing posts on other social media. Put those interesting details to work attracting readers!

Organizing Your Research

Of course, all the facts and notes in the world do no good if you can’t immediately access what you need when you need it. It’s wise to develop a trusted system that suits the info and the way you like to work.

This can take many forms, including:

  • Note-taking software (such as EverNote, OneNote, or Google Keep),
  • Bookmarking sites or apps (like Pinterest, Pocket, or within your favorite browser),
  • Research docs within Scrivener,
  • File folders stored on your computer,
  • A giant dedicated three-ring binder that lives on the edge of your desk, or
  • A combination of these and other systems.

Depending on the types of media your research includes, you may have to mix it up. (I’m still a fan of moveable tape flags for print books and photo boxes for old photos.)

However you choose to manage your sources and notes, you need them in a place and format that’s logical and useful for you and your project. I’m all for staying flexible, but the key to a trusted system is consistency. If you always put your research files in the same place, they will always be there when you need them. (Remember to back-up!)

From my research toolbox to yours

With admitted bias for historical research, I offer these links as some of my go-to favorites.

  1. Chronicling America. Of the many online collections at the Library of Congress, the historic newspaper collection is a huge help for understanding the events, attitudes, priorities, and even verbal patterns of the milieu.
  2. Writer’s Dreamtools. A variety of useful helps. I especially appreciate the History by Decades links for a “We Didn’t Start The Fire”-style snapshot of the period I’m working on.
  3. Online Etymology Dictionary. This is a great resource for checking the usage of words and phrases to keep your language accurate.
  4. The Popular Baby Names section of the Social Security website is great for selecting names to reflect characters’ age, and Behind the Name is useful for finding appropriate names by heritage or theme.
  5. Quora and Yahoo! Answers. It’s a safe bet that if you’re wondering about anything, someone else probably has, too.

What are your best writing research tips? Share in the comments below!


bheineman-LR-3Brandy Heineman writes dual timeline novels laced with generational secrets and mysteries of the faith, believing that with Jesus, it is possible to overcome the past and find real connection. Her debut novel, Whispers in the Branches, was a 2014 ACFW Genesis Contest finalist.

She loves springtime in Georgia, testing new recipes on unsuspecting friends, and to her husband Michael’s chagrin, well-timed puns. Visit her online at brandyheineman.com.

Photo credit: Emilie Hendryx of E. A. Creative Photography, 2014.

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