Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Researching Your Novel: Always Start With Google!

Researching Your Novel: Always Start With Google!
By Brad R. Cook

If you take one piece of advice away from this post
– Always start with Google!
This is part of a talk about research that I’ve given at a couple of writers’ conferences, but it is also my favorite way to learn. If I don’t know something – I Google it. It’s practically how I learned to be an IT tech. BTW, you can Bing too, whichever makes you happier.

In a nutshell, Google is an algorithm that searches everything posted on the web for the keywords you entered. So if you ask for an apple you will get every post with apple in it from the entire world, that’s why it says – about 115,000,000 results (0.12 seconds.)

Why do you need to research? Details! People read to learn, to escape, to experience something new. To fulfill this desire, every writer needs to include rich details.

There are three things to remember when researching your novel:
1 – How to research: Start specific then broaden – always approach from multiple angles – try to find source material.

Start your search with very specific keywords, something like – apple pie recipes with a flaky cinnamon trust. (Can you tell I’m hungry, or it may be a Steve Jobs’ homage, but I had apples on my mind.) It's always best to see if there is a website that has exactly what you need. If that doesn't work, say there just aren't any cinnamon piecrust recipes, then broaden your search. See if there are apple pie recipes with flaky crusts that you could add the cinnamon too. Your next option, if you still haven’t found what you are looking for, or want more detailed information – is to approach from a different angle. See if there is a pumpkin pie recipe with a cinnamon crust. Lastly, one of the most important things you can do is find the source material. Especially, since much of what is on the web is a reprint or an amalgamation of other sources.

2 – Where to research: It isn’t always about libraries.

I love libraries! They're the single greatest resource when trying to find out information. In some cases, they're actually better than Google because they have resources I can't access by myself. However, sometimes it's good to get out of the library. How many times have you heard – “Write what you know!” – and they’re right, so fire a gun, swing a sword, drive your characters’ car, ride with a biker gang, or walk through each location of your story. It can be invaluable to actually do the things your character does. Not to mention, it makes the research fun.

3 – What to research: Details!

Research is about one thing – details. The right details give your novel depth and enrich the reader’s experience. It's how writers create an environment that the reader won’t want to leave. Research the specifics, the clothes, technology, history, slang, sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the important aspects of the character’s world.
Anyone can write – a man walked into a room and fired a gun – but with a little research – The lieutenant smashed his boot against the cheap particleboard door, took two steps inside and smacked into the rancid odor of week-old pizza and enough piled crap to start an episode of
Hoarders. As a man stepped into the hallway, the lieutenant fired a tight-spread of buckshot. (My apple reference didn’t work as well here.)

The second sentence makes people want to read more. They care more about the Lt. than some generic man. What did I research? The type of person, what they wore, and what type of weapon they carried. The type of place they entered. What did that place look like, smell like, and feel like? Don’t add all the details to every sentence, but knowing the in’s and out’s of your world is the only way to show the reader. So, research the five senses, and remember your genre – if you’re writing a space epic, you'd better know some of the laws of astrophysics; writing a western, you might want to know that the pump action shotgun wasn't invented until the 1890s; writing a
mystery, brush up on police procedures. We read for the details.

I hope that helps. My next blog post will continue the research theme. I’ll touch on some great places to look when researching. Good luck with your writing!


  1. Research--so near and dear to my heart! Of course, knowing when to stop can be a problem for some of us. It's so easy to broaden and broaden the search because it's so very interesting. It's important to leave "breadcrumbs" on where you've been so you can find your way back to that nugget of information you really need.

  2. ... and five hours later, still haven't written a word! The dark side of 'research'.

  3. Brad, this is a great post. I'm a big proponent of details, it's what makes a story come alive on the page. I love google too, you just have to make sure you don't get sucked in. :)

  4. Thanks... You're all right, it is so important to schedule time for research. I like friday afternoons. I also limit myself to a month of research before I start a book, I will still research specific things after that but just free-flowing, see-where-it-goes research I have to keep an eye on or I would do it forever.

  5. I love this blog! I'm a research fanatic and I especially liked the advice to go "hands on." In fact, part of my research for a novel I'm cooking is to learn how to fire a handgun. After Thursday night, look out world!

    Another thing I find helpful in that regard is to visit places that may inspire settings for my work. Sometimes taking a little walk around a neighborhood or spending a couple of hours in a museum work wonders for getting the creative juices flowing and by carfully observing my surroundings I can add little details that will hopefully make my readers feel like they're right there with the characters.

    Keep these great posts coming!