Writing means you can do whatever you want, right? Yes. And no. Unless you’re dabbling in non-fiction, you have the creative license to craft whatever you want. The only bounds are those enforced by the limits of your imagination. You can invent new species, populate the universe with inhabited planets, and even break the bonds of reality by introducing magic. And you’ll find readers eager for the ride. But unless you offer a kernel of truth and basic structures, they won’t stay with you to the end. You can’t do whatever you want and expect a favorable response. Because rampant chaos doesn’t work. And if you bend the rules of believability TOO FAR, people will toss the book aside unfinished. They simply won’t be able to follow your premise. This means you have to start all your projects with some research. You got it: homework. Most of which will NEVER find its way into your book.
Why must you research if you’re writing about dragons or aliens? Because they need to sound BELIEVABLE
Yes, even though the odds are pretty slim that they exist and you conjured them out of your brain after eating a questionable piece of pizza at 3:00 AM.
Even speculative fiction readers are only willing to extend their belief so far. If you trip that line and decide that your alien species can understand and speak every language throughout the universe without a translator simply because they’re “other,” no one will buy it. Readers will roll their eyes and write scathing reviews. (Assuming you manage to get the concept past an editor in the first place) The concept isn’t reasonable. Or based on any kind of fact.
The same goes for creating dragons with unlimited ability to breathe fire. Yes, authors got away with it in the dark ages, but it won’t pass muster now. The generation requires resources – either from within the body or without – which means there’s a finite limit. You have to account for it if you want readers to accept your dragons as viable creatures.
Writing should adhere to the basic laws of physics. And if you’re going to break one, you must have a solid reason for doing so. (Authors HAVE done so, but usually in the hard sci-fi genre, and the math and science get sticky. Not saying you CAN’T, but be ready to show your work)
And creature development needs to recognize the basic principle of evolution. The process will still occur even if you’re creating your own planet.
You have to understand what’s SUPPOSED to happen before you can start playing with it. And manipulating it to your advantage.
Research, Research, Research
Your book is about character relationships and personal development. That’s awesome! But do those people exist in a world – real or imagined? Then you still have some homework to do. Even people who write mysteries, romances, or straight-up fiction have to do their research.
At least if they want their book to come across as authentic.
Because tiny details are important, and there will always be SOMEONE out there who will call you out on a mistake. And you can’t bluff your way through these facts:
- Locations (especially if your setting is the real world)
- Building types (don’t try to cross engineers)
- Clothing styles and creation (do NOT attempt to get around a historic fan)
Do you have a Medieval setting for your fantasy novel? (No shade; it’s a popular choice) Are you familiar with the food preservation techniques from that era? Or what meals would have been typical for each social strata? Or did you just decide you could write what you saw in the last Hollywood flick? (Newsflash: They don’t tend to get it right)
Are you creating a planet? Have you taken into consideration the rotation, atmosphere, and gravity? Do you know what kind of environments are present across the surface? How long the days, months, and years are? Or did you make it an Earth-equivalent because that was easy?
Research is the difference between the usual ho-hum drivel and something spectacular. It also divides the cliches from WRITING.
What to Research
I get it: it sounds like you need to research EVERYTHING. And that can feel overwhelming. Especially when the pages and pages and PAGES of notes will never appear in your book. (11th-century plumbing? Not a big detail)
Worse, it feels like a series of rabbit holes waiting to devour you. (Did you know South Seas cone shell venom can cause paralysis? Or that velella colonize their own algae symbionts?)
And, I admit, researching your book requires careful discipline. You want to set strict limits on what and how long you spend in the trenches. (Even when that next site promises an interesting factoid your finger’s itching to click)
A good plan is to set up a schedule for yourself (perhaps built into your editorial calendar). Decide to focus on one topic a day for, say, an hour. And set a timer! That should keep you on task and prevent you from spiraling from food types for your era to TikTok recipes.
Changing topics will also keep you from getting bogged down in this “homework” phase. Because nothing drags more than spending an entire week learning about fabric types. (Believe me. I’ve done it)
Choosing Your Research Sources
This seems silly to point out, but you need to be reasonable about where you get your information.
Google is and isn’t a reliable source. It will spit out results to any question you choose to ask. But not all of the responses will deliver accurate information. And you don’t need to jot down notes crafted by an AI. (Or a freelancer who listened to an AI so they could make $15)
Remember: you’re aiming to include details that will impress your readers with your intelligence. And that means hitting the big “books.” (Hint: You can also do your research in the library with actual reference books)
Verify that the author has worthwhile credentials before you write one word of information from their articles or chapters. This might mean you spend more time at Google Scholar. Or it could mean you have to wade through the search results to the 6th or 7th page of results. (Sad, I know) But you don’t want to take down information that might be incorrect.
No matter how flashy the site is or what it’s ranked.
If your science info isn’t coming from a bonafide scientist, keep looking. And you better believe you need a historian if you’re looking for accurate information about the past. (I’ll let you chat with friends and family if you’re only going back to the 80s)
Incorporate Your Research
Once you have your faithful notes, you can start your worldbuilding.
Those details will help you build a culture that comes across as believable – because it’s rooted in FACT. And you’ll have creatures that people will claim walk off the page – because they’re modeled off of genuine animals. Details that lend texture and life to a book and keep readers engaged.
Then, as you write, you add in other pieces as needed. Characters reach for appropriate foodstuffs. Rooms decked in various fabrics or decorated with certain objects. Musical pieces that play to announce the time or specific religious observances. Facial adornments displayed to denote social standing.
They may feel like “throwaway details,” but they add complexity to your world and enrich the narrative. But you need to understand what each of them means. And doing that initial research will give you the starting position to do so. Then you can expand upon it and make it your own.
It will read more accurately than if you simply try to slap some things together because you saw them in another book or movie and thought they looked cool. (And you know you’ve come across writers who do this)
The Homework Champ
Everyone jokes that their internet search history will get them in trouble. But you can – and should – research more than ways to kill characters. Even if it means taking time away from “actual” writing.
Each book I write (or series, if that’s the case) gets a 5-subject notebook. I use the dividers to write my notes on the characters, the world, the culture, the creatures, and the technology. Those are the most important categories for me to get right. And they’re the topics I have to research and build upon.
I actually LIKE research, though. But I also loved school and never minded homework. (I know, I’m a freak)
Diving into topics like “What mammals are venomous?” or “How do you get past a motion detector?” are interesting to me. They make for odd searches, and I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere, but the information is fascinating.
But so are the rotation periods of different planets.
And the strengths of ceramic alloys.
And the communication patterns of bioluminescent squid.
(Yes, I’ve used ALL of those in my worldbuilding process)
Taking time out to look for those answers is worth it. It will elevate your work above the status quo. And you will find yourself eagerly wondering what else you can research and manipulate for another story down the road.