Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Even Fiction Needs Fact

All good fiction makes readers feel as if the story is really happening. Here's how to research the facts that make for realistic fiction.

Bad news if you think research is for term papers: fiction writers don’t get off. Getting facts straight is essential for every story setting, from colonial America to a modern police department.

Fortunately, there’s more to research than sneezing your way through library stacks:

1. First, know what you need. What don’t you know about the real-life version of your setting or character? Besides technical matters, consider background details: What do firefighters talk about during down time? When did the Beatles release that song? Make a list of things to check, especially anything that affects the plot.

2. Hands-on experience is the best research. If your protagonist will go to Chicago, go there yourself. If he’s famous for cheese soufflé, bake some soufflés. Don’t try to store everything in your head; take copious notes. Read a few issues of National Geographic to see how experienced writers weave in the details.

3. “The horse’s mouth” is second best. If you can’t work in your protagonist’s career or visit your story’s location, talk to people who have. For technical questions, interview experts—preferably using a tape recorder. Don’t leave your notebook at home, however. Jot down nonverbal details: your interviewee’s dress and gestures; the smells that fill the atmosphere; the sources of background noises.

If you don’t know any experts, colleges and universities are good places to look. Or ask a librarian for Web addresses of reputable “find an expert” sites.

4. Primary sources come next. For settings more than sixty years past, living witnesses may not be available. The records they left—the “primary sources”—are the next best thing. Don’t stop with “published” material; read diaries and letters. Ask local librarians about “archives”—even if the public library has nothing, it can direct you to museums and historical societies.

Primary sources do reflect the biases and misconceptions of their cultures, and your most admirable characters will be products of their time. So study your sources carefully to pick up the “feel” for each whole person; recognize what keeps the likable ones from sounding arrogant or ignorant. This will help you create lifelike story characters.

5. Reference books, such as encyclopedias, should be left for double-checking such basics as dates and locations—such books are generally weak on fine details. They can save you from letting someone sing a song a year before it was released. However—and this is a very big however

6. Double- and triple-check everything. You probably know that many Web sites are more interested in “proving” biases than in getting facts straight. But a conscientious writer maintains healthy skepticism toward any source; even reference books make mistakes. Check information against three or four experts on the topic. In case of discrepancies, don’t go with the majority—go to the sources your sources used (any reputable expert will note where she got her information). If there’s still room for doubt, review the sources used by those sources.

Yes, this is a nuisance. Yes, a thousand people may believe the false version. Yes, top writers occasionally get away with brutalizing the facts (as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” where the solution hinges on blatant scientific error). But you’re not a top writer (or why bother reading this?), and can’t afford to make a fool of yourself in front of readers. Not if you want anyone to buy your next story.

And even after you remove all factual errors, the first draft of this story will have room for improvement.

© 2011 Katherine Swarts

Katherine Swarts is a poet and inspirational writer from Houston, Texas. Her self-published poetry book Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts (the first volume in a planned series) was “written for naturally gloomy types like myself who are tired of ‘cheer up’ talk and need the comfort of ‘God does love you’ encouragement.” The poems in the book come from Katherine’s blog at; contact Katherine at for ordering information.


  1. Excellent post!

    This is, for me, one of the hardest parts of the craft. I write thrillers and lead a pretty UNinteresting life. I wish I were like Connelly and had the personal experience in my pocket.

    Your words are spot-on. Research is a necessary evil.

  2. Really glad Kahterine's article helped. That's great.

  3. I'm not a history buff so it's fortunate that I don't write historical fiction. But I actually enjoy researching the contemporary information I need. Most often I create a fictitious setting within a real area, so the details of some locales can be imagined, while others must be accurate. Researching the effects of poisons for one novel raised eyebrows until I explained why I needed the info! LOL.

  4. Hi Carol. I did 4 months of research when I wrote "Kiss of the Assassin." It's set in Vietnam. I quit trying to find a publisher because nobody was interested in that war. I believe one day they changed their minds.

    Anyway, I digest--I mean digress.

    I found the research exhausting. I would have dropped it all for the chance to visit Vietnam instead. There still would have been some research, but what could top being there.

    I did research for my two published novels, but placing them in my hometown helped immensely.

    I think I'm just lazy. Katherine's post is a huge eye-opener.

  5. Fantastic advice! And the timing! We had a discussion in my authors' loop about lawyers and police, and there was so very much I realized I needed to study.

    But, so many of my characters are Italian, I think I should go to Italy to research. Oh, man, oh, man. Well, one day I WILL.

    Loved the post! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Carol. We could go together! I could have one of my characters need to visit Italy. Works for me.

  7. Having worked as a historian and lectured on the topic of research for writers, I loved your summary. Especially warning about human bias that can be in primary sources.

    While I would love to visit the sites of some of my stories, alas, I can't. Commercial space travel is out of my budget. Although, I still have to research. Science fiction writers need to base their stories on some real aspect of science.

    And as for fantasy, we may have to create our worlds but they have to seem real. Which means using what the readers know. Which leads to, yes you guessed it, research.

    Happy hunting all. Helen

    Helen Henderson
    Stories that take you to the stars, the Old West, or worlds of imagination

    Steer a course to adventure and magic with Windmaster--Now Available at Champagne Books, and All Romance. Ellspeth, Captain of the Sea Falcon, is determined to make her own destiny, but it isn't easy when she has to decide between the sea, magic...or love.

    Tales of romance of today and tommorrow, Romance of My Dreams 2 from L&L Dreamspell. Available Now in Ebook at AllRomance/OmniLit. At in print and for the Kindle.

  8. This is great advice. It's also why I want to take horseback lessons and swordplay lessons. I'm sure I'll manage that whenever I can stop being a broke teenager.

  9. Some great ideas here. I love doing research for my stories, from mythology to how to blow things up. Most of the time, I find new ideas, and even if I don't use them, I get an education. Great blog, Joylene!

  10. This post is wonderful, great information.

  11. I agree that fiction needs research and even a dose of reality. If we don't have then we can't relate to our characters. I can tell you're a plotter. Hands on experience is the best way to go. I wrote about horses once...didn't know a darn thing until I rode one...thrilling. Eew...not that's an ugly picture. This is all awesome advice. Thanks for contributing to the building of other writers. :)

  12. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Helen. Love your webpage.

  13. @Thanks for the visit, Anthony. It's always great to see you. Hope your week's going well.

    @Hi Pat. Thanks! I hopped over and saw the pics of Alaska. Wow, beautiful. I live south of there a short drive. LOL. Okay, maybe not so short.

    @Laila, hi! Thanks so much for visiting. I think Katherine is such a great source wisdom and knowledge, and to know others think so to, well, it's the icing on the cake. LOL, not sure why, but I'm full of cliches today.

    Thanks, everyone.

  14. Hi Joylene, Katherine's points all make good sense. I imagine some people find research drudgery, but I love it. I did quite a bit for my novel WOUNDS, even though it is middle grade fiction. For my WIP I am researching ancient Rome. That's very interesting.

  15. Hi Joylene and Katharine .. so sensible - I do hate it when things are wrong ..

    Love these pictures - Putin one I could do without! Cheers Hilary

  16. Thanks, Hilary. Hope you're having a lovely day/evening.

  17. Thank you for stopping by, Barbara. I love stories centered around Rome. Fascinating times, especially since human nature hasn't changed much. Have a nice day.

  18. FYI, Hilary, Joylene deserves credit for adding the visuals (and I love 'em too).

    Thanks to all who commented. Maybe I should say "prodded"; I'm as lazy here as anybody ("those who can't do teach") and need to get back to research for my latest short story ASAP!

  19. I couldn't agree more about research creating plausibility in plots. A friend asked me the other day why I only used settings I knew (lived in or had travelled to repeatedly). Having concrete details on my setting was the answer. These days, the more I get into speculative stuff, the more interesting my research gets. But I'm still researching!

  20. @Katherine, thanks for another informative article. They just keep getting better and better. The pictures were the easy part.

    @Christine, looking forward to your next book. Hope you're staying dry. Isn't this weather bizarre? Hope we have a decent fall.

  21. This is a great post! My novel was based on an actual event, so I did a TON of online research. It was a very intense writing experience. With two little ones, I was unable to actually travel to the setting of my story. But Google Maps has a feature that allows you to see street views of roads and buildings - which is pretty awesome and helpful when it comes to writing. If I find a publisher for this novel, I will probably make it a priority to get to the real-life setting of this novel, just to double-check details, like you're suggesting.

    And thanks, Joylene, for stopping by my blog! As always, I appreciate your kind and supportive comments! :)

  22. Lauren, you're very welcome. Have a great Sunday.

  23. Wow, lots of great information. Thanks for sharing it.

  24. Thanks for stopping by, Susanne. Have a great day.

  25. Great info, thanks so much, Katherine and Joylene! Just got off the phone with my writing friend Susan; she and I are collaborating on a book and are knee deep in this stuff. So this is timely. :)

  26. Glad it was helpful, Karen. Best of luck with your joint venture.

  27. This is why I often choose fictional places, but there are times when you really do need to know what goes on. I choose settings that are in the 60s and beyond because those are ones I know. However, I would not hesitate to research information to make sure I have my facts correct.

  28. Hi Brenda. Good point. I wrote a novel based in Russia and because I've never been there, I spent 3 months doing extensive research. I'm positive it was worth it.

    Thanks for visiting, Brenda. Have a great day.


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