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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Lees

Research in Writing

Updated: Jun 16, 2022

This weekend, the St. Louis Writers Guild hosted an event with author Tanya Roth about writing history. (FYI, her book "Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980" is out now with the University of North Carolina Press.)

Roth walked us through her process for writing about history, and how she used different texts to answer questions specific to her story. (For example, she'd reference academic and peer reviewed journals, encyclopedias, textbooks, nonfiction, historical fiction, and creative nonfiction for this and other pieces she's written.)

I found this extremely helpful. Though I don't personally write about history, I think any writer would have benefited from this workshop because most writing involves research.

The short story I'm currently working on concerns a character in prison, and some of that imagery involves time in his cell. While it's not a story of the prison's history, I don't have enough solid background to write descriptively about his (imagined) life.

I hope you'll find the information I've gathered for this post helpful.

Who Do You Talk to?

If you're writing a YA novel about Brazilian zombies, who do you talk with? Brazilians? Portuguese-Brazilians? Teenagers? Folklorists? The simple answer is all of them.

Only you know when all of the questions have been answered in your story, and it's better to have done too much research than not enough.

Go to the Experts When You Can

There's a lot of information out there, whether it's online, at the library, etc. However, do you know a teacher or colleague who might already know about your research topic? It's always best to talk to someone first as a guide.

TIP: Look for events in your area through Meetup that may be hosting free or cheap virtual (or in person) meetings to connect and learn from other authors or experts.

Check Yourself

In the 2019 article "On the Fine Art of Research For Fiction," by Literary Hub, the authors discuss the amount of research that goes into writing fiction.

"If there’s a story or novel you admire that is fairly research-forward, go through a few sections and mark anything that you would have needed research to write."

Below is an excerpt from the article, which relates to the quote above.


I still have my notes from the first time I used this exercise. I was researching the ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang for a work of historical fiction I would later publish in One Story. I was drowning in research, and the story was nearing fifty pages (!) with no end in sight. My story focused on the final years of the emperor’s life, so I made a list of facts related to that period, including these:

1. The emperor was obsessed with finding the elixir of life and executed Confucian scholars who failed to support this obsession.

2. If the emperor coughed, everyone in his presence had to cough in order to mask him as the source.

3. The emperor believed evil spirits were trying to kill him and built secret tunnels to travel in safety from them.

Now, the second of those statements is a lie. My facts were showing me that the emperor was afraid of dying and made other people the victims of that fear—my lie, in turn, creates a usable narrative detail supporting these facts. I ended up using this lie as the opening of the story. I was a graduate student at the time, and when I workshopped the piece, my professor said something about how the opening worked because “It’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up.” I haven’t stopped using this exercise since.


Stay Organized

Having a system you're comfortable with and that works for you is what's most important. As long as you know where everything is, and it's easily accessible. Here are some software suggestions to help get you there.

That's all for now. Hope you have a good week!

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