There’s an old cliché in the creative writing field that says, “write about what you know”—because a well-informed author can develop their world with greater ease and explanation. However, research becomes an essential component of the creative writing process when the material you are writing enters into unknown territory. Research may seem like a daunting task at first, but here are a couple of questions to help you get started.
Establish your audience
Ask yourself, who is the audience? What do they know already, and what should be explained? Recognizing your audience is one of the most critical decisions of writing a piece; it determines the piece’s voice, often its length, and the general flow of the work.
For example, the audience for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion tend to have completely different expectations in their reading and background knowledge.
Define your setting
Ask yourself, when and where does your story’s setting take place? Do you need to conduct background research for the time and place? Your reader may already know the setting, or it could be radically different from their own experiences.
For example, if you’re writing a story about a woman who travels to New York for a new career as a baker, you probably don’t need to spend more than a glance at bakeries in New York—your audience can already imagine the setting reasonably well.
On the other hand, if your protagonist is traveling back in time to late-8th-century England, you should probably dig into the history books. Not only is the Early Medieval Period an unfamiliar setting, but the coming of the Vikings to England in 793 may completely change the world around your character.
Find reputable sources
So, keeping your audience and setting in mind, how do you go about conducting research? First, you’ll have to decide what you need to research, which is often covered by audience questions and settings. Next, you’ll want to find reputable sources—there are two main sources: primary and secondary sources.
Primary sources are typically the best and most reliable type; these include (trustworthy) witnesses, books written by people directly involved in what you’re studying, or even historical artifacts. While primary sources can be the best to use, often, written sources can be hard to use due to language and scriptural interpretation difficulties.
Primary sources can often be found online, but the best way to use them is in-person. For example, if your story is about a wizard and you would like to describe their wand based on a real, Ancient Egyptian wand, you could view the Walter’s Art Museum’s ‘Magic Wand Depicting a Procession of Deities’ online.
However, there is a notable difference between looking at a picture online and holding an artifact in your hands. When holding an artifact, you can feel its weight and run your (gloved) finger along its ridge. Utilizing primary sources in-person is a much more intuitive experience that will help your written depiction of a wand genuinely come to life.
Secondary sources are, thankfully, much more accessible. These include books written by experts in the field, articles written about the subject, or any other type of secondhand (yet reliable) source. Since these sources are secondhand, they should be read with a ‘grain of salt.’
The best way to conduct research is to read a diverse range of reliable works on the subject (including primary and secondary sources) and then formulate your conclusions based on the data you have collected. There are also methods of studying that transfer quite well to research itself: drawing maps and creating timelines can help place an idea in its contextual setting. Also, bulleted lists and concept-mapping are excellent ways to break down broad ideas into smaller concepts.
Cite your sources
The last and possibly most important aspect of research is proper citation. Citing your sources prevents plagiarism, something all writers should avoid. There are tons of ways that you can cite a source. Including:
- In-line with the text (placed within parentheses).
- Fully-cited in a footnote.
- Briefly cited in the text (full citation in the bibliography).
Creative writing usually draws on inspiration from its sources, rather than direct quotes. That’s why in creative writing, citations are typically noted within the bibliography. However, what matters most is a consistent style of citation throughout the piece
Research is an essential tool for writers to help develop their work. While it does require a bit of digging to find the right information, new information will often crop up along the way in exciting and unexpected ways. The researching process ultimately provides the writer with more insight into their topic and a greater understanding of their field. As lexicographer Erin McKean once said, serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult (Morville and Callender 131).
McKean, Erin, quoted in Morville, Peter, and Jeffery Callender. Search Patterns: Design for Discovery, 1st ed., O’Reilly Media, 2010, p. 131.