Researching A Novel: What Do You Need to Know and When?

Researching A Novel. Really? I mean, it’s fiction. Don’t we make stuff up?

researching a novel

No matter how much we think we know, all novelists worth their salt do tons of research. 

This week a novelist who follows Southern Exposure asked me to blog about researching a novel. I’m always delighted to help if I can. I have talked about research here and here. But today I’ll go into more detail, so this is especially for writers, as well as readers who enjoy an in-depth look.

The timing for this subject was perfect, too, because my friend Casey Daniels/ Kylie Logan and I had been having a discussion on the subject. I’ll tell you more about that next week when I’ll deal with the pitfalls all researchers should avoid.

So how do I break down research into manageable bits, and how do I know what to research and what not to?  There’s nothing magical about researching a novel, but doing it this way makes research manageable. See what you think.

Emilie’s Three Step Process.
Step one begins with the basic idea for a novel.

For our purposes let’s pretend I’ve decided to write about a woman who owns a sky diving school. Our  character is having a difficult time at home, and while she tries not to bring her problems to work, one day she does. One of her clients falls to his death, and there’s a question whether the equipment was faulty, the depressed sky diver didn’t activate the parachute, or whether his instructions to do so were poorly given. Was the owner distracted by family problems? It’s unclear who is at fault, but no matter what the law finally decides at the novel’s end, she feels responsible.

In real life this might be an interesting idea, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I might have trouble putting myself into this character’s shoes as well as putting myself in the air for research. For now, though, let’s say I’m ready to consider it. Time for research to begin.

Step one is broad, quick research. Basically everything in step one helps me find out if the idea is:

  • Workable.
  • Easy enough to research with good information and sources.
  • Still interesting after the preliminary research is finished.

If, after several hours or even a day of delving, I decide that finding what I need is going to be impossible or so difficult it would require weeks of extra work, I will probably find a new idea and not proceed to the next step. If it becomes clear, though, that the idea is feasible, I move on.

Step two is a comprehensive overview.

Step two is the longest time commitment. I immerse myself in sources from the internet and the library. In this case I’d probably look for a basic short history on how sky diving began and evolved. I’d look into sky diving schools and how they’re run. I’d see if I could find biographies of famous sky divers. I’d read about planes, parachutes, optimum environments for landings. I’d do research into small businesses like this school, and how they stay afloat.

At this point I don’t need to know every little detail, however, at the same time, I would look for interesting details to include. What stood out for me? What seemed remarkable? What little tidbits will make the story seem real? What will elevate the story above a boring recitation of facts?

I take notes, mark and catalog useful websites, check out books from the library or buy the ones I know I’ll need again and again. I organize the research as I go and divide it loosely into categories. Usually this step does not include interviews with experts willing to talk to me. Sometimes it may, but that happens most often in step three.

Because looking at photos can be helpful, I use Pinterest to catalog those that will jog my memory or represent something important about the book. Here’s the board I did for The Swallow’s Nest .

In many ways step two is most important. By the time I begin writing, I want to be certain I can live in this world and survive until the novel is finished. When I feel I have a solid understanding of basics, I move on to step three.

Step three occurs while I’m writing the novel.

No matter how carefully I researched, until I move into the world of my characters, I may not know or understand what they will confront. Road blocks pop up regularly. Since I’ve already decided the idea is feasible, and I’ve read widely to acquaint myself with basics, road blocks shouldn’t require more than a slight detour. More often I can kick them aside by going to my sources. I can:

  • Brush up on what I’ve already read.
  • Follow those sources and find more in-depth information they may have used.
  • Do another internet search using targeted keywords. For example, maybe I need to know what kind of footwear a sky diver uses. So now I search for sky diver footwear and go right to a sky diver chat room where this topic is discussed. Bingo.
  • Find experts and ask questions in person or on the telephone. Chat rooms are great, too, and Facebook sometimes has interest groups with experts willing to help.

Breaking research into three phases works best for me. It also provides a progression to follow. When step one ends, I know what to do for step two. And because I know step three is around the corner, I don’t waste time worrying about tiny details. They’ll be there when I need them.

Next week the pitfalls and pleasures of research. And there are plenty of both.


  1. Shanna on March 7, 2018 at 7:19 am

    Thank You! This post was very interesting I love the idea of using Pinterest.

  2. Kate Vale on March 7, 2018 at 11:13 am

    I agree. Research is essential; knowing WHO to ask is also critical. Not all persons willing to provide information (over and above what is learned via books (non-fiction) and what’s online in reputable sites are always on target.

  3. Nancy Lepri on March 7, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    You are so right, Emilie! When I wrote my second children’s book, I did TONS of research, but that was the fun part. I know a lot of people who have told me, “Anyone can write a book!” Yeah, right. It takes a lot of hard work, discipline, and perseverance! Keep it up, Em! Love your books!

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