Writer Toolkit: Research Done Right

Posted: January 22nd, 2014 under Craft.
Tags: ,

Every writer needs to do research at one time or another, but it doesn’t have to be (should not be!) just hours in a library or staring at the computer.   In both fiction and nonfiction, vivid writing that brings the reader the next best thing to “being there” requires research done right…from the best available sources, in the most hands-on way possible.   But most of us (nearly all) don’t have unlimited time and funds to spend on research.   How can we use the resources we can afford in the best way?   How should a writer tackle the research mountain when all he or she has is sneakers and day-pack?

It’s tempting to say “Write only what you know” but that’s not the right answer: if you confine yourself to what you already know, your topics will constrict until you’re bored.   But “what you know” is a good starting point.  So take stock of what you know, leaving out nothing, no matter how small or  “unimportant” and make use of it.   You can thread a needle?  There may be a place in a story where a character’s ability to thread a needle matters.  (If not, learn: most writers don’t make much money and need to sew on their own buttons.)    You can fry (or scramble) an egg?   People eat, in books: now you can handle a realistic scene in which they fry or scramble one or more eggs.   You know what good iron smells like?    Great–someday a character can distinguish a good nail from a bad one by smell–when it matters.  You know what it feels like to brush your teeth, put on a shoe–not only that, you know how long it takes,  and how–in a scene–that act will take, and what the character can also be doing (nobody I know can shave and brush teeth at the same time.)

The more things you know from your own experience–tastes, smells, sounds, colors,  textures, situations, weather, plants, animals, buildings, languages, emotions, cultures, people–the more ample your scope as a writer.   Although you cannot rely only on your own experience, it is the only form of research that provides direct, input to your full suite of senses.   So a prudent writer will increase awareness of this sensory input in all situations, and seek to expand the opportunity to stockpile more direct memories.   Keep learning stuff–you will need it, but you won’t initially know when it will come in handy.   You don’t have to become expert in everything you try to learn–the feel of being a beginner, then gradually increasing skill–is particularly useful in fiction, since characters should never be experts in everything anyway.

But let’s say there’s something you cannot learn from experience because the experience isn’t available: what it’s like to walk on the outside of a spaceship traveling between planets or stars, for instance, because no human has done that yet.  Or win an Olympic gold in diving, because you haven’t got the physical ability to learn to do any fancy dives (or any at all.)    What’s the next step?

For things no one has done, think of analogies.   For working outside a spaceship: there’s the ISS.  Granted, it’s in low earth orbit, but what if it were, instead, somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn?    How do people now work outside the ISS?   Look at the videos.  Listen to the ISS astronauts talk about their outside work.   If your character working outside the space ship also uses safety lines and other ways of attaching themselves to the ship, like those in the ISS…if you include airlocks for going in and out, suits (need not be exactly the same) for working outside, careful checks of suits and equipment before transiting to the vacuum, and if you’ve listened to the astronauts’ comments on what it feels like–both the physical sensations and their emotional reactions–then you can write a “believable” (willing suspension of disbelief) scene of that type.

For things people have done but aren’t doing now where you live or can get to (this will vary–some of you may still be hand-milking cows,  using a drop spindle)  there are now books and videos to help “re-enacters”  do them.    You may be able to find people who do them and watch, and even learn a little.    By asking around I found someone with a scythe, and then another person experience with a scythe, so I could learn to scythe (and the results are in Surrender None.)   If all you can get is the person’s experience relayed to you, that’s still excellent, particularly if you can ask questions:  “When you were learning that, what was the hardest thing?   How long does it take the average person who’s never done it before to do it?   How many times do you have to do it before you’re confident and it feels easier?”   If your informant lives within range, five fifteen minute visits and chats will give you more info than one hour and fifteen minute chat–you will think of new questions to ask between visits.   Look for, and ask about, analogies to your own experience:  “I’ve driven a single horse to a two-wheeled training cart–how is that like, or unlike, driving a four-horse team to a carriage?   Is it just more reins to hold, or…?”  “I had a chance to shoot a longbow at day camp a few times–is a crossbow kind of like that?  What are the differences?”

When you find an informant, assess his/her level of knowledge, but politely.    Find more than one, if you possibly can, and notice differences between them; it’s easy to find a person with one oddball view of their “topic” who can skew your understanding.    Opinions are information about the person (oh, so you’re one of those …)  and less about the topic.

Where there’s no experienced informant, you’re thrown onto videos (gives you clear visual input at least) and written materials, either in print material or online.   If what you need is common-level knowledge (and always start with beginner level if you’re not)  magazines on that topic and the simpler level of books are a good place to start.  They will probably have pictures.    A very basic book on horses will prevent many problems–there will be a picture of a horse with the parts labeled, for instance, and pictures of tack with parts labeled, and some mention of colors (black, bay, chestnut, gray, dun, roan, palomino, etc.) and markings (blaze, stripe, snip, sock, stocking, the pattern of a multi-colored coat) and some discussion of gaits (walk, trot, canter, gallop and maybe something on the lateral gaits: pace, foxtrot, running walk, rack.)   Horse magazines have lots of pictures, and usually articles on specific training, riding, feeding, grooming,  and other horse-related topics.

Once you’re into the video and print material, your need to assess sources becomes acute.  There are lousy horse magazines as well as good ones.  There are narrow-minded people who think they know everything because they know one particular thing (in horses, that may be a breed, a style of riding, a training theory, etc.)    Look for a minimum of three sources (all good, as best you can determine) before taking a detail from them.    Online sources are particularly shifty in that regard…though there’s a specialized listserv or group for almost everything (and maybe actually everything), this is where opinion trumps knowledge more often than the reverse.   The larger the number of groups, the more likely that some (or most) of them are full of…opinion.   However, online sources can give you quick pointers to better sources (online and off) and specialized groups (such as the one I found for naval info in WWI) can provide material you can’t get any other way without more time and money than most of us have.   Go to the really specialized groups after working your way through general info–I posted a query in that group, citing the other resources I had tried without finding the very specific info I needed (the names of all the destroyers in the Royal Navy’s Adriatic Squadron–and their captains–during the first week of the war) and the reason I needed it (working on an alternate history story.)  Nobody knew offhand, but one person, in the UK, knew where the information would be held–a specialized Royal Navy library–and how to access it.  And did so.

For that one novella,  set in a time, place, and situation about which I knew little other than from general histories like Tuchman’s Guns of August,  I  used direct experience (visiting the nearest ship actually built before WWI–the battleship Texas)  talked to everyone I thought might know something (people interested in naval history that I already knew, who then sent me to others, and to reference books),  read all or part of dozens of books–on ships specifically, on that period specifically, on the people  of the time,  on the naval battles fought along the west and southern coasts of Greece,  on seamanship in that period:  diaries, travelogues, technical stuff on naval gunnery and what damage it inflicted on other ships, books about WWI naval battles by survivors, by naval personnel doing after-battle analysis, by historians, etc. , ordered nautical charts of the relevant area in two scales, looked at old maps,  at pre-war photographs of the area,  made little models, to scale of the most details of the charts, of ships with their guns’ range included so I could move them on the chart and know when they could possibly hit the other ships.

The test of research is the reaction of readers who have more knowledge than the writer.   Who those are varies with the type of story.   If you have horses in it, you will have horse owners (experienced and first-time),  horse-trainers, riders in every discipline, and even vets critiquing your work.   It’s not what you leave out that will get you in trouble, but what you put in that’s wrong.  Nobody says you have to infodump everything you know about horse anatomy and behavior  if your hero is riding across country…but use the wrong word, or have a horse lap water like a dog, or your hero knee his horse in the flank, and you’re toast where the experienced horse people are concerned.    If you’re writing alternate history, someone has spent a lifetime studying that period of history, and your fork in the trail–and where it goes–needs to satisfy that scholar.    If you’re writing straight history,  know as much as historian specializing in that period–in fact, you should know who those people are.  (Connie Willis, after writing her Civil War novel, said Civil War buffs will get you for having the wrong button on a uniform in any given year…get it right or leave it out, but you should be able to get it right.)   If you’re writing within a military viewpoint (historical or imaginary),  you need not only the knowledge of  military science, but the knowledge of how military people think and feel.   Again, first-hand experience helps, but reading memoirs and first-hand accounts, and listening (it takes really good listening skills to get a veteran to open up)  to veterans can get even a non-vet writer enough to go with.

Learn more than you think you need–lots more.   Learn so much that you’re frustrated at not being able to share all the Shiny! you’ve learned…ideally only 1/4 to 1/3 of what you’ve researched will show up in the story.    Never write to the edge of your knowledge (this is different from using analogies)  because then you’ll salt your mine with details you’re “pretty sure” are the real thing,  and readers will recognize fool’s gold.   A writer’s life should be spent pretty much like a sponge or a whale shark–filter feeders, every pore (or that huge mouth) wide open to get fragment of information that’s in range, and tuck it away for future use.   Watch, listen, notice.   “It’s out there.”



  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — January 22, 2014 @ 9:28 pm


    Paragraph Three is good advice for anyone. That kind of paying attention leads to a richer life whether one writes anything or not. Very! interesting post. Thank you.

  • Comment by Marian — January 23, 2014 @ 2:26 am


    Now …. much as I love the entries you have been posting in the last month, I can only wonder what you are avoiding by writing them … ? … >:> Is this a natural hiatus, an annual holiday, or something else??

    (runs away giggling evilly …)

  • Comment by Gareth — January 23, 2014 @ 2:56 am


    Do you also choose some alpha readers from subject experts to catch accidental howlers that your regular proof readers/editors won’t catch not being subject experts.

  • Comment by Linda — January 23, 2014 @ 12:05 pm


    Your essay sounds like those talks I’ve given to students over the years about libraries and beyond.

    At this point in doing family history I am fascinated by those sorts of details you mention … and how to discover them. A few years ago I spent some time watching a cooper making barrels from scratch in the Netherlands so that I could better understand the life of my great great grandfather. Apprenticeship papers from the early 1800s are in my mother’s possession. He was a still a cooper in the 1880s … the changes he saw working on the waterfront amaze me. His oldest sons mainly became plumbers, the youngest designed and built municipal pumping stations. We have a can of his company’s 100+ year old grease for pumps. And this has been news to everyone now living.

    And there are the things which hardly change at all … the recipes for cookies and pies originally baked in wood fired ovens, then coal stoves, gas ranges, and now electric stoves … but still with the same recipes, ingredients and a rolling pin my grandmother used.

    When my life seems inconsequential, I reflect on the odd bits I’ve turned up and realize that I will never know what may mean something to someone in the future.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 23, 2014 @ 12:36 pm


    Linda, that’s fascinating! I love cooper-to-plumber-to designing and building pumping stations. Recently I saw a PBS cooking show that commented on how ingredients have changed (for people who don’t make their own) so that some older recipes can’t work: flour, sugar/sweetners (cane v. beet sugar, corn syrup v. molasses), chickens (fast-growing, specially fed, very young v. older, free-range, bug-eating, cooking fats (animal fats being replaced by vegetable oils), etc. I know that chili made with ground beef from corn-fed cattle is nothing like chili made with chili-grind or sliced beef from range-fed cattle–texture and flavor both different. Even dried beans made into soup taste different if they were home-grown.

    I wish I’d grabbed a pencil and written down what they did for one recipe to change it so it works with modern ingredients (there were some partial substitutions.) But yes, there are still recipes that work–my great-grandmother’s oatmeal cookies or the gingerbread apple upside-down cake, for instance. Basic bread recipes (keeping an eye on the kinds of flour sold at your store and trying to match…differences in protein content change the way flour behaves in baked goods.) If you can get the same ingredients, or nearly, you can definitely use the old recipes.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 23, 2014 @ 12:46 pm


    Marian: As I do every year, I start accelerating the entry frequency as publication date approaches–in the hopes that it will drive everyone to Buy More Books (mine, that is, though I don’t mind at all if it increases the total beyond my own), and attract more people to the site. I am in a hiatus on book writing for awhile, as I work on short fiction (anthology invitations plus some stuff for the future Paksworld story collection) and since I am on a book hiatus (I hope only briefly) I am working on digging out of the colossal number of Things Left Undone Which Ought To Be Done before we are buried in dust mammoths and papers in this house, and find ourselves nose-on to one or more of life’s realities which people our age are told we should plan for.

    Having an offspring who has limitations is an additional spur to doing the organizing and planning so he won’t be overwhelmed any more than Life’s Less Pleasant Stuff will make him. All these things take time–lots of it, which is why they’ve gone undone while I was spending way more than 8 hour days writing a book a year, but they can’t go undone forever. Posting here is both a regular part of the writing business and a pleasant break from things like sorting stacks that haven’t been touched in years and planning funerals. (No, we’re not at death’s door–unless death comes in the form of major trauma–but people our age are targeted for “Save everyone trouble and plan now.”) (Some people think people our age should just save everyone trouble and die, but I’m not that altruistic.)

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 23, 2014 @ 12:51 pm


    Gareth: When I’m writing about something where my own knowledge, even after research, is really thin, I do run passages (not usually the whole book–as the kind of expert I need may not read the kind of books I write) past an appropriate person. Our veterinary, for instance, has fact-checked me on things like contracts for sperm donor dogs. (Apparently the whole office loves laughing about the questions I come up with, and the use I make of the answers.) A Navy vet with experience in shipboard damage control checked out my stuff in the Serrano books.

  • Comment by Eowyn — January 23, 2014 @ 4:40 pm


    I remember a panel where Esther Friesner talked about the risk of being someone who had experienced something that she was researching and how she would pull all the info out of your head leaving just a husk.

    I also can attest to the fact that it can be hard for someone who has learned lots of Shiny! knowledge to not try to fit it all into their 10 minute presentation.

    Personally, I love the depth of feel that you give your books because you do the research.

  • Comment by Eloise — January 24, 2014 @ 12:16 am


    As a lifetime horsewoman mistakes involving horses often set my teeth on edge. Recently I read two books by the same author in books that revolved around horses. In them the author made basic horsemanship errors, but worse, in all cases the problem that the horse had was “colic”. Um, well, yes, it is true that you -can- colic a horse from riding too long but it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind! I guess that I’d caution a young writer to do exactly what you suggest in your comments, run the injuries past a vet. More specifically, if you are going to talk about horses or cows, it needs to be a “large animal” vet. A vet who spends most of their time seeing dogs and cats may not know much about horses.

    Also Equus magazine.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 24, 2014 @ 12:37 am


    Eloise: Same here. I’ve written sarcastic verse about both writer mistakes and artist mistakes. It’s not like horses are hard to find, either in real life or in good action photos with and without riders. Same with tack. So why the wolf-ears instead of horse ears, why the peculiar saddles that show up on some artists’ horses, why riders (supposedly expert) sitting on those peculiar saddles in a way that does not fit what they’re supposed to be doing? Grrr.

    However, a very horse-knowledgeable rider can sometimes stray by trying to teach more than tell a story. A well-known and excellent writer (and equestrian), writing mysteries, once had a scene in which Character A, the serial killer, gallops away, pursued by Character B…and the writer, mentioning that Character B was on her Thoroughbred of such and so height, then stopped the story to carefully explain how horse height it measured. That was not what the character was thinking about–it was a very clear infodump lump in the middle of an exciting scene. I *hope* what happened was that the writer’s explanation to an editor’s or proof-reader’s query was accidentally put into the book. But in fact, the character would not have been thinking about her horse’s height, but its speed, relative to the murderer’s horse and the lead it had.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — January 24, 2014 @ 2:00 pm


    On the other hand, too much minutiae can interfere with the story even if accurate. While I like to read the finer points of running a mercenary company or Doren’s experience teaching three squires,, I can readily see that some would consider much of Ms. Moon’s details just so much filler. To a certain point it is good to have realistic details, but it is the good reading that really makes the difference. When Paks or the King does healing, this is clearly not factual but the good writing makes it appears so.

  • Comment by GinnyW — January 24, 2014 @ 2:34 pm


    Whatever your reasons for posting these “lessons”, I look forward to them and enjoy them immensely.

    One area of “research” that I feel is essential to fantasy fiction is the way light functions. I had a geography professor who encouraged us to “turn out the lights” and try reading by candlelight – just for an hour. She wanted to impress on us some of the effort that literacy had been in the colonial period. Such experience is not expensive (financially) but it really is instructive.

    I do not know enough about horses to notice the inconsistencies, myself. I must say though, that I would not feel comfortable writing a story in which a horse played a significant role. Horses, cats, dogs and (less often) other animals are characters within the stories where they are significant, and should be true to life both in themselves, and in the relationships they have with the human characters.

  • Comment by Jason — January 24, 2014 @ 6:56 pm


    I’ve been reading about WWI ships for a long time now and I really enjoyed “Tradition”. Your portrayal of Craddock seemed very true to the man. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with your conclusions as to the result of the combat, but, and this is the most important thing, they are plausible to this knowledgeable reader.

  • Comment by pjm — January 24, 2014 @ 7:37 pm


    Elizabeth, re your #6, altruistic is NOT “getting out of the way” when you are contributing so much to so many people by your writing and other life stuff. Consider that said very firmly!

    Also, in connection with encouraging people to buy the new books, I got started on your stuff by the free Sheepfarmer’s Daughter on Baen, as well some stuff from the local library. I notice that SD is no longer free though.

    GinnyW, I agree with your geography teacher. The experience is not expensive now, but good candle-lighting then would have been quite expensive, making yet another problem for literacy.


  • Comment by elizabeth — January 24, 2014 @ 8:29 pm


    Jonathan: Yes, how much mundane is acceptable varies with both the kind of story (less in a thriller, more in a historical and/or literary novel) and with individual readers. Ideally, the mundane is so well-written and interesting in itself that the reader doesn’t say (as one of my first readers of the first book said) “Enough with the marching in mud!” But there will always be some reader who thinks a book is “slow” where another thinks it’s richly detailed and revels in the mundane bits. Some readers like both spare, almost bare-bones action, and some readers like to be surrounded by a lot of decorative and enriching “setting,” physical, cultural, psychological. There is no moral superiority to either preference, or to those who like a both. It’s like a preference for sheep’s wool yarn over cotton yarn, or acrylic yarn–it’s a personal matter of taste.

    GinnyW: Yes–I am lucky, I think, in that there were times in my childhood when we used kerosene lamps, oil lamps, or candles–we used to camp with kerosene lanterns. We also have had a Coleman (pressurized, much brighter than the old kerosene lanterns). So I “see” the darkened rooms, the tiny pools of warm-colored light, and remember leaning in very close to read a book.

    Jason: Glad you enjoyed “Tradition.” Understand–I am not saying that it would have happened that way, had Cradock commanded, but that it was possible, and could have happened that way (but only with heavy losses on the British side.) In speculative fiction a writer does not have to choose the higher probability. When I discussed this with some naval historians, they agreed it was possible–and also at least one (I can’t remember now if the other two) admitted that they hadn’t really considered all the possibilities of that particular area, and had based their earlier “Impossible!” on the relative range and weight of the guns on the ships, assuming that the British ships could not close in the face of Goeben‘s firepower. And I agree–it would have been fatal, just as it was for White Hope months later. The only way it could have worked, would have been to use the available terrain, considering all the variables (including wind direction) when planning the ambush, to get Goeben in range of the smaller ships’ guns, giving them some chance of landing some shells on her. And it was a less than even chance, at that. But…some commanders back away from anything but a high chance of failure, and some don’t. And some of those who don’t, are successful (and some aren’t.)

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 24, 2014 @ 8:38 pm


    pjm: a) Thanks. b) I have just read two different posts elsewhere on the thinking behind various pricing policies, and some research on what works. I’m sure that’s why Baen put Sheepfarmer’s Daughter back on the pay list. c) I agree with GinnyW’s geography teacher, too.

  • Comment by John McDonald — January 24, 2014 @ 9:07 pm


    Elizabeth: Keep up the posts on the writing process; I find them informative and encouraging.
    Some of my fondest memories working as a reference librarian were when I could help a patron ferret out that odd tidbit or obscure fact. We had a chapter of the Romance Writer’s of America that met at our library and I got accustomed to answering ‘odd’ questions the 2nd Tuesday each month.

  • Comment by Richard — January 26, 2014 @ 5:56 pm


    Like Jason I’ve read about WW1 ships for years (since boyhood) – “Tradition” was a very good choice of a “What if?” to have fun playing with.

  • Comment by Jason — January 26, 2014 @ 11:49 pm


    What’s this White Hope to which you refer? That doesn’t ring a bell for me.

  • Comment by Richard — January 27, 2014 @ 2:12 am


    I think HMS Good Hope was meant. I never thought before about why that warship was so called, but presumably after the Cape whether directly or indirectly (that is in commemoration of the expedition against Cape Town in the Napoleonic War). My reference books tell me she was built about the time of the Boer War (!) and was originally going to be called Africa, a name the RN had used before.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 27, 2014 @ 9:39 am


    Jason: That’s writer posting with a fever and headache and thus breaking major rule of research: Look it up EVERY TIME. Leads to conflating “great white hope” (from recent reading in another topic) with “Good Hope”. DUH. No cookie for this writer!

    Richard: Thank you for the catch.

  • Comment by Sully — February 3, 2014 @ 11:15 am


    I don’t remember who it was, or where, but an author speaking at some sort of gathering very firmly advised, ‘Unless you put as much time into guns, horses or vehicles as you do your children? Don’t write about them in detail. You’ll be wrong. And an engaged reader who does know those things will be lost. Guns, horses, vehicles. No specifics.’

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 3, 2014 @ 1:20 pm


    Sully: I would add “…or medical stuff like injuries & illnesses other than minor.” When I was just out of being an active paramedic, I used to give presentations on real life medicine in a fictional context. There was this writer whose main character broke his femur in post-apocalyptic USA–in a Lousiana swamp, all alone–and six to eight months later had walked across the continent to the Northwest, just fine, thanks. (He was supposed to have splinted his broken femur with a couple of sticks lying nearby.) Or the multiple versions of the classic “John Wayne Wound” in which the bullet, arrow, or sword magically misses the very important and potentially lethal-if-severed structures that are exactly where the wound is. Grimace, yank out the arrow/knife/sword/bullet and go on? And all the concussions that leave someone perfectly recovered when the story needs it, impossibly fast and clear-headed. I don’t think so. Guns, horses, vehicles, wounds. Learn it or leave it.

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