If you’re writing a story, then you’ve probably encountered this common problem before: you’ve gotten to a point in the narrative where you need to write about something you’ve never seen, experienced, or learned before. Maybe your characters venture to a part of the world you’ve never been, or they have extensive knowledge about something you really haven’t thought much about. If your characters are truly diverse, then they’re going to have hobbies, interests, and expertise that are outside the scope of what you’re familiar with. Although that can feel like a problem, it isn’t by any means a bad thing.
Writing about something you don’t know can feel overwhelming, but with a little bit of research, you can write about it so convincingly that you can even impress readers that are familiar with the topic. By utilizing these 10 techniques for researching for your story, you can become a perceived expert on any topic in record time. Your characters will end up feeling more authentic, and your story will end up much more realistic and interesting as a result.
Getting Started With Researching for your Story
In the early stages of conducting research, there’s no need to get overly fancy with your methods. This is the point in which you should strive to get a foundation of general knowledge on the topic, which is almost always easily accessible through the internet.
Google is always my first choice, simply because of its convenience, versatility, and scope. If your story takes place in a location you’ve never been, you could start by simply looking at google street view to get an idea of how the location is laid out. You could read up on laws, watch their local news, and get a sense of how people behave there. Even without physically visiting the location, you can get a pretty good sense of what it’s like to live there.
No matter what you need to learn, you can start out on google. It might not provide everything you need to know, but you could learn about time periods, sword fighting techniques, different cultures, skills, locations, and professions, all from the comfort of your couch. However, you should approach everything you read with a healthy level of skepticism. Always try to verify the information with sources, cross-referencing, and gauging the authority of the author. The last thing you want to do is to put something in your story that isn’t true—not only could that spread misinformation, but you could get called out by your more astute readers.
2. Listen to Podcasts
Podcasts can be a fantastic source of information, and there are options out there for just about any type of knowledge you’d need to learn. If you have a character who is supposed to be an expert on old crimes, space, or even gardening, you could find a podcast or two that can provide you with a good general introduction to the topic. As a bonus, podcasts are generally entertaining and brimming with good examples.
Podcasts are perfect for introductory research for multiple reasons. For one thing, they are easy to listen to whenever, whether you’re running, driving, drawing, cleaning, or whatever else. You can simply turn them on and have them play in the background, while they immerse you in the topic. Because they are easy to listen to all the time, it is much easier to fit the research in around your busy schedule, and to really make the learning part of your everyday life. You can utilize all your free time to learn, without feeling fatigued from reading all the same information.
3. Watch Youtube
Youtube is a great opportunity for learning a multitude of different topics. You can learn anything from how to pronounce a particular name to what the social structure of 1500s China was like. You can watch lectures, illustrated cartoons, footage of life in different parts of the world, and even medical procedures. Regardless of what you’re looking for, you can feel confident knowing that youtube is going to have what you need.
However, you need to be careful about the validity of your sources. Unlike Google, youtube shows results for searches based on the popularity of the videos, not on the correctness of the content. Always make sure to check sources and cross-reference before you apply anything you learn in your stories.
4. Watch Documentaries
There’s a little bit of overlap with this one since documentaries can be found on youtube, but it is notable enough to draw attention to this type of video specifically. Documentaries can give you deeper insight into a topic than most youtube videos would, and can provide a lot of useful context and additional information.
Plus, most major publishers have already fact-checked their content, so you can trust in the information they provide a little more readily than you could with youtube. Anyone can make a video about birds and post it on youtube, but it won’t have the same credibility as a documentary about birds from National Geographic. The downside to this option, however, is that documentaries are generally a lot longer than youtube videos and are more theatrically produced, so you might not get the information as quickly—even if the quality of the content is better.
5. Read Everything
Reading is one of the best ways to learn, as I’m sure you know as a writer. With millions of books being published around the world each year, there are topics that cover just about everything you could ever want to know. There are educational books, textbooks, novels, comic books… and you could learn something from each of them, depending on the story you’re writing.
If you’ve never written a romance before, but that’s part of the story you want to write, then the best way to learn about the genre as a whole is to read other romance novels. If you study how comic artists pace their storylines through the pages of their comic books, you could apply that to pacing and visualization in your own story. There’s so much information in books, that to overlook them as a tool for learning in the modern age is foolish.
6. People Watch
If dialogue is what you struggle with, simply go to a public place and listen to the conversations of people around you. Take notes by writing down everything you can (you can do this into your phone so you don’t look like a creep), and try to get a range of different types of conversation.
If someone is yelling at a store clerk, take notes about the way the angry customer phrases things. If someone is talking to their spouse about the right vegetables to buy, keep tabs on how they interact with each other. If two people look like a couple, you can probably assume that they’re comfortable around each other, and would, therefore, speak to each other differently from how they would speak to strangers. When you are taking notes, try to keep the exact phrasing intact, and even format it to reflect the natural pauses and inflections of how these people speak.
Of course, you can utilize this technique to research things besides just dialogue. You can get a feel for the way people stand and move, the way they gesture when they speak, and how they shift around when they are waiting in line. You can take notes of how people’s clothes move, how they smile, and how they behave when they think no one is looking. Of course, just be courteous to strangers, and don’t draw a lot of attention to yourself as you are doing this, since you may end up upsetting someone if you watch them too obviously.
Taking Your Research to the Next Level
Once you have a foundation of knowledge, it’s time to delve deeper into the specific topics you need to learn. Most writers skip this part, and simply finish their story with the information they’ve skimmed online—and for some people that’s fine. Storytelling doesn’t always have to be uptight and professional. If you’re researching a character for a roleplay, a game, or for fan fiction, there’s really no need to continue your research past the introductory phase.
If you are writing a story that you intend to publish professionally, however, you really should go above and beyond what other writers are willing to do. If you put in the extra work, it’ll show in every expertly crafted and well-researched line.
As a bonus, deeper research can also allow you to craft some truly impressive characters. If you want to learn how to apply some of these techniques to genius characters specifically, take a look at my other article: Simple Tips for Writing Genius Characters. In the meantime, here are the more in-depth techniques for researching for your story.
7. Conduct Interviews
One of the best ways to gather some authentic information is by getting it directly from the source. If you need to write a character who’s an oncologist, then interviewing a real medical doctor is going to get you the most accurate and useful information out there. If your story takes place in Scotland, but you’ve never been, then you could ask a person who lives there about the holidays, traditions, and landmarks. You could really capture the spirit of a place by listening to people describe what life is like there. If your character speaks English as a second language and you want some accurate quirks for portraying that in your story, you could ask people who have learned English later in life to use real examples instead of relying on tired stereotypes.
Now, this is obviously easier said than done. If you’re like most people, you can’t claim to be friends with doctors or people all across the world. You aren’t always going to have the right people on hand to interview when you need them. However, you can use internet forums and communities to track down individuals that meet your specifications. Many people will be willing to help if you explain what the interview is for.
When you conduct an interview, start with several questions prepared ahead of time so you can gather all the information you need, but leave some time to simply talk to the individual about their experiences. And, as tempting as it might be to do otherwise, you should conduct the interview in person, on a call, or via video chat. Being able to hear the other person’s voice is going to give you a more authentic understanding of the topic they are discussing.
8. Read scholarly publications
Reading up on scholarly publications can be really helpful in a lot of different situations. If you have a character that’s a scientist, skimming different science papers can give you ideas about formatting their dialogue and the ways they think about things. It can also be helpful for understanding the terms that your scientist character should be familiar with, along with some of the content itself. You could even have your character site similar kinds of studies in your story.
In addition to that, you could learn all about psychology, history, and a range of other subjects that you could use to enhance your characters and setting. Even if you don’t have anything specific to research, skimming different studies can give you ideas for characters and their hobbies, their environments, and their personal development.
9. Take a class
If you really want to commit to learning something, one of the most hands-on ways to do that is with a class. Depending on what it is you need to research, this could just be a one-time class or a several weeks long program. For example, if you have a character in your novel that does pottery for a hobby, then you probably wouldn’t need to go more than once to get a solid grasp of the different terms and techniques. If you have a character that’s a professional chef, however, you are probably going to need to take a much longer class—or several different ones—to learn about the variety of things your character would have to know.
Traveling obviously isn’t a good option for many people, but if you can manage it, you should absolutely go and visit the place in which your story is centered. If you want your characters to visit New York City, the only way you are going to be able to perfectly describe what that’s like is if you have experienced it for yourself.
However, there are ways you can travel on a smaller scale. If you want to capture the feeling of a graveyard at dusk, then you should go visit one in your city. Graveyards are everywhere, and many places have a variety of different ones, like military graveyards, small family-owned graveyards, church graveyards, and large funeral homes. If you want to know how it feels to get lost in the woods, then go hiking (but try to not get lost for real). You can still learn by traveling to different places within your own city or state. It doesn’t have to be an expensive or overly time-consuming ordeal.
Take Notes to Reference Later
Regardless of how you decide to research for your story, you need to make sure that you take detailed, organized notes. Consolidate your notes from different places together, but keep similar topics grouped together to make them easier to find. No matter what, never throw anything away, even if you think you won’t need it. After all, it’s better to have too much information than not enough. And who knows, you may end up actually using those obscure facts or tidbits of knowledge in a character’s dialogue later in the story.