Want to write a book? Don’t know where to start? Well, you’re in the wrong place! But seriously, I’m no writing expert, I’m just going to throw out some writing advice based on my own experience. This is NOT a definitive ‘How to write‘ guide because those don’t exist. What works for one writer, may not work for another. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise (and especially don’t buy anything from them). But if you’re looking for some writing tips to try out, these might help you on your quest. First, stop Research Island!
All books need research
Even if you’re world-building from scratch, your book will benefit from some input from the real world. All fantastical novels are inspired by what already exists, be it cutting-edge science or age-old myths.
On the flip side, your book also needs research if it takes place here and now, with a main character who does exactly what you do for a living. You still need to understand your other characters, plan your settings and get the background on what you expect to happen in your book.
You could of course just make it all up. But this will mean your book will lack authenticity and depth. Even the most high-fantasy needs a sense of realness to connect with the reader. And some of your readers may have experienced what you’re writing about. If they read something that doesn’t ring true, not only will they be disappointed, they may well write a review to let everyone else know it’s a bunch of bananas too!
Information is everywhere – but that’s not necessarily helpful
The presence of the all-powerful Internet may make it seem like research will be quick and easy to do. Whilst it does take out some of the legwork, there are pitfalls. There’s so much information on the Internet it’s hard to know where to start. On top of that, the Internet is not reliable. Anyone can publish almost anything without any fact-checking or gate-keeping. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use it, but take what you find with a pinch of salt and look for information both on and offline. Before you start, make a list of the places you think could have the information you’re after. Here are some resources ideas to get you started:
- Magazines and newspapers
- Government records
- Face-to-face interviews
- Photographs and videos (Pinterest, Google Images etc)
- Online forums
- Documentaries (Netflix, YouTube etc)
- Museum exhibits
- Art exhibitions
- Radio programmes (BBC Radio iPlayer)
- Guided tours
- Historical and cultural societies
- Lectures and talks (libraries, museums, community centres etc)
Whatever you find, keep a record of it, even if it doesn’t seem useful straight away. How you do this is up to you. You could bookmark the webpage, take screenshots, photocopies, stick actual bookmarks in actual books, fill in a notebook or binder – whatever works. Some writing software, such as Scrivener, allows you to gather all your research together within it. However you do it, make sure you keep it handy.
How much research should you do? How long is a piece of string?
How much research you do depends on the kind of book you want to write and your existing knowledge of its subject matter. For example, if you want to write historical fiction and you’re not a history professor, you’ll need to do a lot of research. If your book is set in a country you know little about or your characters’ are very different from you, you’ll need to investigate that in depth. Ultimately only you can know when you’ve got enough.
As you research, you’ll naturally start fleshing out characters, mapping settings and noting plot points. What you find will feed your planning and vice versa as you uncover more things to find out about. Be careful not to get stuck in an endless loop. As you shift focus to your characters and plot, you’ll have to pivot back to research now and then anyway.
Started writing? Great – but don’t stop researching
Even if you do a detailed plan, your book (or more likely your characters) will go ‘off script’. They’ll throw up questions and situations you hadn’t even thought about and you’ll need to go with it! So be prepared to either down tools or make a note to do some extra research when you’re out of the writing flow.
I hope you found these words of advice useful. Next step on our writing journey is something which overlaps into research – character planning.