So, you’re halfway through writing your novel, you’ve ticked all the boxes for character arcs, conflict and suspense, setting… except you’re stuck because you can’t find that crucial bit of detail on the internet.
Or you have found it, but on some dodgy website that’s over six years old and the details have probably changed tenfold since that time.
What to do? Here are my Top 3 tips for research:
1. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
An old saying, but that’s why they stick around. Who do you know that you can ask? Use your network of friends; put a call-out on social media; ask work colleagues. You’d be surprised.
While writing Under Fire, I needed to find out how an attack helicopter would deal with a rogue submarine. Although an ex-work colleague had helped me from the submarine angle so that I knew how the boat would be defended, I had nothing from the helicopter point of view. A few weeks later I was getting my lunch out of the refrigerator at work and started chatting to one of the client’s project managers. He recognised my English accent, we compared notes about when we’d emigrated and what we’d done before coming to Australia – and that’s when he told me he used to fly Lynx helicopters.
2. Get out there!
This one’s fun – and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Yes, you can use aspects of your holiday to find out things – check out my blog post about our trip to Malta last year – but you can stay closer to home too.
Want to find out what it’s like working for the police? Contact your local police media unit to find out when they’re running the next open day. For example, in Brisbane the police have a history session one Sunday per month during which they’ll have a guest speaker talk about an old crime and take you through the steps they followed to solve it.
Want to know what it’s like to fire a gun? Shoot using a bow and arrow? Find out what it’s like to wield a sword? Contact your local sports clubs – they’re often more than happy to help a struggling writer and often want to know more about your project. And that’s where Tip #1 above comes into play again.
Search your local library for free conferences and presentations. Many professional bodies (e.g. Engineers Australia) offer free seminars and, again, you can use these to build up your network of experts…
Sometimes you’re going to have to invest in some research. By this, I mean buy a specialist non-fiction book on the subject, or a map when Google Earth won’t help you.
Personally, I’m turning into a bit of a map junkie. I think it’s my natural tendency to travel which comes into play but as soon as I get stuck, I’m like “I need to buy a map!” hence why I have a 1:1,100,000/1:11,000 scale map of Istanbul strewn across the office floor at the moment.
While I was writing White Gold, it’d been several years since I’d lived in the UK and it’s all very well writing a car chase along the Thames Embankment but I’d have looked a bit stupid if I’d sent my characters dashing off down a one-way street the wrong way. As luck would have it, I still had a fairly recent copy of the London A-Z to hand, which proved very useful.
Finally, keep all those notes and emails. Record the data, file it away for safekeeping and remember to tip your hat to the people who helped you along the way.
They’ll be more than happy to help you out the next time around.