I’m a huge proponent of doing your research. I love finding out about new things and how things work and when and where things took place, but I end up in the research rabbit hole more often than not.
No matter the genre, chances are you will do a lot when writing your novel. Historical and crime novels probably require the most research to be accurate and, therefore, believable. Other genres—fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian—need research as well.
You don’t want readers to pick out an errant fact and tell you Joe’s Diner is on the corner of Smith and Maple, not Smith and Vine, or that an arrow shot from a crossbow can’t travel a thousand yards or that the size of the EMP you used device wouldn't affect an entire city.
But what if I told you that you could avoid doing some research?
There are ways to decrease the time you spend on research. My two favorites are: write what you know and skip the details.
Write What You Know
Write what you know doesn’t mean write a memoir or autobiography. It means write about things you are familiar with.
You’ve probably been in some bad and good relationships. Use your experiences with these relationships to write the romantic or friend relationships in your novel. Know all about pig farming? Have your main character be or become a pig farmer!
Live in Savannah, GA? Write about Savannah or set your story in a fictional place like Savannah and take inspiration from your surroundings.
But if you are writing a forensic crime novel, and you don’t know much about forensics, you will probably do a lot of research on crime scene investigations and laboratory testing. If you already know about forensics, then you are writing what you know and don’t have to put in as much time researching.
I don’t want to discourage you from writing a complex detail-oriented novel, but if your goal is to not spend a ton of time researching topics you aren’t familiar with, then writing what you do know will help.
Another option is to skip the details.
Skip the Details
When you don’t know how something works and it isn’t important for the reader to know the details, make it happen off page.
I’m not tech savvy. I don’t know how to hack a computer, but my main character must get the information they need to track down their quarry. In this case, they will use a contact of theirs who knows all about computers, phones, and hacking and what to look for to find someone. I have my character tell them what they need and in the next scene or chapter, Voilà, their fantastic sidekick has the info! It happens off-page, so I don’t need to do the research.
I don’t know much about archaeology, either, but I know it takes a long time to get from someone finding an artifact to launching a full-scale dig at the site and that sections are quartered off, and they use larger tools at first. It takes years, sometimes many years, to have a breakthrough find. That’s about all I really know. So, I wouldn’t make my main character an archaeologist. But I could have one of my side characters be one.
My main character could meet the archaeologist at some point during a dig and pull them off the site to help. In this case, I will only need to write a snapshot of an archaeological dig.
Even if I was an ancient history buff and knew a lot about artifacts, I wouldn’t go all in on the archeology aspect of a main character’s life. I would place them first in a dig site and then quickly get them off on their quest for something else where my knowledge will serve the story best.
Maybe my archeologist MC will go on a hunt for a lost city and ancient artifacts are clues to where they are. I could share my knowledge of dates, architects, artists, and cultures during their quest. They don’t have to be on site, brushing away dirt from a pot for an entire day, just to find one clue.
While writing what you know and skipping the details cuts down on the amount of research you need to do for your novel, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any research.
Research is important for accuracy and believability.
Writing about vampires and fairies doesn’t get you off the research hook. You will want to hit the mythology section of a library to learn what other cultures believe or believed about these creatures, so you can understand their origins and get inspiration from the myths.
Be prepared to read a lot of nonfiction to write your novel. But to cut down on it, write what you know, and when you can, skip the details.
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Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor