Writing

How to Research a Novel: Tips for Fiction Writing Research

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 29, 2019 • 6 min read

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An author’s imagination is their most powerful asset, but great stories rarely spring from imagination alone. Even the most creative fiction writing tends to be rooted in some degree of real world events, and to accurately capture those real world events, an author must conduct research for their story. Whether you’re working on your first novel or your fiftieth, you’ll lean heavily upon your research once you start writing.

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Dan Brown Teaches Writing ThrillersDan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.

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Why Does An Author Need to Research a Story?

Whether you’re writing what you know or pursuing a fresh passion, research is a critical tool for developing the world of your novel. What you learn during research will allow you to immerse your reader fully in your setting. It will guide you in developing your characters and plot.

How to Research Based On Your Own Experiences

“Write what you know” is a common refrain, and for a good reason. Mining your personal experiences for information and inspiration can help jump start a story. For example, you can easily describe how the air smells in your hometown during a certain time of year. These are the types of details that allow a writer to show the reader the story, rather than just telling them a string to details.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did you have a particularly magical summer growing up where you fell in love with a new friend?
  • Is there a traumatic experience from your past that helped you grow as a person?
  • Is there a time when you were deeply embarrassed?
  • Can you think of when you regret something you did?
  • What is the saddest moment of your life? What about the happiest?
  • Name a secret you are afraid to talk about.

Many stories—from creative writing essays to New York Times Bestsellers—are written from personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that they have to purely dwell in straight facts. You can always embellish the experience to make the story seem more exciting, to push the narrative, or to make the characters more dynamic.

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How to Research Topics When You Don’t Have Firsthand Experience

While firsthand experience can be an invaluable tool in a writer’s research process, most bestselling authors could not possibly have experienced the full array of subjects they write about. Neil Gaiman doesn’t have supernatural powers, but he features them in Stardust, American Gods, and Coraline. Dan Brown isn’t a member of Opus Dei, but they feature prominently in The Da Vinci Code. Joyce Carol Oates has never committed murder, and yet murder is a pivotal component to her 1969 novel them, which one the National Book Award.

So how does a writer research a subject in which they don’t personally have firsthand experience? Start with the question: “What do I want to know?” It draws forth our best energy with the desire to learn more about things we don’t know. Then embark on the following steps:

  1. Read everything. The preliminary stage of research is generally exploratory and involves reading anything that interests you. As you go deeper, you’ll find your research becoming more focused. You’ll begin asking questions about particular locations, histories, or scenarios that involve your subject matter. At this point, your interests will not only guide your choice of materials, they will also help you begin structuring your novel. Take notes, use bookmarks, record page numbers, and cite your sources as you research. Newspapers, magazines, Wikipedia, an online search engine, and your local library are all great resources in this endeavor. Street View on Google Maps can be a handy tool for geographic research.
  2. Watch documentaries and listen to podcasts. These media can contain as much research as a traditional book or piece of print journalism.
  3. Meet with everyone. Although reading is an invaluable research tool, it is seldom enough by itself. At some point it will be necessary to reach out to others. Talking to people about their passions can offer perspectives that you won’t find in books, and it can transmit an enthusiasm and authenticity that will come through in your writing. Meeting people in person may also inspire ideas for your characters.
  4. Go everywhere. Visit a location you’ve never been to before— either an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting. When you first arrive at the location, don’t record or photograph or write anything down, just spend some time absorbing it through your senses. Pay attention to the things that strike you most. Go home later and write a description of the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it felt and smelled and sounded like.
  5. Follow your interests. Your choice should always be informed by your interests, so immerse yourself in books, television, movies, and anything else that inspires you. You’ll be silently accumulating the building blocks for your novel. Trust your own tastes. You’re going to be working with these subjects for a long time, so choose things that interest you enough to sustain you over the course of a novel.

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How to Find Writing Inspiration for New Topics

Think Like a Pro

In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.

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Writers tend to be observant people. They keep track of others’ moods and behavior, and they watch the world to look for the details, the quirks, and the things that make someone or someplace stand out. You can draw inspiration from your observations. Inspiration can also strike anytime, anywhere. Keep your eyes and ears open to new and interesting people, places, and ideas. Topics that might provide the genesis of a story include:

  • Exciting non-fiction events from history (this opens a door to an entire genre known as historical fiction)
  • The prospects of technology (often the building blocks of science fiction novels)
  • A real-life unsolved murder (sometimes called true crime novels—a subset of the thriller genre)
  • A recently discovered family secret
  • An encounter with a fascinating stranger
  • An issue-specific podcast

You can also draw inspiration from existing stories. So much of literature—both classical and contemporary—is made up of “building blocks” from other stories that have come before it,
so part of your job as a writer is to know those building blocks so you can construct your own stories. Every culture has its own set of story building blocks. In Western anglophone culture, those building blocks include:

  • Greek mythology
  • Roman mythology
  • Indigenous stories
  • The Brothers Grimm fairy tales
  • The Bible

Deepen your knowledge of these classic stories and ask yourself: What can I take from these sources and their archetypes that will inspire my story?

How to Research While Writing

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Most authors will tell you that their research begins well before they write a single word, but it continues throughout the writing process including their outline, their first draft, and even through the finishing touches on a final draft. There will of course be a point when authors feel their initial research process has yielded enough information and the actual writing process can begin.

Writing software like Scrivener can help an author balance the demands of their new book. You’ll want to be able to organize your research notes, your outline, and the various drafts of your story. Having your research properly organized and easily accessible can allow you to focus on creative writing.

Novel writing is all consuming, and research time will involve a great outlay of personal resources. Rather than think of research as a waste of precious time, think of it as an investment in the creative work you will be doing later in the process. Thorough book research (using reliable sources) will indeed take a lot of time, but it will yield rewards once you begin drafting. Extensive research notes can empower fiction writers to dive in to what they do best: be creative.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good mystery takes time and patience. Master of suspense and bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has spent decades honing his craft. In Dan Brown’s MasterClass on the art of the thriller, he unveils his step-by-step process for turning ideas into gripping narratives and reveals his methods for researching like a pro, crafting characters, and sustaining suspense all the way to a dramatic surprise ending.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Dan Brown, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and more.

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