Wednesday, March 4

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, March 04, 2015 12 comments
I know loads of writers who pore over every writing craft book they can get their hands on, but who nonetheless can't seem to get a story off the ground. Why is that?

They neglect an essential element of craft rarely gets talked about: developing your knowledge base so that you have raw material from which to build interesting stories. This is also called "research."

Research has become something of a dirty word among a certain breed of fiction writer. These folks consistently argue that they write what they know and therefore never need to do such a nerdy thing as check facts. God forbid facts get in the way of their imaginations.

Well, I fear that such thinking is naive at best, and at worst, lazy. It tends to produce copycat, formulaic writing full of plot holes and cliches. Why? 

Photo credit: Alvimann from
When writers assume knowledge of their fictional world they don't actually have, they will struggle to develop material. Instead, as Robert McKee describes in Story, such writers will "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story's setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence" (68). I would add that understanding human nature, from how personality develops to what motivates people is essential to developing multi-dimensional characters to inhabit your story world.

McKee rightly warns against using research as a form of procrastination, a way of endlessly delaying doing any writing. Rather, research in broad topic areas ought to be something you do for personal enrichment/brain food and as the need arises. Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read print books, ebooks, and articles while sitting in a hospital waiting room, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store.

Below are some areas to learn about about in order to feed your brain with ideas. As McKee notes, "you can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.... Talent must be stimulated with facts and ideas. Feed your talent" (73-74). Research should be the third leg of the material-generation stool, along with imagination and memory (See McKee's excellent book Story for more on this). 

The lists below are meant to stimulate your curiosity, not form a guilt-inducing Mensa übermind curriculum. Simply pick any topic that sounds interesting and read one book or explore a few reputable websites about it (by reputable, I mean backed by research,  not some hothead spouting off). What new curiosities does it raise about your story world or characters? Read on that topic next.

Imagine how much more pumped you'll be to write when you're abuzz with ideas. As McKee notes, when you have something to say, you can't stop yourself from writing.

Characterization and dialogue

  • Personality types
  • Body language
  • Communication styles
  • Gender differences
  • Belief formation
  • Identity formation
  • Intimacy and social bonding
  • Friendships and cliques
  • Marriage dynamics
  • Birth order and personality
  • Sibling dynamics
  • Parenting styles
  • Intergenerational influence and conflict
  • Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history
  • Neuroses
  • Phobias
  • Neuro-sensory differences
  • Addiction
  • Trauma 
  • Personality disorders
  • Mental illnesses

Milieu, Setting and Plot
  • Climate 
  • Weather Phenomena
  • Environment
  • Architecture and interior design
  • Anthropology
  • Effects of poverty and wealth
  • Government models in history
  • Education models
  • Macroeconomics
  • Technology
  • Policies and procedures of institutions in  your story world
  • Laws and ordinances
  • Criminology
  • Forensics
  • Pathology
  • Scientific breakthroughs
  • Historic events

Tell me: which of these research topics might move your story forward most? Which topics sound fascinating in their own right, and worth reading to stimulate new story ideas?


  1. Feed your talent!!! I love that idea. I also love the line warning not to "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom." :) Thanks for all the ideas. I think it's easy to both overdo and UNDERdo research, that's for sure.

    1. McKee's book is great. Lots of really meaty ideas in it.

      I've noticed that underresarched fiction isn't limited to indie publishing. Fewer traditional publishers have the resources to fact check for their authors. It's on all of us writers to do the work!

  2. This is excellent, Laurel. I totally agree!
    My flaw is getting too caught up in research so I never want to begin, as you mentioned can happen. But I'm learning a balance. :)

    1. The script you need to chuck is "I can't write until I'm completely certain about everything." You can and should tackle some research on an as-needed basis. There's nothing wrong with drafts that have [research this] sprinkled throughout.

  3. I use a variety of these topics for research. And, research IS my favorite form of procrastination, lol. I print out lots of things I've researched - health, psychology, current and historical events, weapons, forensic proceedures - so I have them readily available for other projects. The History Channel and Discovery Channel are great places to spark imagination.

    If you read enough write craft books they eventually contradict themselves. Like everything else, eventually you have to sit down and write and use the books to hone difficult tasks in writing, not as a specific how-to manual.

    1. That's a great idea, Dolorah, having a reasearch repository, so that you can refresh your memory at any time about things you have read up on so you don't have to redo your previous efforts.

      Those educational shows sure are story idea goldmines.

      Indeed, one does have to just do the writing, but as McKee says, when you have ideas, that happens with less angst.

  4. I've taken a bit of a break from craft books lately. I have a tendency to think that I must commit every mistake warned against and all that fuels self-doubt.

    However, I love doing research, though a lot of mine is confined to the time period my novel is set in. I appreciate your suggestions to spend more time reading about personality development, etc. I'll put that on my to-do list.

    1. Reading in social sciences has pretty fast payoff, I've found. The most useful book I recently picked up was on body language. Suddenly, I have a hundred ideas for how to make dialogue scenes more dynamic.

      The time you take researching to build your milieu can, as Dolorah noted above, pay off for multiple projects. I hear you about craft books. There are certain points in the process when they can interfere with your creative mojo. Better to postpone finishing the craft book than lose your love of writing.

  5. A very handy list for stimulating the imagination. I'm hanging on to it. Thanks.

  6. Excellent post. Because my novels are historical, and I use factual places, people, dates, my research is crazy nuts. I spend hours looking stuff up, sometimes much to the detriment of the writing itself. But to me it's all worth it. I might not need everything I find, but hey, I'll be a whizz bang at Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy!

    1. Because you specialize in one time period, you're building up a huge storehouse of knowledge about it, which should pay off grandly the more projects you tackle. Think of all your research as in investment in your "brand."