3 Truths About Fiction Research

3 Truths About Fiction Research

Growing up I read a lot of Greek mythology. One story stood out and that was the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a hill only to watch the rock roll back down to the bottom after he reached the top.

Sometimes fiction research feels the same way.

For example, several months ago I rewrote chapters for one of my manuscripts. My focus was on creating a reality television setting. I had plenty of information but in the re-telling the setting came across as generic and dull.

In two days, I flipped back and forth between the internet and my word processor fourteen times in order to write a single paragraph. It was brutal, and felt like waste of precious time. I was discouraged.

Maybe I should cut the entire reality television angle from my plot, I thought.

On the third day, I compared the remaining chapters and my research notes. What I noticed is that my research had been drawn from the internet. Not one book. Not one interview.

As a writer with two historical fiction manuscripts sitting on her shelf (translate: lots of practice collecting oodles of interviews and books) this was an astounding revelation.

Why did I think a contemporary story didn’t deserve as much research as a historical? This setback made me doubt myself.

Building Story on Rock, Pebbles, and Sand

Have you ever experienced a moment like that? Thankfully, I’ve discovered it isn’t that unusual. Many writers confess they’ve wasted valuable time backtracking because of weak research.

Reviewing earlier projects, I saw stories were strongest when three kinds were used, like a mayonnaise jar filled with a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and sand.

  • I find the truly important facts – the rocks – come from books. Memoirs, biographies, how-to guides, and technical books are worth borrowing or buying.
  • Interviews, like pebbles, fill gaps that only personal experience can bring. Whether you do an interview through skype, email, or in-person, speaking to experts adds depth and nuance to a story.
  • Internet research is fun, weird, surprising information that gives a story texture. Like sand, it fills the nooks and crannies.

In the early days of a manuscript, exploring the internet is the fastest way for me to know what I don’t know. Once I learn a little, I start borrowing books. (I buy books only after I know they will be essential.) The last thing I do is interview.

Three Truths That Makes Research Worthwhile

  1. I have seen research transform ho-hum stories into must-reads. Sure, we all want to entertain our readers with great plots and characters, but adding a layer of details will transport them into another world (Hogwarts, anyone?) and make them feel as if they’ve actually visited it too. Those layers of details come from solid research.
  2. Wrong details yank readers out of the story. Historical fiction writers know if they dress a woman in a v-neck when she should be wearing a wide, scooped neckline, then some reader, somewhere is going to raise a ruckus.
  3. Research can enhance a story’s plot and theme. When I discovered that reality shows insiders judge a show’s budget by its location, I decided to highlight a small story thread about the reality show producers being broke which forced the cast to work out of a state park instead of a costly tall ship.

The best thing about research is that nothing is every wasted. Details that don’t make it into this story can turn up later in a short story or book, or at the least, a dinner conversation.

So if rewriting your manuscript feels more like pushing a boulder up a hill, then pull back and check your research. Like me, you may have filled your research jar with sand.

What about you? Ever felt like you were doing a lot of work, but not getting any closer to meeting your deadline? Let me know what you learned in the comment section below!

And if you know a child who would likes short stories, then introduce him or her to Catherine Mason, a girl who hates reading and is plotting to get out of her book club. The Literature Club Project, an ebook short story. Only 99 cents!

Why I Like Pink and Blue Books

thelittlegirlstory As a child, my sister and I fought for ownership of a pink Hallmark book called The Little Girl Story by Dean Walley.

The illustrations by Arlene Armacost and Gloria Nixon show a wispy girl, tiny, as befitting the title, who was forced to stand on a stool to wash dishes, yet could crawl inside her doll house and fish pickles out of jars too small for bigger hands. photo 3

I can’t speak for my sister, but I longed to be like this petite girl who wore pink.

I’ve been thinking about that book, and how much we adored it, as I’ve read about the UK based campaign, Let Books Be Books, which wishes to reduce the number of gender-specific books.

This movement created an online petition asking publishers “to take the label off books and let children choose freely which types of stories and activity books interest them.”


Some UK publishers quickly acquiesced.

Usborne, with titles like Cookbooks for Girls or Illustrated Classics for Boys, have agreed to re-title and re-market their books so they are gender neutral.

While other publishers have balked.

Michael O’Mara, chairman of the family owned Buster Books, told The Independent, “It’s a fact of life how a very large percentage of people shop when buying for kids, do it by sex. We know for a fact that when they are shopping on Amazon, they quite often type in ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls’.”

Colouring books for girls and boys


What Mr. O’Mara says is true in the U.S. also. It’s a buying habit I’ve seen often with parents who are literate, but don’t read.

In my experience, these parents value reading, seeing it as the cornerstone for their child’s education, yet they don’t read themselves.

As in 5, 10, 15 or 25 years of not picking up a book.bookfacts

That doesn’t mean they don’t want books for their children and grandchildren. They do, but when they shop for books they navigate towards what is comfortable: the pink and blue books.

You see, I’m not against using less pink or blue to identify books, nor am I against fewer stereotypes on book covers.

And, c’mon on. It’d be hard not to notice the “pinkification” going on in the children’s department over the last two decades.

But I also work with or live among people who make purchases based on these criteria, and my heart is soft toward them.

I don’t want them to feel more confused when selecting a book. I don’t want them to feel more awkward when pulling their son or daughter, granddaughter or grandson into their lap to read a story. And, I definitely don’t want them to feel ashamed for selecting a pink or blue book.

Picking a book is easy for me, and others who read frequently, because books are friendly and lovely, full of opportunities and adventure.

That’s not the experience many families have though.

So, while I do believe de-emphasizing the “pinkness” and “blueness” from the shelves is a reasonable request, I hesitate to throw my full support into the idea because I don’t want all the pink and blue books to disappear or for there to be a public consensus that buying these books is wrong.

Because if those pink and blue books disappear or the parents and grandparents are shamed away from purchasing them, then I worry those children and grandchildren won’t receive a book at all.

And, that, truly, would be a terrible ending to the story.

P.S. And, if my sister happens to be reading this, then remember possession is nine-tenths of the law. The Little Girl Story is mine. All mine.