How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: have fun with research


Welcome to Part Nineteen of this popular series – this week, Lucy looks at research, and how much fun you can have carrying it out to make your fiction more “believable.” For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss


If fiction is a work of the imagination, why would you need research to write your story?

Because you want the reader to believe absolutely in your imaginative world and most fictional worlds have some relationship to the real world, as it was, is, or might be. Whatever your subject matter or setting, some of your readers will know or be well informed about it. Factual errors will spoil their reading experience and invite negative reviews.

So what are the key areas of research for fiction writers?


Remember to make sure something as basic as your characters’ names fit with the period, setting and tenor of your story. Thinking about their names forces you to clarify the characters’ backgrounds: what age, class and type of people were the parents who gave their child that name? The internet is an ideal place to find the origins, popularity, nationality and meanings of names.


The setting of your story is crucial to the feel, and possibly plotline, of your story. If you don’t want to be tied to the specifics of a real place, you could consider inventing a fictional town, country or village (as I did in Kindred Spirits) based on some reality. But if you are going to set it in an existing location, make sure that all the details are accurate. I recently edited a new novel set in late 80s Chelsea, a time and place I knew well. We worked on getting every tube journey, bus route, walk that the characters took, and descriptions of cafés, shops and buildings entirely accurate. To someone like me who lived in London then, mistakes took me out of the story and diminished the reality.

Make sure you have the correct geography, seasons and weather of a setting you don’t know well from personal experience. If you can’t travel to see a place, the internet can give you maps, photos and sometimes videos of locations, in the past and present. You can also visit online, or talk to, tourism departments; safest, though, is to check with someone who has firsthand knowledge of the place.


How does a small town cop relate to an FBI agent? Keri Beevis doesn’t live in America, but had to research that relationship for her novel, Dead Letter Day. Her style and plot don’t require procedural details of how US cops and Feds interact on a murder enquiry, so Keri gives an accurate minimum of technical information based on reading and online research, and concentrates on the central emotional relationship, leaving the reader enough space to imagine the rest.

There is information on the web, in the library, from businesses and organisations on almost any career or job one of your characters might have, but tracking down a real life member of the profession you are writing about can give unexpected and intriguing details that add interest and realism to your characters and plot.

Historical period

small__1330792406This kind of research can be the most time-consuming – and many historical novelists have described the length and intensity of their work in this area. Immerse yourself in the period before you start writing: read research papers, history books, contemporary literature and diaries. For atmosphere, watch television dramas and documentaries as well as films – though check their accuracy against the facts. Listen to music and examine details of costume and decor in works of art and photographs (if you are working on more recent history) of the time. Newspapers and journals are an invaluable resource, not just for records and fact-finding, but also to enable you to get a feel for the language and attitudes of day.

In her WW1 novel, Rumour, Angela Lawrence brings research further into her story than most fiction writers by including complete newspaper articles (one of her characters is a reporter) and basing courtroom scenes on transcripts. In the editing process, though, sections were pruned where too many facts slowed down the story.


If your story contains characters who come from a country, county, city or area you don’t know well, you will need to research the way they talk. Not only must you have the appropriate words, terms and turns of phrase to make them sound credible, you will need a feel for the flow and rhythm of their speech. If possible, spend time with someone who comes from your character’s location or background; if not, listen to dialogue in appropriate films or tv dramas (hoping the actors got it right – don’t take a lesson in Cockney English from Dick Van Dyke), or the speech of someone in the media who sounds like your character.

Creating dialogue for historical characters may have to be a mixture of research and imagination, with imagination taking precedence the further back in time you go. Received English in, for example, Tudor times, sounded like a regional accent of today, and used words and phrases unknown to us. Read literature of your chosen period to get a flavour, pick some contemporary vocabulary, then develop your own, consistent style of dialogue. Make sure it is not so arcane as to distract readers from following the sense, and look out for obvious anachronisms. Differentiate each character’s speech and, as I said in the section on writing dialogue, don’t start writing until you can clearly hear each voice in your head.

small__8701694888Primary research

Some genres of fiction are heavily reliant on research. Crime fiction requires knowledge of criminal psychology, execution of the crime and investigative procedures. What makes any story succeed, though, is the emotional experience of the characters, so although you may need to read up on serial killers’ modus operandi and forensic science, a day spent in a court gallery to watch real judges, lawyers, criminals and witnesses interacting will be invaluable. Makes notes of the sensations, sounds, smells, textures and emotional flavour of the day; see how the press, public and court staff behave. No amount of scientific information will keep a reader involved like being drawn into a fully-drawn, believable episode.

Putting research into writing

Take notes while you are researching, to help you embed interesting, unusual and key facts, but put all your books, pamphlets and notebooks to one side when you start your first draft and let your imagination go to work on all the material you have absorbed. Check individual details you need to know for your plot, but wait until your second draft to adjust for complete accuracy. In your first draft give fiction free reign and concentrate on the emotions and experience of your characters.

Your plot and characters should always take precedence over your research; don’t change your plot to include an amazing fact you discovered, and don’t use your characters to give the reader (rather than each other) information so their dialogue sounds unnatural and stilted. Use second and third drafts, and an editor’s eye, to keep the balance right and prioritise fiction over fact – even if it sometimes means bending the truth a little. You can even have fun by using your research to add value  for a minority of readers without compromising the story for the majority.

Next week, another punctuation lesson!

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

photo credit: otisarchives2 via photopin cc
photo credit: USAG-Humphreys via photopin cc