Even if you’re the type of person who just sits down and writes a story, research is essential to its quality. Writing a book without doing the appropriate research for it is just sloppy writing, and if you think otherwise, you’re a bad writer. (There, I said it.) It may be harsh, but it is only the truth. Even experts do additional research when they’re writing to ensure accuracy. If you’re making up your own world, it still applies; the rules need to be made and they need to make sense, thus research is needed.
There are a few different methods of which to increase your knowledge and prepare yourself for writing. You could look up and piece together a bunch of facts; you could read fiction within the realm of your genre/focus; you could travel to the location and immerse yourself directly in the culture; you could build a world from the ground up using both immersion and facts.
There are writers out there who identify as Pansters, who write first and plan later (if at all), but that’s not what this is talking about. There are some very successful Pansters in the world. Research has to do with your knowledge of a topic, which directly ties into your ability to write about it.
Research by Reading Immersion
This kind of research is the broadest, and it works best for what are called “mimic writers,” those who find it easy to reproduce a style of writing after reading a lot of it. Not only can reading many of the same sort of books help improve your knowledge and familiarity with a certain subject, but it can also help guide the quality of your writing as well.
This is an especially good strategy if you’re writing historical fiction; reading two dozen Victorian era books before writing your Victorian era novel will give it an authenticity that can’t come from simply reading up on facts of the time.
Reading immersion works best if you focus solely on what you’re going to write as well. For example, if you’re writing a book about pirates that you want to be historically accurate, you’ll need to read a bunch of historical fiction involving pirates in addition to general pirate stories you want to emulate, plus a few history books for added measure. Read books about sailing (with a focus on whichever ship your pirates use) to increase your knowledge and familiarity with the hierarchy and general labour of controlling a ship. Try to avoid reading unrelated works as it may confuse you, even if you’re used to reading many different books at once.
Research by Detail
Not to say that brushing up on facts is a poor way of doing research. It can still be helpful, though if built only on facts, your world may feel disjointed. This is because of the concept of “write what you know.” If you’ve never lived in New York, you won’t know the eccentricities of idiosyncrasies of the city. You’re not “street smart” as they say.
Another issue is that if you don’t know what to look up, you won’t know to research it. What do you need to know? The different regions of the city? How people get around? Slight variations in an accent? There’s so much about a place that makes it unique, and if you don’t know what to change, often you’ll just fill in the gaps with what you already know, and this leads to inaccuracies that will annoy readers who know the location/culture/attitude better.
Research by Building
All research is building your own understanding of the world that already exists, but this method refers to when you’re building your own world/planet from scratch. (It mainly applies to Fantasy and Science Fiction stories.)
Related Article: What is Worldbuilding? [coming soon]
When creating your own world, you should start big and work your way down. The “big picture” stuff is called Macro Worldbuilding, and deals with how the planet is laid out (if it’s any different from Earth), then the land masses, then ocean and wind currents, plate tectonics, etc. How does the planet behave? This may seem like unnecessary information, and it well may be if you’ve decided that your planet just acts similar to Earth, but for those who’ve created their own planet, it’s very helpful in predicting how the environment will affect their story.
Moving down from macro worldbuilding, you come to micro worldbuilding. These are the fine details of the world: your characters, where they live, what they eat, even “where do they go to the bathroom?” because while it may not factor into the story, it’s something that needs to be considered.
You may not want to get this down and dirty with your research, but keep in mind that the more you know about your world, the more confident your writing sounds and more accurate and consistent your story will be.
Research by Physical Immersion
Possibly the most expensive way of doing research: actually going to a place. If your book is set in New York, travel around New York. If it’s set in London, wander around London. The problem with this is that you’d actually have to travel to these places to do so, and if you don’t live there already, or don’t have the funds to do so, it’s especially difficult.
While there are grants given to writers and tax deductions available in some countries (travel expenses for book-related work for authors), it’s still not the most readily available option for less well-known writers.
To be honest, typically only best-selling authors can afford to travel specifically for their book research, so unless you go on vacation and decide to use it to also research for a novel you’re writing, you’ll likely stick to the other options.
What is Worldbuilding? [coming soon]