8 ways you can research your novel and characters.

Original photo by Jake Bouma (CC BY-NC-SA) Adapted by Writer’s Caravan

A week ago, I realised I only knew about 10% of what I should know about Berber culture – a crucial part of my novel. Suddenly, I felt miserable and clueless. Prior to writing this first draft, I had perused the internet,  read countless articles and spent considerable amounts on educational books so how was this possible?

How could I still not have enough information to build an authentic picture of a world so rich and multifaceted with confidence?

The internet has its limits. That’s how.

I’m only an amateur writer but as it is with everything, we learn as we go. So to those of you who are only just starting and to those of you who aren’t, I say… There ARE other ways you can do your research.

In fact, here’s 8.

1. The obvious (and easiest) one 

That is of course Google. Or whatever search engine it is that you use although frankly, if you don’t use Google, then you’re missing out on their brilliant Google Doodles.

Don’t get me wrong, Google (or the internet in general) is a fantastic source of information. It hosts the most obscure bits of knowledge but for us writers, infinitely curious and irrationally critical, sometimes it just isn’t enough.

2. The underrated one

We don’t read enough magazines. Vogue, Elle or Cosmopolitan don’t count (unless your protagonist is a fashionista and/or into celebrity gossip). We don’t read enough specialised magazines.

Writing a political piece? My boyfriend swears by The Economist and as of recently, the New Statesman. (Disagree? Blame him, not me.)

More of a science fiction geek? Who says you can’t find inspiration in the real world? The New Scientist is amongst my favourite. For my very few francophone followers, Science & Vie has inspired me on many occasions.

If your story involves travelling, if it is set in a country you have never visited or if your character is a know-it-all tourist guide in the depths of the Amazon Forest (the ifs are endless), you might have heard of the National Geographic? *sarcasm sign* the Lonely Planet have their own printed magazine too.

3. The old school but oh so priceless one

Books (or manuscripts) have been part of our world for a while now. For example, and according to Wikipedia (oh the irony), the oldest known dated Arabic manuscript on paper dates back to 931 AD and is currently kept at the Leiden University Library.

This means centuries, nay, millenniums worth of knowledge that the internet cannot provide in full. Yes, there is Google Books and yes, some books are available as an e-format to read on your screen but that’s the problem: only some. The rest of those books rest inside big, imposing buildings called libraries, waiting for you to snatch them off their shelves.

As some of you may know, I have a favourite here in London. The British Library. But more on that next week.

4. The lazy yet rewarding one

Watch documentaries. Pour yourself a glass of wine if it helps and make yourself comfortable on the couch. With this premise, what is there to complain about?

When I want an Africa fix, I switch to the Discovery channel. When I want to explore the world, any David Attenborough film is bound to leave me speechless. When I want to travel back in time, the History channel rarely disappoints.

5. The personal one

Sometimes, no matter how much information is available to us, there is nothing more powerful than our own experiences. No doubt some of you have heard Mark Twain’s “Write what you know” quote and in many ways, it is true. No book will ever relate your childhood memories, no travel magazine will ever describe the city you grew up in with such candour and emotion. Sometimes, the best research you can do is dive in your memories.

6- The sociable one (and the creepy one)

‘Eavesdropping at Cafe Nero’ by Neil Moralee

Talk to your friends. Be friendly to the taxi driver, you never know what stories they might spill out. People watch. Eavesdrop (that’s the creepy one). Ask people questions. Be inquisitive. If you’ve gone too far, you’ll know. But most often than not, you won’t believe how friendly people are.

If there is anything I’ve learnt from 2 years in retail is that a) everyone has a story to tell and b) with a bit of luck, you will strike up a conversation with one of them.

7. The cheeky one

Chances are, someone has already done what you are trying to do. This is valid for those who are writing/editing and those who are looking to publish. If you’re in the first category, read books in the same genre, read books that explore the same themes, read books that have pulled off that first person narrative you’re struggling with…

If you’re in the second category, do your research. Pick books that are similar to yours. Who is their publisher? What does their blurb look like? Who was their agent? Self-publishing? What does their cover look like? Who designed it? Who edited it? I’m not quite (not at all) there yet so that is all advice on publishing I have stumbled upon so far.

8. The unintentional one

You’ll be surprised (or not) at how much your subconscious can come up with. Yes, I am talking about dreams. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are wild. They are bizarre and unusual and they are inspiring. Sometimes, I wish I wrote sci-fi so I could incorporate my dreams into my work. Or maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me I should. Either way, you might want to consider keeping a dream journal. I am yet to start doing so but I’m convinced it will be fruitful so I shall keep you posted.

There you have it. Eight ways to research your novel, only ONE of which is the internet. I hope you’ll find this useful. Do you have a favourite one? Anything I might have missed?


Thanks for reading.
Hop on my Facebook and Twitter caravans.

26 responses to “8 ways you can research your novel and characters.

  1. Not worth a penny, but try and stop me anyway! You’ve given a swag of ideas, and not just for fiction. Magazines have been serving me well lately in my blog-writing, and opening up non fiction possibilities, some of them quite mad! I also like the idea of dreams. I can’t do surreal in my conscious life (too plodding) but my dreams don’t know this.

    A few things you didn’t mention, I don’t think. What about newspapers? I got going on some major research reading the Sydney paper for the day of my mother’s birth: it didn’t give me what I was looking for but it gave me other riches, even the advertisments.

    Primary sources were also fertile: in my case the letters and diaries of my great-uncle in World War 1, which nudged me to letters and diaries of other soldiers, fleshing out my understanding of what it was like to fight in that awful war (as if there’s any other kind.) This is a bit like talking to people.

    I’m looking forward to your next week post on the British library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was worth a lot more than a penny!! The letters is such a fantastic idea. So authentic and personal. Thank you for suggesting it!
      You’re absolutely right about newspapers too, I kept thinking about The Guardian here in the UK and, well… I forgot to put it in! :D


  2. Great post!! I use all of these for my essays and musings, but in particular wandering book aisles in the non-fiction section of the library leads me to all kinds of esoteric studies. It’s my favorite place to ‘shop’.

    I also make a habit – every year – of subscribing to two new magazines I’ve not previously read about art, writing, business or from specific states or countries. This always broadens my horizons. Even the ads are informative!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I love libraries too. I can seldom resist walking in and spending an hour wandering around…
      That is a great habit to have too. I did that last year but have had to cut down to free online reading due to financial reasons… I will definitely resume my subscriptions at a later date though. :)


  3. Also, if you write about other countries… find a friend there and ask him/her to beta-read! ;) I’m blessed that I’ve found a great friend and cover artist who is also from a country I’m very much interested in (India), so I force her to read all my stories set in India for fact-checking! :D Since I’m Italian, if I write something set in the US, I ask my American friends for feedback… etc. I know it’s not always easy, but well… it’s another way! ;)

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve also been told to interview professionals (like, you want to write a cop book, talk with cops), but since I don’t live in an English-speaking country, even going to the library is a bit of a problem for me… So hail St Google! :)

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is one thing I’ve always wanted to do but never tried. If you were given the choice, who would you interview?
        Ha ha, yes Google is a life-saver, I can’t deny you that! :D


      • I write fantasy and science fantasy and historical fantasy and… I like to make up stuff! :) But sometimes I write contemporary stuff… based on the “write what you know” thingy… not as much fun, though! ;)
        So most of my research is either for technical, scientific or historical stuff. I guess if I could interview an expert on any of those fields I’d be very happy… but I’d have to prepare the questions in advance!


  4. Nice post but I question why you are researching for your novel at this stage. I would have thought you would be doing this before and during the drafting.

    I spend a lot of time at the local library. I’m writing this from the library now. I park myself in a comfortable chair next to a large window with a view of “Little Mountain” and racks of books to my left. I work from here sometimes. There is excellent, free internet access. There are rows upon rows of books, a newspaper and magazine section, and even a coffee shop just outside. This is my favourite place to write.

    I don’t relay too much on internet sources. Instead, I prefer magazines, newspapers, documentaries (I am a documentary buff), and personal conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I fear the answer to your question Gary, will be a long one but I’ll try to keep it to an acceptable length.
      1) When I started writing this novel (over a year ago), I didn’t know I was going to finish it, or become so passionate about it, which means I never planned or structured anything. I just wrote and welcomed new ideas as they came along. When I finally started to see a bigger picture forming, I had probably written 40,000 words already. Berber culture was not yet an important theme.
      2) This leads to number 2. The story started off with another character. It is only halfway through that I realised what my novel was actually about and however great an epiphany it was, it meant I had to rethink main plots and sub plots.
      3) I was naive and inexperienced (and in hindsight, angry with myself) to think my memories and knowledge of Morocco was enough to build a picture. Oh how wrong I was! When I re-read my completed first draft, one story arc in particular felt flat. It needed more and I wanted it to be more anchored in a certain moment of Morocco’s history. I slowly realised I could do with my old history books from Morocco… :D
      4) I discovered one very appropriate book to the culture I’m portraying and one thing led to another. So many books, so many topics to explore…. I am in a bit of a “library frenzy” at the moment! ;)

      Hey, would you look at that, I wrote another essay again. (you always seem to ask the right questions :) )

      I like how much time you spend in your local library. They are such an inspiring place, aren’t they? :)

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is understandable. I’m impressed with your perseverance 😎 and trust you will finish the novel. Yes, I enjoy the library. When I got home it was one of the first places I visited.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article! Another penny of thoughts: Going to your story’s location is invaluable! If at all possible, GO! For my novel “The Cardinal”, I spent a day in a Viking long house in Norway, taking in the sights, scents, textures and atmospheres that not even a walk-through video could have revealed, and picked the brain of every curator that could speak English or German. I also spent a week along Loch Eriboll in Scotland, and discovered a perfect addition to my plot, a souterrain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are absolutely right! Thank you for taking the time to comment. I have been to many places in Morocco yet the one I am using in important parts of my novel is one I haven’t been. It just so happened this way but I have amazing contacts that are my eyes and ears when the budget isn’t there.
      A day in a viking House sounds incredible! I’m yet to discover this fascinating part of the world and its culture. :)

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right – eyes and ears of trusted contacts are certainly helpful if you can’t go yourself! Networking is so important.
        And just a thought… you could discover the Viking world a bit by reading my novels… just sayin’! ;-) It’s a fascinating world.

        Liked by 1 person

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