CHAPTER 9: Research

CHAPTER 9: Research

First of all, research isn’t something you do once for a few days before getting on with the business of writing. It’s an ongoing process, with little letup until the novel is finished. When you write, you write “in the moment,” and you need all your accumulated knowledge at hand to create the reality. What you don’t need is the uncertainty of a poorly researched fictional world. Research and planning allow you to release yourself from holding the world in place, so you can allow your characters to surprise you with their inherent spontaneity and inventiveness as you write.

Premise, structure and characterization are the blood, bones and flesh of the novel, and narration is the bolt of lightning that gives it life, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave life to his monster. Research, then, becomes the nourishment to sustain life. It gives the novel authenticity. It is the food, drink, vitamins, and emotional nourishment that give it strength and health. As this literary being grows from conception through childhood to maturity, it needs nourishment and medication for its ills. It needs encouragement. All that nurturing comes from research. Just as sunshine and rain come from above and give life to all that grows, and the Earth provides nourishment from below to sustain it, so research comes from both above and below, as illustrated in Figure 13.

Research Targets

Figure 13

Research should be targeted at specifics. Know what element of your novel you are researching. But due to serendipity, you may pick up along the way all sorts of interesting tidbits to enhance other aspects. All research is ultimately directed at creating verisimilitude, i.e., having the quality of truth, being probable. The reader can’t suspend disbelief if the world of the novel is not developed so that each element in it appears authentic.

But, what to research? As with every question concerning your novel, always return to Premise to find the answer.


Remember that premise may exist on three levels. For example:

Cosmic Premise (good overcomes evil). The novel’s deepest level.
Story Premise (freedom overcomes bondage)
Character Premise (self-reliance overcomes arrogance)

Each of these levels contains three elements: the two forces opposing each other and the conflict that connects them. You must research the philosophical ideas inherent in each of these. Even a dictionary definition can set you on the right course and provide necessary insight to help construct a storyline or character. The above Premise elements are defined as follows:56

Good: Something conforming to the moral order of the universe. Praiseworthy. Having intrinsic value. Favored or preferred.

Evil: Morally reprehensible, sinful. Causing discomfort or repulsion. Offensive, disagreeable. Something bringing sorrow, distress, or calamity, suffering, misfortune.

Freedom: The absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action. Liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another. Independence. The power of acting without compulsion. Not being unduly hampered or frustrated.

Bondage: The state of being bound by compulsion. Captivity, serfdom, servitude or subjugation to a controlling person.

Self-reliance: Reliance on one’s own efforts and abilities, powers or judgment.

Arrogance: A feeling of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or presumptuous claims. Exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance in an overbearing manner. Overly proud.

Even after just ten minutes with a dictionary, you can begin to see useful characteristics unfolding. Further research might include reading mythology and religion to get the cosmic elements, history to get story elements, and biographies to get character elements.


Conflict has two basic components: (1) the struggle over the solution to a problem and (2) the egotistical struggle for power. Frequently power issues will overshadow the problem that brings the two characters into conflict. Don’t allow this to happen without being conscious of it. Pure ego struggles have limited insight and become stereotypically easily to dramatize because of the limited anguish of choice.

Conflict, which is based on different philosophies concerning the nature of a problem, has a transcendent quality in resolution. This occurs when people engage each other in highly emotional dialogue or negotiation. Neither side backs off but engages the opposition in a process of “talking the subject to pieces.” The process may, but not necessarily, become violent. The process is then one of consciousness raising, although both parties may not see the light, or perhaps neither will, but the reader will. This process throws light into the depths of darkness, but also allows one to experience the most profound insights of which they are capable.

Some experts claim that the Premise behind all stories can be reduced to good versus evil. This may be so, and at the cosmic level, this is fine. But carrying that pure element of goodness or evilness into the characters leaves them without any real human depth. This results in stereotypical characters that are uninteresting. Always provide a human depth to your characters, particularly your protagonist and antagonist. You do this by providing the characters with vulnerability. This elevates the story philosophically.

You may be in tune with one side or the other of a conflict (this prejudice is generally reflected in the Premise), and this prejudice may not permit you to thoroughly develop the “orphaned” viewpoint. To help round out the arguments, you need to research each side thoroughly.


Research can actually be the first step in getting an idea for a novel. If an author wants to write a novel but doesn’t really have an idea, he should follow his interests. If he likes sunsets, he could start by researching sunsets, and then he might settle on an idea for a novel about a photographer who photographs sunsets. Sunsets, the close of day, are symbolic of endings, but also of the denizens of the dark, owls, and all things hidden and secretive. The author might wonder what the photographer’s secret is and turn to biographies of famous photographers.

If you’re interested in writing a modern rendition of an ancient storyline, an excellent source is Edward Tripp’s The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. He provides not only the storylines but also the sources of the ancient texts. This is by far the best handbook of Greek mythology in or out of print. There is nothing quite like it.


Research personalities, human behavior (be careful with this, no psychobabble), processes, professions, philosophy, dialects. Research your thematic character’s special wisdom. Perhaps he is an astronomer or a hobo, both of which would require extensive research. Use process to expose culture and character.

Some authors use mythological characters as models. Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Gods in Everyman and Goddesses in Everywoman describe the archetypes of human personality represented by the ancient Greek gods. Bolen provides the following discussion of the Greek fire god, Hephaestus:

The fire associated with Hephaestus is fire under the earth that molten core that rises from the depths as the lava of volcanoes. Subterranean fire is a metaphor for passionate feelings: intense sexual and erotic fire contained within the body until it is expressed, or rage and anger that is held in and dampened down, or a passion for beauty that is stirring and felt in the body (or earth of the person).

These feelings, which lie beneath the surface in a deeply introverted person, may suddenly and unexpectedly erupt. When revealed to another person in a moment of intimate conversation, almost invariably that person is surprised; “I had no idea that you felt this strongly.”57

Hephaestus was also deformed at birth, his feet turned front to back, which gave his gait a forward rolling motion. This deformity could also be viewed as an emotional crippling, and the god’s abnormal gait would translate into some hypersensitivity. Using this method to generate character, allows you to get your foot in the door. Generating character from nothing is a difficult task, and pulling open that door to a room full of perceptions just might jumpstart your imagination.

Bolen provides a shopping list of personality traits from which the author may select. Using this type of research to develop characters should never be done arbitrarily, but always under the influence of the Premise, and only to gain further insight into a developing character or trigger the creative process.

The ancient Greek, Theophrastus (370-287 BC), provided a short set of stereotypes (thirty in all) still helpful today in his book that has come to be called Characters. The following excerpts illustrate his keen sensitivity and are a veritable smorgasbord of personal shortcomings:

The garrulous man is the sort who says to anyone he meets that he is talking nonsense—no matter what that man may tell him—and that he knows it all himself, and if he listens, he’ll find out about it. And as the other tries to answer, he keeps interrupting and says, “Now don’t forget what you intend to say!”

The superstitious man is the sort who washes his hands, sprinkles himself with water from a shrine, puts a sprig of laurel in his mouth and walks around that way all day. If a weasel crosses his path he goes no further until someone passes between them, or he throws three stones over the road.58

A novelsmith could do worse than decide to add one of these attributes to a character in his novel.

Use physical landscape as a metaphor for internal landscape. Pick up a National Geographic book on one of the national parks, the Grand Canyon for example. Use the photographs, not literally, but metaphorically. One can well imagine the void left in a man after his wife’s death as the Grand Canyon of the soul, parts of it so deeply cut by pain that the mid-summer sun could cast little more than a dark shadow across it. View the physical world as internal landscape, mood.

Using the characteristics of animals to describe someone can also capture their physical, or even emotional, essence. Consider this description of a woman from James Salter’s highly-acclaimed Light Years:

She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing. The rest means nothing; it is managed somehow. She has a wide mouth, the mouth of an actress, thrilling, bright. Dark smudges in her armpits, mint on her breath. Her nature is extravagant. She buys on impulse, she visits Bendel’s as she would a friend’s, collects dirty clothes. She is twenty-eight. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints. She is careful, hard to approach. Her life is concealed. It is through the smoke and conversation of many dinners that one sees her…59

Her hair is like “fire crackling,” and Salter compares her to a pike (a large elongated, long-snouted fish valued for food and sport), long-necked creatures (cranes and ostriches come to mind), and then a ruminant (an even-toed, hoofed mammal that chews its cud). The point is that you should research description and pursue every avenue in creating your vision of the character. Pull on every source imaginable to stimulate your imagination so you can stimulate your reader’s.

When researching character, the author should remember that his characters are inexorably attached to premise, and that the heart of the character (along with his strength and weakness) is inherent in it.


While researching other elements of your novel, research the senses. This is a first priority because the senses center the reader in the fictional world. Concentrate your research on the three “forgotten” ones because they work on the subconscious. (Remember Ray Bradbury’s description of Mars: What is the smell, taste and touch of the time?) Here, the writer develops a strategy for using them because they season the narrative as spices do food. You don’t season fried chicken the same as you do chicken cacciatore. Too much and you’ll overwhelm the reader, but just the right sense at the proper moment catapults the reader to a new level of awareness.

Where do you go to research the senses? The primary source is the real world. Visit the places where your story takes place, or find similar settings. And while there, close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears and smell, taste and touch your surroundings. Eat in the restaurants. Walk the parks, smell the trees, chew a blade of grass.

Secondary sources include books (cookbooks, flower books, the encyclopaedia will sometimes tell how things smell or feel). Medical books give strange odors that come with disease. Also remember that you don’t have to be literal. Things smell like other things: “Tom’s breath was like a rotting carcass.” You can use smells, tastes and tactile sensations symbolically and metaphorically. You can say things like, “Tom’s personality was so grating that just looking at him felt like sand in the teeth.”


Use travel guides and nature books to get the flora and fauna. Use city, state, and country histories (you can’t know a place without knowing what it’s been through). Remember that setting is also a reflection of character internal landscape. Once you determine the literal part of the setting, take it that further step and “color” it with the character’s mood. To research mood, pickup a good psychology book.


As described in the chapter on chapters, a scene has to do with a dramatized action, and must involve conflict on some level. Sometimes you’ll know precisely how to dramatize a scene, but when intuition fails, go to other authors you admire to see how they do it.


Interview professionals: lawyers, policemen, forensic experts, bakers, clergy, etc. Also don’t forget housewives, mothers, fathers, CEO’s, ditch diggers, gravediggers, etc. Even kids have a particular slant on the world that might be crucial in some novels. In Carlsbad, New Mexico, the potash mines are an exotic setting that could be used in a novel, and the mining process would be a fascinating backdrop. The Carlsbad Caverns have a metaphoric appeal that could be exploited. A story about a seagull would require that the author research flying. Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) was a pilot.


The world of the novel and the real world are different places. Dialogue sounds different, descriptions fall flat, and the lives of characters demand a sense of story. Fiction can never match the strangeness of real life. It has been said that fiction has to conform to what is possible, real life doesn’t. This is the constraint the storyteller is always trying to overcome. In Groundhog Day, we find a story where the impossible works perfectly, a single day repeating thousands of times.

We think of the world as commonplace. It is anything but. Before 9/11, few would have thought that they’d wake up one morning and the World Trade Center would be on fire, but absolutely no one would have believed that two hours later both towers would be in rubble.

The author must always look for the strange element in his novel. You can’t make it strange enough. Your characters can’t be off-the-wall enough. As another example, who would believe that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl could take over as commander in chief of a country’s army? In two years, she would win a war that had been going on for 100. Joan of Arc did it for France. When the English captured her, the French wouldn’t negotiate for her return and allowed the English to burn her at the stake.


The author should not assume that once he has described a character, either internally or externally, or a setting, that the job is complete. Every time the reader comes into contact with the character or place, they should be subjected to an ever deepening, evolving personality and presence. The author continues to research his characters and setting to develop new ideas about these people and the places they inhabit.


James Cameron has said that the reason movies are such a powerful medium is that they are, by their very nature, collaborative. By extensive, even exhaustive, research, a writer can also bring other minds to bear on his work. This will give it that “three-dimensional” feel achieved by collaboration.


Visit the actual physical sites in which your novel’s scenes take place. Visit local libraries, and investigate, not only books, but also CDs and DVDs about your location. On the Internet, most towns and organizations now have websites. claims to be the largest bookstore in the world. It contains millions of titles. The Advanced Book Exchange,, is the world’s largest source for out-of-print books. Also Google has scanned many out-of-print books and presents them online where you can search their contents.

Perhaps your most valued resource will be Wikipedia. It is the largest encyclopedia in existence and is still growing. However, volunteers have put together Wikipedia, and you must always cast a suspicious eye toward any factual material you find there. Still, it’s a marvelous place to start your research


The Research Plan contains sources for researching the following:

The Nature of Conflict
The Underside of Your Characters
Strengths and Weaknesses
First and Last Chapters
Creating scenes
Narrative voice
Speech (dialogue)
The Senses

Once you have addressed all these topics, you can approach your novel with confidence. You will still have questions as you proceed with the writing of it, but these questions will be at the second level and will not work on your confidence that you can actually accomplish this enormous task you’ve undertaken.


(a) Write a Research Plan. (b) Provide a list of sources you plan to consult to research the novel, where you plan to go and what you expect to get from each. (c) Perform the initial research on the Premise and write one page expounding upon it. (d) Now is the time to start writing a two-to-three paragraph summary of each chapter.