Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 10, 2014

Researching Fiction

erikaphoto-45Jersey Farm Scribe here on…

Researching Fiction

Umm, excuse me. You know what FICTION means, don’t you? It means it’s not a true story. I can’t research something that isn’t true. So fiction books can’t require any research.

That was how I felt at my very first writer’s group, before I was even involved in SCBWI. I was discussing how excited I was to be really getting into my first children’s book process. And someone asked me “So, how’d you do your research?”

I blinked a few times… and tried to pretend I understood the question. It’s not historical fiction, I thought to myself. So I squirmed around in my seat a bit and mumbled something like, “Well, it didn’t take much,” hoping that would change the topic.

But it led into a very valuable conversation that I will never forget.

ALL books involve research. (with the exception of some picture books)

If your book has more than 1000 words (and even many that don’t), some level of research is almost always necessary in order to develop the tangible reality of the characters. Does your character live in San Francisco? You need real street names, and even just some quick research of the city will show you that references to the hilly roads would add relatable layers to your story.

Is your character’s mother a nurse? Look into nursing schedules and rotating shifts, or some terminology that they may use.

Is someone preparing for college? What universities might they visit? What dorm names will they tour?

In order for your characters to be as alive to your readers as they are to you, there needs to be facts about them interwoven in the story that are laced in reality.

Obviously there are exceptions. Science fiction books or fantasy books create their own reality, and are more focused on sticking to the rules in the reality they have constructed.

But no matter the story, as writers, we are really jacks-of-all-trades.

Does our character fall in love with a gear-head? We have to become the mechanic. We have to know what that rough-edged muscle car lover knows. What he’d talk about, even if it’s while she’s rolling her eyes.

Does someone in the story ride horses? We have to fall in love with horses as well. We have to know if she rides Western or English, what class her horse competes in, and how many hands high the withers are.

And it’s not just facts. Human behavior is often the most important part of any story and we have to be in touch with the many facets of psychology. How actions and experiences shape personalities from all different perspectives.

We may have to understand the psychology of a child whose mother is in jail, or perhaps divorced parents that use them as a pawn. We may have to understand the subtle symptoms of how an overactive child might act, the struggles the parents might go through, and how it can affect the siblings as well.

The first time I thought about this, my initial reaction was… but I just want to write!

It seemed like a hindrance, another consumer of my precious time.

But as I’ve developed in my writing, I have come to really appreciate and enjoy the research side of any story. It brings the story off the paper, and links the creation into the tangible world.

In fact, I find myself constantly looking for ways to do MORE research. Maybe my character’s sister is off at college. Sure, I could make up a fake college name. But why? Why not use a real college, real dorm names and streets in the area?

Not only does this add a layer of reality, but it can add interest for marketing as well! People like to see their town name in print. Got a character who loves sports? Use real teams. Other fans will cheer right along with them.

The characters we paint have more than just the story we put on paper. They have a past, and a future. Part of our job is to do the research, to delve into everything in their lives and in the lives of those around them. This is just one of the many ways we add tangible, relatable layers to our story.

Because simply put, our manuscripts are worth it!


Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!

Thanks Erika for another valuable, well written post.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I totally agree, Erika 🙂 Another great post! Research is fascinating and totally lends the realistic details we need to imagine, to write, to describe, to flesh out. I actually think it takes a certain awareness to also know when we’ve done enough research, right?


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