Research Advice for Teens Writing Fiction
Sofia Headley & Justina Chen Headley
If characters are the heartbeat of fiction, then research is the oxygen that feeds a story. Research makes a story "real" for the reader, whether it's grounding a scene with a sense of place or incorporating historical and scientific facts to add the feel of reality. Writers draw readers into a story so they forget they're reading; they enter the world authors create. For example, in my novella about Medusa, I had to know what women in ancient Greece wore, how they ground ash and water to make mascara, and which goddess turned my character into a monster.
Everything in daily life can be woven into a work-in-progress or saved for a future novel. For instance, when my mom tore a ligament in her knee while skiing, that accident gave birth to Girl Overboard, a story of a snowboarder who is sidelined with the same injury. So when I slammed my pinky in a car door, I knew I would include the memory of that tremendous pain, including my blackened fingernail, in my writing at some point. When you ask students, "What has happened in your life that you can use to fuel your fiction?," you let them know that research is personal.
When Do You Research?
Whether writing a first draft or fact-checking before publishing, research can happen anytime during the writing process. When a writer begins a work of fiction, preparation can involve reading everything possible about the subject. This not only gives the writer a sense of whether there's enough material for research, but can also help determine the length of the project. My writer-mom and I call this the courting-before-committing stage. It's easier to pull the plug on a book after two weeks than two months!
If a writer is stuck, research can unlock ideas and solve plot problems. For example, I wasn't sure how to describe Athena's temple in my novella. So I decided to research temple architecture. Along the way, I learned about some intriguing altars, which led to one of the most pivotal scenes in my book. However, time on research needs to be balanced. Writers can spend so much time researching, they never write more than the first few paragraphs or pages. As much as research can open story possibilities, it can be a paralyzing excuse not to write.
How to Research
With all that can be overwhelming about research, where should students start? To get the best overview of a topic no matter what the age of the writer, consider children's nonfiction books. Even low-level nonfiction books provide concise overviews of topics, covering the essential facts. If additional information is needed, graduate to upper level or adult nonfiction work. For example, I have watched my mother countless times commandeer my library card so that we can reserve up to 60 research books (from the youngest children's research book to the most advanced, sturdy, and wordy adult books) for our works in progress.
While poring through books is an important part of research, there are many more ways to learn about a subject. So much of creative writing is about emotional truths: what people feel in different situations. Mining your own experiences helps create characters that people can identify with. For instance, who doesn't know what it feels like when people stare at you? My firsthand experience with that when I had to wear an eye patch every day inspired The Patch, my mom's first picture book.
My favorite type of research is a field trip. You can gain invaluable information through firsthand experience, whether venturing outside to smell rotten eggs in the sulfuric air to touching a sandstone building that a character is going to climb. I remember going to a symphony as a class field trip and being awestruck with the elegant marble columns and arch-filled architecture that really inspired me to write about Greek Mythology.
While researching online can be convenient, students need help considering the reliability of the information source. Let's not forget all the people who visited the Northwest Tree Octopus site and were convinced the creature existed. Even with obvious falsehoods (like the Sasquatch being the major predator), researchers found that 24 out of 25 students believed the content. This modern-day cautionary tale reminds us not to believe everything we read on the web. You can check a site's reliability by reading about the author and verifying them on a search engine for their knowledge of the subject. If the site is maintained by a well-known and respected organization, it is generally reliable. Also, if the site is an .edu domain, there is a higher chance that the site is reliable.
How to Embed Research in Fiction
Facts from your research support the story, but are not the story itself. Sometimes the sad truth for a writer is this: bits of cool information simply don't further the plot. Students must delete anything that clutters the story. For instance, as much as I adored describing the way Medusa primped, that information bogged down the pacing . . . and was eventually chopped. The phrase "murder your darlings" that came from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch means if you are a little too impressed with your writing at any point, it probably needs to be cut.
Weaving in information is as important as the information. Introducing facts into fictional works must be consistent with the voice of the character. You can't have a pampered priestess in ancient Greece, for instance, spout off, "These here bricks are made from cow manure, hay, and clay." How would that character know that information? And why would this Greek priestess suddenly sound like a cowboy? "As Apollo shines brightly down on me" is an excerpt from my book. It weaves the myth of Apollo, the god of the sun into the novella with a bit of discreetness.
Thanks to research, writers pay careful attention to the world because anything can spark an idea. Whether it's a personal injury, nonfiction children's book or authentic website, research for stories can happen anytime, any day. In fact, every moment is research for a working writer.