Two experiences this past month have reminded me how important good research is to fiction and non-fiction writers. After spending a few months in South Africa, I finally picked up a Wilbur Smith novel to read. I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, loved his depth of writing, and found that the extensively-researched context and backstory were usually “just right” and not disruptive. Though a fictional piece, the book revealed Smith’s ability to weave in historical research with a thrilling story that provided a “plot that taught” and kept the pages turning!
This past Sunday, I watched a video by accomplished author Lee Strobel. After his wife converted to Christianity, Lee, an atheist journalist at the time, began an intense investigative effort on the claims of the Christian Faith. His wife had changed so dramatically that he wanted to know more about Christianity and the only way he knew how to do it was through a robust research project. Dramatically changed by what he discovered, he converted to Christianity and his writing “career” has been built on his ability to research well and present it effectively.
Each of these successful authors has built his (my examples are obviously both men, so I’m using the male pronoun) career on his ability to not only write well, but to conduct effective research. Two temptations persist for writers (and I’m facing one of them right now):
- Writers will choose to “over-research” their topics. They’ll pull every book and article on a topic, write their character’s backstory until it reaches 50+ pages (so they get it “right”), and throughout this research process the manuscript’s page count remains the same.
- Writers will take shortcuts and “under-research” their topics. The result is a truly fictional work (sometimes true for nonfiction!) with little depth and claims that may or may not be supported if examined. This is dangerous on many levels.
Often what makes or breaks good stories, especially those at the proposal stage, is the obvious level of understanding the author has regarding her/his subject matter. You can strengthen your writing by implementing some basic steps to improve your research. These aren’t daunting, and they don’t require a Ph.D. (research does take time, however), but the end results of your hard work will be worth every minute you give. I’m going to blog about this throughout the fall and should have a nice series of research “helps” by year’s end. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your feedback on the following:
- As a reader, are there common research “pitfalls” that you’ve seen authors make? If so, what are they?
- As a writer, what are the obstacles you face as you try to develop your research?
- What do you wish you could do better as you research a particular topic?
You can comment on these on the blog or scoot me an Email me at “terry_linhart at hotmail dot com” and that will help me as I think about potential ways I can help.