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Mistake #3: Foregoing Research

Note: This post is part of my seven-week series about the mistakes people make when writing a book. To read from the beginning, start here.

Allow me to return to the heady days of November 2009... the first time I participated in National Novel Writing Month, more fondly known among writers as NaNoWriMo.

As I recounted in my last post, when I wrote my novel that month, I had very little concern for anything but the basic story. I just wrote.

Consequently, I didn't research much of anything.

Now, don't misunderstand. I've been reading fantasy novels since I was a child. I've always gravitated toward subjects like anthropology, history, geography, and archaeology. And I will proudly confess to watching almost any movie that involves swords and armor, including, but not limited to, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, A Knight's Tale, anything written originally by J. R. R. Tolkien and filmed in New Zealand, and even that paragon of historical inaccuracy Braveheart (well, it did take place in Scotland, so that part was true).

Suffice to say that when I started writing my fantasy novels, I had a basic knowledge of Medieval warfare, culture, and history.

But in a way, that basic knowledge brought with it significant risks.

My Mistake: Relying on Limited Knowledge

One of the most terrifying creatures in the world is a person with just enough knowledge of a subject to be dangerous. That was me in 2009. I knew just enough about how to write in the fantasy genre to be dangerous. It was tempting to completely avoid research altogether and rely only on my own limited knowledge.

(Another terrifying creature: Every writer at a writer's conference who is discussing all manner of criminal activities in the interests of writing a good story.)

But relying on limited knowledge cheats the reader and reduces the impact of your work.

For me, it was important to first establish my setting; even though the world was different, what would be a comparable era in this world? Then I needed to transfer that knowledge to my created world. It was easy to not accidentally put a lightbulb or a car in that world, but what kind of wagons would they use? What kind of dresses did women wear? Was there a difference between common and noble dress? What kind of laws did they have to obey? And so on.

And even though not everything I discovered made it into the book--sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance--the book was better because I did the research.

Every book needs some research. Research will:

  • Increase your own knowledge: It’s impossible to know everything about your topic—even if you’re an expert in your field. Increase your own knowledge by researching what others have to say.

  • Inspire additional ideas and content: Even the best book outlines usually need additional content and supporting material to turn them into well-rounded and complete books. Research can provide that material.

  • Improve your focus: Sometimes, book ideas are so big that they’re tough to contain. It’s easy to ramble on and on without really narrowing down your idea into a few finer points. When you do research, you often find information that will help you focus on the most important points, which can help you figure out what to keep and what to delete.

  • Give you authority: Well-researched books tend to prove that you know what you’re talking about. When readers see that you’ve taken the time to really delve into your subject, they trust you more. You position yourself as an expert.

Research can encompass a wide variety of source material, including:

  • Books, magazines, and journals.

  • Websites.

  • Studies and surveys, whether conducted by you or someone else.

  • Interviews.

  • Movies and online videos.

... and really, anything you can reasonably believe is accurate for your purposes (i.e., a fiction writer could examine the costumes of an accurately costumed movie even if the movie itself is fiction) that can be used to shore up your own thought leadership.

Fortunately, researching a topic has never been easier than in 2019. The miracle of the Internet means that scholarly articles, current news, and access to experts are only a click away. Those of us of a certain age will recall the days of traipsing down to the public library, searching in card catalogs, finding thirteen books that might have what you need, only finding six of them on the shelf, discovering that two of those are irrelevant and one is so outdated as to not be useful, and perhaps digging up three useful pieces of information from the remaining books... before starting all over with a new topic at the bank of card catalogs.

Don't rely on half-remembered bits of knowledge or your own hunches. Take advantage of this amazing day and age we live in and research your book.

Success Strategy: Do the research. College professors, librarians, medical or legal professionals, consultants, and Google can help you fill in the gaps. Ask around. You’ll be surprised at what and who your friends know. You can also consult lists of experts for someone who has the particular knowledge you need. Just Answer, Ask an Expert, and Ask the Experts are good places to start.

In two weeks, "Mistake #4: Sharing Too Soon."

Can't wait to read all the mistakes one at a time? Download the e-book today!

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