People hear “research” and their eyes glass over. No doubt, the problem lies in how the word was used in our high school classrooms. Flashes of lame topics and MLA formatting still wake me some nights. Fortunately, the Internet has made information much more accessible and focused. There is a need to be wary regarding the quality of sources online, but that will be covered in a different post.
This post isn’t about how to research. It is about when and why.
People need to trust that the story they’re reading makes sense. This doesn’t mean that the story needs to be a narrative thesis paper. Stories do have to be internally consistent and meet logical expectations. Historical fantasies need to be at least modestly historically accurate and science fiction has to follow and expand upon modern cutting edge theory. These expectations have to be met and readers will disconnect if you do not make the effort.
WHEN TO RESEARCH?
The simple answer to this question is: Research when you don’t know something. Writers who don’t research are often torn to pieces by critical readers who do.
Even when writing fiction, it is impossible to ignore basic facts that surround a situation. How many guns does a brig have? What is the bilge of a three-masted ship? What year did Blackbeard raid Charles Town? These questions haunted me when I wrote my first book and their answers were required knowledge for the plot I crafted.
The times in which you don’t have to research are when they deal with locations, character types, and events that are completely self-generated. If your books are composed of made-up histories and laws of existence, then the burden is on you to make sure that the world makes sense. This is part of the need to remain internally consistent. Even though you don’t have to look up any information, the rules you set for your world are a promise to the reader that you won’t cheat your way out of a problem.