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Do I need to research my novel, and what kind of research should I do?

Doing Research For Your Novel

Russell Celyn Jones (Published writer. Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the MA Programme at Birkbeck College (University of London).) gives expert video advice on: Do I need to research my novel, and what kind of research should I do?; Can I over research my novel?; Should I write about what I know? and more...

Do I need to research my novel, and what kind of research should I do?

Researching a novel is a complicated question because it depends on what you are writing about. Everything is research, in a sense. Going to the supermarket is research, because you're picking up incidental detail all of the time that goes into the writing of a novel. But, if your novel is about, perhaps, a group of friends, living now, and these people are based on people you know, the research will be fairly minimal. But, if you're writing a book about the 16th century you might very much spend a long time in the library.

Can I over research my novel?

You tend to over-research because you need to be immersed in the period detail, if you're writing historically. But that doesn't mean you use it all. There's nothing worse than a novel that tends to use all its research because it has been done by the author.

Should I write about what I know?

Some people believe that you should write about what you know. And other people believe that you should write about things you do not know. The former means that you are safe in that you are basically recreating something familiar. But when you write about things that you don't know it forces you to be inventive. And very often the imagination takes flight when you are writing about issues or people that you do not know.

Should I research the publishing market before I start writing?

Have some vague idea of what the market has been doing for say ten years might be wise, but the publishing market does move on. If you try to write for the market, you'll find yourself becoming unstuck, because by the time your book is published, that market that you were trying to copy has changed. They tend to change on the basis of a sensational type of novel that sells many copies. But the next sensation will have nothing in common with that first one.

Are a good novel and a successful novel necessarily the same thing?

A good novel and a successful novel are not the same thing, necessarily. A successful novel is often based on an idea, a high concept such as "The Da Vinci Code." But such books are not known for their quality of their prose or for their quality of characterization. I think ultimately all successful books have something, but some of the greatest novels of our time have been a slow burn. "Moby Dick" would be a good example of a book that took sixty years to come in to the public's attention.

If I base characters on historical figures, how much research should I do?

If you're creating a character based on a historical figure you will inevitably research that character's background, but you must always remember that you are writing fiction and fiction is a form of entertainment. And there may be things that you will do to invent a scenario that do not follow the historical research you've done. You shouldn't be hampered by the truth in fiction.