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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel – Step 5: Give Yourself Research Assignments

novel writing tipsNOTE: This article is part of a step-by-step series to help you complete a novel. You might get more out of this series if you start with the first article.

Write what you know: It’s an old mantra that writers hear all the time from keynote speakers at writing conferences. Although it is important for you to write within the spectrum of your experience, it is also important to write a compelling story that convinces readers of the legitimacy of setting, feasibility, and character sincerity.

If a writer is an American soldier, he might want to write about war. Excellent choice, he is writing what he knows. But what if that soldier wants to write about war in outer space or war in ancient Rome. The soldier writer might well know the fear, physical toil, and psychological storms that happen on the battlefield, but he might not know anything about ancient Rome or outer space propulsion. The soldier writer has some research to do.

Research happens to be one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I get to explore new worlds, experience fresh cultures, learn about unfamiliar art, food, history, and civilizations. Look at research as an opportunity to learn, even apart from your writing.

My last novel, a yarn about civil rights activist zombies, takes place in 1968. To be convincing, I had to research the Vietnam War, World War I, the hippie movement, and the KKK. I actually poured more research into this book, about zombies no less, than any other story I have written. But all that research helped, I hope, make the story more interesting and convincing. No matter what genre you write, research is the key to giving your story life.

Research usually begins early in the writing process and continues throughout each story draft. So far, with your story, you have put down a few notes about theme, character, and a basic roadmap of your story in 3 paragraphs. By now you are probably thinking about the setting in which you want your story to take place. You might be slating the perfect time period, country, town, community, dimension, or whatever the flavor. It’s time for a few research assignments.

An effective way to organize your research takes us back to your story canon. It’s time to insert a new file in the gospel of your holy writ. Research assignments must be written down at the very moment you conceive them. For easy recall, write them in a document and placed that document in your story canon.

We have established a style guide for naming files in your story canon. It’s time to add another file, using that style guide. Call it ResearchAssignments_YourStoryTitle.doc.

This document will contain short paragraphs that describe subjects you must research and why they tie into your story. Chances are, you already have a few research assignments in the back of your head related to your developing story. You might have even begun research on one or two of these subjects.

As research ideas come to mind, document them immediately in your story canon. Use single paragraph entries like the following:

Read about modern weapons used in Iraq, particularly ground troops. What vehicles do they use? What are their top speeds? How heavy is body armor? What side arms, rifles, and grenades are used?

Find out about plant life in Iraq. What specific breeds of trees and vegetation grow in the most violent areas? Which breeds can be eaten in a survival situation?

Read about techniques Iraqis use to smuggle illegal substances, such as narcotics and firearms. Find out if there are any drug related supply lines and how they would get these drugs over the borders for distribution.

A series of assignments like the ones listed above can seem daunting. But remember, you are a writer. As a writer, you are also a reader. My advice: bite right in. Hit the books. I often start with Wikipedia to get a gestalt view of my subject matter. Wikipedia publishes sources at the bottom of every article, a treasure trove for any storyteller. I often visit Amazon.com and key in the subjects I’m looking for. It’s a rare occasion when I don’t find more than a couple of good books on even the most obscure subject matter.

Your research assignments document functions much like your characters document. As you write your story, from the first word of your logline, all the way through to the last sentence of your novel, you will stumble upon subjects that you must research. You will not always have time to dive into research materials, particularly when you are slugging your way through a first draft. It’s better to put a note in your story copy stating that you will later research this subject and fill in the details and log a sentence or two about the assignment in your research assignments document.

There are times when you will write your story; there are times you will write about your story. It’s difficult to mix these two forms of writing. The left-brain handles the research department, while the right-brain handles the creative writing department. These two hemispheres don’t always get along. Push research away while writing creatively, but make sure to note your intensions so you don’t forget or neglect important research assignments.

Researching Gus the Plumber
Lets apply this principle to the growing story of Gus the plumber. Time to log a few research assignments into the story canon for Gus’s yarn. You might think, wait a minute, Gus is a plumber who fights demons from another dimension; aren’t we just making it up? Why is research necessary? The answer is buried in the 3-paragraph synopsis, located in the Treatment_GusThePlumber.doc in the story canon. You can link to it here.

After reading through the 3-paragraph synopsis, it is clear that I have a lot of work ahead of me. I would start by creating a file called ResearchAssignments_GusThePlumber.doc and placing it into my story canon. I would give myself the following assignments and document them into my file:

Learn about plumbing. What tools do plumbers use? How does one repair a sink? Fix a drain? What tools would an independent plumber put in his van to be taken out on jobs?

Learn about the Cthulu Mythos. Pick up a book or two by H.P. Lovecraft and by other prominent Cthulu authors such as Kutner.

Read about the old ones. Spend some time learning about Varvadoss, one of the Cthulu gods. Is he the right god for this story? Would Varvadoss be interested in flowing his dimension into the human world and dominating the species? If not, you might want to chose another god.

Your Assignment
For this week’s assignment, pull up your treatment document from your story canon. Read the 3-paragraph synopsis section of this document. Create a file called ResearchAssignments_YourStoryTitle.doc and save it into your story canon. Write a few research assignments into this document.

Begin your research by hitting a few Wikipedia articles about your assignments and see where they take you. You might even visit Amazon.com or another bookstore and try to find a volume or two on your selected subjects. Youtube is also an excellent source for research. There are many documentarian videos posted, as well as effective how-to videos.

Make research fun. There is almost nothing more exciting in life than learning.

Good luck, I’ll see you next time.

To read the next article in this series, click here.

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