How to do Research for a Novel

March 30, 2022 10 min read


 By Author Christopher Canniff


There is an abundance of information in books and online about how to research for a novel. Many writing books only discuss the topic peripherally, in sections focusing on character, theme, setting, or viewpoint. There are mentions of research in chapters examining the craft of writing, or planning.

Research, it is claimed, is a poor substitute for what you have experienced yourself. Online sources indicate how to keep notes, 5 steps to research, 7 steps or 7 tips, 21 steps, 9 key strategies, or other such itemized approaches.

But this article is about the process of research through direct and indirect experience, a case study with a focus on indirect experience.

So, what is direct and indirect experience, anyway?

Direct experience is life experience. You have gone places and done things in your life, and this is researching your topic through direct experience. If you have direct experience, how do you begin transcribing those experiences and making them interesting, coherent, and structured enough for a novel?

Indirect experience can be studying life during a specific time in history where direct experience is not possible. So, in that case, what do you do? Where do you start? 

Direct Experience

To take your memories and create the basis for a novel, you can begin by looking at your own unique past.

Novels created from direct experience can be very unique. 

I lived and worked in Ecuador, South America for a year. This formed the basis of my first two novels,Poor Man’s Galapagos, andAbundance of the Infinite

InPoor Man’s Galapagos, Tómas Harvey is an irrigation engineering student living on a small, impoverished island in Ecuador. His father is a renowned British travel writer who has travelled to many of the places I have visited. Many of the characters are conglomerations of people I knew there.

I was once locked in the university where I worked, along with students who were protesting against the president of the country. Tear gas bombs were being tossed inside by an armoured military vehicle. Burning tires lined the streets to prevent entry into the small town of Portoviejo. This forms the opening for my novel. 

Abundance of the Infinite is about a psychologist who travels from Toronto to a small coastal fishing town in Ecuador. It is a story about the blurred line between lucid dreams and reality in a place so utterly foreign as the tropical rainforest through which I, and the main character, travelled. 

Even with direct experience, some research is still required. This leads in to the next section…

Indirect Experience

In my latest novel,Intervals of Hope,the main character Nicholas lives with his mother and brother in London, England between the world wars. His father served with the First Battalion, First Canadian Regiment in the trenches of the Great War, and worked in the coal mines of South Leeds. This may seem, at first glance, like daunting research. 

In beginning this research, I had the looming question later posed to me in the book launch. How many other books are out there set in the same time and place, and what makes mine different? So these are questions you should keep in mind.

As I answered in my book launch, there were some crime novels that took place in England between the wars, and some mass-market type books with scenes in that time period such as Ken Follett'sFall of Giants andWinter of the WorldThese were published within the last decade or so.A London Family Between the Wars, published in 1940, was written as a memoir but had a lot of interesting details.

So, I didn’t find a lot of interesting literary fiction set between the wars that explored the fascist movement in Britain at the time, the conditions leading England to war, the stories of the coal miners (although George Orwell’sRoad to Wigan Pier was appealing), as well as the reality of those who chose to escape their countries in a time of war, and the homing call for them to return and fight.

A key to the uniqueness ofIntervals of Hope is the examination of the father-son relationship during that tumultuous time, given that the main character’s father was a WWI veteran, and the novel’s examination of the effect his father’s legacy had on his son as WWII loomed and ultimately took shape.

Copious Reading

As the novel starts in London, England between the wars, that's where I started my research. I read books such as the history of London (which was long and quite dry, highly recommended for insomniacs) andIn the News, a book of newspaper clippings from 1930-1939. And George Orwell'sThe Road to Wigan Pier about life in the coal mines of South Leeds.

A 1930s scrapbook showed common household items and magazines of the time. AndInside Europe by John Gunther, the October 1938 edition. That is a rare book, published just before WWII broke out, so it showed what the state of Europe was at that time without any skewed historical lens. 

So, where does your novel start? Perhaps your non-fiction research can start there.

Look for unconventional books, rare books that can help you put a unique spin on the world you are attempting to create.

But what of fictional influences? I read other books of fiction before and during the writing of the novel, and these are listed below. 

What fiction has influenced you to write the novel you are working on? Re-reading them might provide some fresh insights and inspiration, and infuse your book with renewed vitality.

Timothy Findley'sThe Wars. This was an interesting literary novel exploring the effects that WWI had on an empathetic main character. I once met with a publisher who said thatIntervals of Hope shouldn't be published becauseThe Wars was done so well. I disagree with his assessment, as under that presumption all writers should put their pens down based on the excellence of what's been done before.

Joseph Boyden'sThree Day Road. Joseph drew upon family stories from his grandfather and uncle, who served as soldiers during WWI. ForIntervals of Hope, I was provided with eighty-five letters, which were sent home during WWI by my great-grandfather. These letters were discovered in a family attic, and form part of the novel.

Ken Follett'sFall of Giants andWinter of the World.This is a mass-market, sprawling epic focused on an assortment of characters in WWI and WWII. With the epic scope, the inner life of the characters was not explored in great detail, which is what I was after in my novel. However, these books provided interesting aspects of these times. 

Want to write better short stories? Sign up for a 1-on-1 consultation with our short story expert, Author Tevis Shkodra.

Hemingway'sFor Whom the Bell Tolls. Robert Jordan was an explosives expert with a mission to destroy a bridge in the Spanish Civil War. Pablo, the anti-fascist guerilla leader, and his wife Pilar are excellent secondary characters. A real inspiration.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.A very funny book set in Italy during World War II, this is the story of a bombardier, Yossarian, a hero who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.

Roddy Doyle'sA Star Called Henry about Henry Smart in the Irish Rebellion, which was quite comical at times. Well written, lively, not one I would have sought out but a reading suggestion from the publisher as I was engaging in rewrites. This is a real study in unique and bold characterization.  

Stephen Crane'sRed Badge of Courage was published thirty years after the American Civil War had ended, by a man who was born after the war. It was acclaimed for its realism by veterans of the war. So maybe you are attempting something similar with your novel, and it may be worth a read. 

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, about WWI from the German perspective. The idealism of youth turns sour from what they see and experience. Another story similar toThe Wars, exploring the effect of war on the individual.

There was also a book on Canadians who deserted the battlefields during WWI, which I found interesting and which forms part of the conflict that two of the characters face in the novel.  

So, that was my reading list. What is yours? Think about allocating space on your bookshelf for a reading list pertaining to your current novel. Refer to your books from time to time. Seek inspiration from them when needed. Immerse yourself in the world you are attempting to create. 

Reading for research and inspiration is essential, to which any author can attest. Read what has been done before. Learn why it is considered great.

But what else gives authenticity and life to your novel? 

Interviewing

In the course of writingIntervals of Hope, I wanted to get some details right. So, I contacted a man named George Sharp who lived in London, England between the wars. I was able to read his story online, and ask him questions about his life at that time.

Unlike the novel’s main character, George was a police officer. But he provided a lot of good input, clarifications, and details, and he seemed interested in sharing his memories and experience.

A key element of the novel is the father-son relationship. But originally, the father was not fully formed. He was a stale character, lacking any substance that would make for conflict between him and his son.

But then, I read about a man named Gordon Schottlander in a local newspaper. Gordon was a veteran of WWII who lived in London, England between the wars, and his father was a soldier in WWI. This paralleled the novel’s main character. So, I reached out to Gordon and he graciously agreed to be interviewed for the book. We had many wonderful conversations that I will always remember.

He attended the book launch. He read the book, and enjoyed it. There will be an interview with him and the publisher online, which is scheduled for early next month. Gordon was highly-trained as a British Commando, a special operations force formed by Churchill to engage in secretive and dangerous missions.

He was a commissioned officer who stormed the beaches on D-Day. He is an amazing and humble man and it's been a blessing to know him. And a lot of his story comes through in the book.    

Gordon sharing his experiences with me enriched the novel in countless ways: his wartime experiences, living in London in the 1930s, and Gordon's relationship with his father. This is part of what provides the book with authenticity and makes it unique. 

Look for opportunities that you may have to interview those who have lived the life of your characters, or can provide you with unique perspectives that will enrich your novel and bring it to life.

Letters and Correspondence

When searching for historical documents, look to libraries and public archives. Seek them out within your own family.

Look to others you know, or individuals you can contact about your subject. Pursue opportunities to obtain unknown historical documents. 

While writingIntervals of Hope, I learned that eighty-five letters sent home during WWI by my great-grandfather, Wilfrid Littlejohn, had been discovered in a family attic. Wilfrid was in E Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade and was one of the first Canadians to be sent overseas and among the last to return. He was one of 70 out of 1000 men in his regiment to have survived.

The letters were sent home to Wilfrid's parents, his brother, and his aunt from the trenches, hospitals and camps. Some sections of the letters were scribbled over by censors who would review the letters prior to sending them.

Letters were censored during WWI to prevent the enemy from obtaining secret information about upcoming battles, numbers of troops in specific locations, etc. so I had to surmise what might be in those sections.

When I received the letters, they were digitized and arranged chronologically. So, I read through and then transcribed them. When looking at what to include in the novel, I went through what effect certain letters would be on the main character at specific points in his life, knowing what was happening in his country in the 1930s in England, and what was occurring in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan.

Seek out opportunities to find such documents to be utilized within your novel, or as reference or research material. Such documents can prove to be invaluable.

Travel

Travel can not only add realism to your novel through details, but it can also inspire you to get to the business of writing! 

I travelled to London England many times and went around the city as the main character would have, visiting most of the places he frequented in the book. I took notes as I walked around, carefully documenting my surroundings and how these may have been perceived by the characters in the novel.

This helped inspire the story by allowing me to experience part of the life of the main character, and others. 

Final Thoughts

Good research lends credibility to your work, and gives the reader the feeling of direct experience. Imagine your readers feeling that they have lived the life of your characters as they read your book, and have therefore had a direct experience. What about that for a goal?

As a last word, given direct or indirect experience, you will still need to: 

  • Read copiously. You should be interested enough in the research to read many books about your subject. Even boring books (for example, a book about the history of London, England) can also feed into your writing.  

  • Interview, if possible, to derive from first hand experiences of people who were there.

  • Communicate with others who know about your subject.

  • Research on your own. When researching online, know that some sources such as Wikipedia can be changed and are therefore potentially unreliable. I have found information on Wikipedia that could not be corroborated elsewhere.  

  • Travel to the places in your novel, if possible.

  • Look at resources that are rarely used. In researching for an upcoming novel, I obtained a researcher card at the Toronto Library Archives and used a microfiche to get countless documents about my subject. I was able to learn about the basis for the main character of my novel.

  • Don't get bogged down in research while you're writing. Focus on telling the story. Write out your scenes. See where more research is needed, and then add details utilizing research.

Now, get that novel going!

Want to write better short stories? Sign up for a 1-on-1 consultation with our short story expert, Author Tevis Shkodra.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Also in So You Want to Write? Blog

5 Marketing Tips Every Debut Author Should Know
5 Marketing Tips Every Debut Author Should Know

May 16, 2022 6 min read

Here's how to ensure your book reaches a wide audience, whether you're self- or traditionally published.
Read More
4 Writing Tips from a Published Author
4 Writing Tips from a Published Author

May 10, 2022 6 min read

How do you make it as a writer? Here's what a two-times HarperCollins author has to say.
Read More
5 Tips for Getting Your Foot in the Door as a Kid Lit Writer
5 Tips for Getting Your Foot in the Door as a Kid Lit Writer

May 09, 2022 4 min read 1 Comment

Becoming an accomplished kid lit writer takes more than just writing sweet stories for youngsters. Here's how to find success.
Read More