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Research ROI?

I read an interesting post last week by K.M. Weiland on her Wordplay blog that touched upon a subject I struggle with. Her article, Research: When in Doubt, Make It Up discusses the writer’s responsibility to accurately portray the worlds in their stories and how sometimes it’s necessary to fake what you don’t know. Her take on the topic was fascinating, but it left me with a question that has haunted me from the very first day I sat down to write a book.

How much time, effort, and expense can an unpublished writer afford to devote toward researching details in their novel? Nowadays there is a ton of technical data a keystroke away on-line thanks to Google and Wikipedia, and the local libraries are still a wealthy source of information, but for me the one aspect of writing that is hard to pull out of a book or webpage, is setting. Nothing quite replaces describing a location where you have personally stood. The subtle way the lighting influences your vision, the innocuous sounds and smells that surround you, these are finer points you pick up by actually being in that place. But is it worth it to travel there just to add a touch of realism to your story?

My first novel had settings in Panama City Florida, Atlanta Georgia, Greenville South Carolina, and another small town in SC. I used to live in Atlanta, so I felt I had that covered, but I had never been to the cities in South Carolina and I had only been to Panama City a couple times, many many years ago. What was I to do? I had two choices. Book a costly trip to the cities in question, or do what K.M Weiland suggested…make it up.

If I was already a published author working on my second or third novel, I would have booked the trip. But the word ‘aspiring’ still precedes my label and it’s hard to justify spending money on a dream, no matter how firmly you believe in it. In the back of your mind a piece of you is whispering, “It’s like the old business axiom…you have to spend money to make money.” It’s tempting to believe, but the hard truth is that no matter how much money you spend on research, if your query letter sucks it won’t matter how realistic your story sounds.

Something else the business world teaches us is that there has to be a solid ROI (Return on Investment) before anybody will sink resources into a project. But I don’t think that way, none of us do, we’re writers after all. How much time and effort have we put into our stories already with only a glimmer of hope for publication? Why should research be any different?

What’s your take? How important is research, especially when there is a monetary cost associated?


  1. Regoinal foods are widely available, so with a little Googling and some kitchen experimenting, you could nail that detail. Music evokes moods, so playing local bands as you write could flavor the writing.

  2. Research is huge for me. Even though my characters live in fictional worlds, I still try to base them on reality. I had to learn a lot about pirates and ships and 17th century life to accurately portray it, but I certainly couldn't visit. That what makes us fiction writers. Remember, whatever setting you create, you can also create the rules for. Real places can be limiting that way.

  3. ARe you a louis L'amour fan? If you havn't read any of his work I would suggest the walking drum, because his settings are fantastic and what he does with characters in there- is amazing even if it is hard to get through. If you don't want to travel somewhere (and I agree its not the same if you don't) but you might pick up a book from that place or visit a small reenactment of the time period, example Scotland- I may never travel there but just because I went to a festival I have a better understanding of why their settings were important to kilts. Which will lend credit to my settings and characters if I happen to use it in the future.

  4. I think it's important but it depends on the cost. Writers can't afford to do tons of expensive research for novels but there are a lot of sites out there with people who have done what you want to do, we can always ask them.


  5. I haven't tried to write about a real place in any of my stories. Mine are all made up so I make up the details, too, even though my first drafts are always spare on those.

  6. Well, since I couldn't book a seat on the space shuttle, I had to make up my setting. Fortunately I knew enough about fighter jets for accuracy on that aspect.

  7. I've been to few a different locations around the world, so I usually base a lot of my settings on what I already know. However, for H&G, I've asked people who actually live in Utah to give me details of what the area is like.

    Google maps is usually a good resource, too. Plus, I've been keeping a record of Utah's day-by-day weather so I can have a good idea of what my characters will experience.

    But no more traveling for me. I just can't afford it.

  8. i write fantasy and therefore get to make stuff up all the time!

  9. Research is my least-liked part of the entire process. I generally tend to use fictional places in my works which I base loosely on places I've already been. I can't imagine traveling to different locales - even in the name of research.

  10. You have an excellent point on setting. I tend to stick with settings that are familiar, or at least that should be close enough to somewhere I've been. Then I might make up the central location (Anonymous Town, MN) so I don't need specific details like which corner the Starbucks is on, but at least I'll know the climate, terrain, basic regional info, etc. So far, in almost everything I've written the character is either from, going to, living near Chicago. Good questions--you made me think. I guess I'm following the "maybe someday I'll be able to..." take research trips! :)

  11. I think research is very important. For my current WiP, I thought my MC was a Hospice nurse. Then I met my daughter's friend's mother who is, you guessed it, a Hospice nurse. She agreed to indulge me in an interview. I spent two hours with her and her colleague, learning the ins and outs of a day in the life of a H.N. By the end, I had gathered important information and logged in a notebook the things I saw, smelled, heard. And I realized my MC couldn't be a Hospice nurse. She was too young, too inexperienced. I could have changed the character, but instead I took her arc down a new road. The story's better now, and I wouldn't have realized all my errors had I not done the field research.

    I think there's great merit in the old adage, "Write what you know." And then I'd add KM's opinion: Fake the rest. (Knowing there are possible consequences, should we get it wrong.)

    Great post, as always!
    ((hugs)) Nicole

  12. In today's world you can Google almost anything, and when that doesn't really give you a "feel" for things like setting, there's usually someone on the blogosphere who you can chat with. Since I'm unpublished I tend to focus more on developing my writing and researching what I can online, but not killing myself over it.

  13. I agree with Falen. :) Fantasy is the way to go!

    But for my realistic fiction, I stuck with the places I knew. I can't afford to travel either and until I sell my first blockbuster, I'll be setting my books in Boise, Northern Kentucky and Graham, NC!

    Give yourself some latitude though. People who live in a state probably haven't been to every city, so as long as the basic details are right (lots of vegetation, humidity, bugs for South Carolina), the town & people details will slide.

  14. I agree - setting is impossible to BS! A large part of my fantasy novel takes place at sea, and I've never been out to sea. I've read about it, but if I only recycle other people's information then it's not really my writing. I might notice something no one's ever noticed at sea or describe it in a totally different way based on my life experiences. But how does one book a sea voyage? And more importantly, how does an aspiring writer who also happens to be a broke college student FINANCE a sea voyage?

    Sometimes I wish I'd gone into farming.

  15. I currently write epic fantasy, and nobody knows my world better than I do.

    However . . .

    There are other stories I've considered or started to write that are set on Earth. I haven't spent much time in some of the places I've considered, and this gives me pause. Being that funds are low and I must work with what I have, I research online and do the best I can.

  16. I write some fantasy and some not, but I really think that the need for research depends on writing style and plot. If the location is the equivalent of a character, then the facts/details should be there. But if your writing style is more plot driven, and the setting is passing by from the inside of a moving car, then knowing too many facts (that you then want to include... because you researched them so much) can get in the way of the forward momentum.

  17. Research is very important to me! I am willing to pay out a little to get things right. There is kind of a line I define for myself monetarily, but I did some onsite research for my current wip and it was so essential, I can't imagine what my book would be without it!

  18. I wiki and google a lot for my research, but when you wrote about describing worlds and how it is easier to have physically stood in a place I thought about how I've used places I've been to compare places I haven't or couldn't have been. Prairie fields in KS, castles in Germany have helped me build pictures of places I can't go. In my last manuscript I combined two schools I worked in to make a new one for the setting. I used the classroom and hall layout from one and the office layout from the other to give myself a framework. So I think a combo of both skills (fiction and research) are what is needed. If it makes more sense to go there or somewhere similar then do, if it makes more sense to google earth it, then do that.

  19. that KM post rang a bell w/me, too. Mostly b/c WIP3 is a bit "historic." I've been able to find most of the major stuff w/Google & Wiki, but I think so long as it's not MAJOR history, it's OK to fudge... right? I mean this is fiction after all. :D

  20. Guess I was lucky that I'd visited Greenville, SC on several business trips - I knew it well enough to make it the home base for my series. I did fudge on Atlanta, though. Didn't visit there until afterwards. However, there's enough on the Internet, and Google Earth, that I think I did okay.

  21. Hi,

    First off, if your writing in the "now" you have Google Earth where you can do the virtual walk down a street and actually look at the frontal facades of buildings etc, so even if you've never been to places in your WIP you can get a feel for them. Plus you can do a tourist hop through online web cams!

    If however you're writing a historical, yeah it sounds easier but it isn't. Take London UK, or any other big city in the UK, say in the 50s. Then the East End of London hadn't changed a great deal from that of Dicken's day, but now it's unrecognisable and absolutely nothing like the soap "Eastenders".

    Notting Hill (remember the movie with Hugh Grant) it's a terribly expensive area to live these days, in the 70/80s it was a black ghetto virtually NO GO for whites!

    The other thing with historical novels is getting facts right on clothes/food/drink = available fabrics, meals eaten and liquid whether brewed, distilled, or fermented. Yeah, lot of research needed for perhaps a few things of relevance in a historical. ;)


  22. I always say that fiction means you get to make stuff up.
    Also, so much of America is suburban blandness that you can have your character visit a location without having to fudge many of the details. But it ultimately depends on how important setting really is to your story.

  23. I tend to side with the "if you don't know, make it up" philosophy. Most of us are intelligent enough to be fairly close to the truth, or at least believable. I haven't been able to talk my hubby into financing a conference yet - chances of a research trip are about zippo! :-)

  24. Research is essential but, not necessarily, physically going there.
    Even when I have researched actual details, I have no problem bending the truth.

  25. We write fiction. That means it's okay to make stuff up. But if I had the money I'd love to travel for research purposes. :)

  26. I don't research at all during a first draft. Mind you, I tend to keep my settings local, so that part's okay... but I also write a little about police/investigative procedures, so at some point I have look that stuff up. I usually do a lot of research during the revision process.

  27. I enjoy research of the free kind :) I would love to be able to fly and visit cities - but money is not readily available. I get to change London a bit for my Steampunk setting which helps though!

  28. I'm with Jemi! I enjoy research of the free kind!

    Honestly though, I'm usually a make-it-upper (you heard it!) or I choose locations I know well.

    I spend enough time in front of the computer as is--having a full time job and writing as a side hobby--that more time researching would suck the fun out of it!

    What a great subject...look how different we all are! Cool!

  29. I've struggled with the same thing. Internet and library research can become so time consuming. I can see a good argument for just coming up with imaginary places and details that are basically hybrid composites of what you do know. Then you can manipulate every to your whim without having to worry about being called on accuracy.

    Tossing It Out

  30. This is not only a great topic but a very important one. I've wondered these same things myself. I spent a lot of research for the setting, during my 2nd novel. And in writing this 3rd one, I've had to do some research or maybe you'd call it 'surfing'. The book has some snippets of mythology but mainly angels and such. I want an accurate depiction but I also want to exercise my creative license.

    The whole process fascinates me, not to mention is teaching me a ton.

  31. Research is good but if it's financially taxing, I think imagination can be a close second. It's true that settings may not be as realistic if the author has never been to where he/she is writing about, but Google images (and maybe a phone call to a friend or relative who has visited those areas) can do wonders!

  32. Thanks for the link! As you probably already figured out, I'm of the school of thought that there are ways around the necessity of first-hand research. I remember reading about a well-known author (whose name momentarily escapes me) who actually avoided going to the places he wrote about because he felt he could be more objective if he was forced to stand back from the setting. So far (as a result of my own limited budget and my general dislike of traveling), I've only visited the setting of one book. But I've had people compliment me on the verisimilitude of all three of my books (the two published and the one forthcoming). So which is better? Depends how a good a faker you are, I guess. ;)

    BTW, I added a link to this post at the bottom of mine.

  33. Well, if you are doing anything historical, editors and agents are really sticky about your having done your research. But I'm finding that research is fun. And often, the research you can do is to read a novel from the time and place. There it is, all laid out for you: the clothing, the furniture, the trees, the buildings, and what to call everything. There are some nice online historical sites as well. I had a writing teacher who talked about "research rapture", and I really experience at times. It's nothing like those college term papers! :-)

  34. I think its important but not so much.

    For example: I dont consider stephenie meyer a serious writer, but she googled the city of Forks on google maps and that was it. Bang, bestseller. So, I guess that making things up is ok. Nowadays, with tons of info available,the chunk we need to invent is bound to really small if compared to the rest.

  35. I spent a lot of time and money researching the historical aspects of my novel. I visited the Mayan pyramids, talked to experts in the field, read books etc. Then, when I wrote the story, the details I gathered were sprinkled throughout the text. I could have done a few google searches and gathered the same information. Since it's fiction, an author can take artistic license with history. If the writer is a good story teller then the readers may overlook a glitch in the details.

  36. Will ~ That is a great suggestion!

    Matt ~ I almost wish I wrote fantasy for that very reason!

    Summer R ~ That's an excellent example of finding a realistic substitute for actually being there.

    Jaleh ~ :P

    Amanda ~ Then you'd be the farmers daughter...and we won't even go there. There are cruises you can book on smaller vessels that simulate a true ocean voyage, but they're not cheap. *pulls change from pocket* I have .82 cents I can donate toward the cause! :)

    Kelly ~ The small town in South Carolina in my book ended up being modeled after the town where I live, in Arkansas! We make due with what we have!! :)

    clp3333 ~ In my most recent book a high school in Manassas Virgina was modeled from my old HS in North Carolina. I used my HS year book to help me map out the details. :)

    Francine ~ Google Earth ROCKS! And Notting Hill, one of my favorite movies!!!

    Jennifer ~ That sounds backwards, but it also makes sense. Whatever works for you!!

    Kristi ~ Maker-upper!! Classic!!! :)

    Julie ~ I plan on taking advantage of the connections I've made here on the blogosphere for my next novel!!

    K.M. ~ I was going to drop you a note letting you know about my post, but you beat me to it. I don't how good a FAKER I am, but we do what we must for our stories.

    Clara ~ Interesting point. Maybe Stephanie Meyer should have gone on a few research trips herself? :)

  37. My answer to you... Google.

    You can actually view streets as if you were walking on them. I use it all the time to get the description of the place I'm writing about. REally you should try it. It's free on google Maps. Just drag the little thing that looks like a person onto a road and BAM! :)

  38. Thank you for the link to the article!

    Research is, for me, the most daunting part of writing a new novel. As a broke college student, I try to do as much research as I can through the Internet and my university's library -- anything I can't find, I tend to... fictionalize. Which is one of the reasons I try to set my novels closer to home. :)

  39. This is a tough one, and it often makes me decide to change my location to somewhere I've been (or someone I know closely has been so they can help me), or else... yeah. I make it up. ;) BTW, thank you for your comment on my blog, it made me very happy. I hope you enjoyed your football. My team lost. Bummer.

  40. Thanks for sharing this link, but unfortunately it seems to be offline... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

    I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.





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