Novels and Research: An Oxymoron?

Writing a nonfiction book requires a tremendous amount of research, but what about novels? Surely you don’t need to do any research for those. You’re just making everything up as you go along, right?

Wrong.

Even though novels feature invented characters and situations, most contain characters with real jobs in real locations with real references to pop culture and geography and products and businesses. Details matter. It’s important to keep the reader immersed in the world you’ve created, but factual errors might yank the reader right out of the story. Worse, they might even make the reader set your book aside.

Below are a few examples of the kinds of details to keep in mind while constructing your fictional—yet realistic—world.

If your story takes place in a real town, it’s usually best to use the actual names of streets, restaurants, landmarks, and the like, but you can always make up names as long as they don’t exist in another city, which might be confusing or appear incorrect. Verify where stores and other businesses are located and mention them accordingly. For instance, your characters can’t stop at an In-N-Out in Vermont or an IKEA in Montana.

Sometimes aspects of your characters’ jobs play an important role in the story. If your protagonist is a cop, you probably need to find out certain procedures he must follow. It’s usually unnecessary to explain most details of his job, but you should portray a reasonably accurate picture of it.

If your characters drive across the country or even across town, make sure it takes a realistic amount of time and the roads they use are correct. It’s also necessary to keep track of time zones and other timing and location issues when they cross state lines or leave the country. Avoid errors like a character flying from Chicago to Dublin on an airline that doesn’t travel that route.

Be aware of happenings in pop culture and when products were introduced. A character can’t use an iPhone before it was invented or listen to a song that hasn’t been released yet. Even if your book is set in present day, you might still need to double-check these references in flashbacks or memories.

In historical novels pay extra attention to realistic dialogue, when things were invented, and historical accuracy. Let’s say you’re writing a book set in 1900. Your protagonist can’t reference the Golden Gate Bridge or offer her child an Oreo. That’s because construction of the bridge began in 1933 and Oreos debuted in 1912. And be sure to check the dictionary for when words and phrases were coined. You just might be surprised.

Of course, most of this research can easily be done online. So if you’re counting on a trip to Hawaii to research your novel, you’ll probably need to come up with another excuse. But, hey, when you start collecting all these unusual facts, at least you’ll be unbeatable at trivia games.

 

—The Editors

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