Researching for a First Novel: Strive for Simplicity

Write from what you know. Writing your first novel is hard enough without throwing yourself into massive research. Note I said massive. You may or may not do some research, but don’t make it uphill for yourself all the way. I set my book in Montreal, because I lived there for many, many years.

I chose an occupation for my main character that fit the story and her challenges but also that I knew passably. Not expert level but good enough. I also had easy access to the university I used as her work setting. Her mentor teaches at McGill, where I did my degree. Easier than choosing Harvard where I’ve never set foot.

I set it in the present day. Researching a specific period was something I didn’t want to weigh myself down with. I had also already done that for another novel, which is still sitting on my hard drive, in dormancy. Maybe one day, if I can fix their stilted dialogue it’ll become something!

If you set your story in a past century, you will have to do some research. Your story may not refer that much to elements of the times, but for veracity’s sake, for setting, for realism, it will have to at some point. Sooner or later your characters will interact with their setting.  Same for a country or city you have never been visited.

Human Resource

It helps if you have someone who has lived there, has done that job, knows that subject. There are always quirky details that make it real. In my story, my main characters go scuba diving together. Why not parasailing, or jet skiing, or hiking? The setting lends itself to all these. Because my brother is an advanced scuba diver. A short phone call and I had priceless details that aren’t in manuals or would take hours to find online, if at all.

Cathy Reichs character Tempe Brennan moves between South Carolina, where Reichs herself lives and works, and Montreal where she consults. And Tempe is a forensic anthropologist, just like Reichs. Don’t underestimate the resources at your fingertips.

Don’t Overdo It When Writing

Speaking of academics, it’s not a thesis. Try not to get lost in your research. It’s a part of the story, it adds depth and realism. But remember the story is about your characters, and the main ones at that. You don’t have to exhaust the subject to have a feel for it when researching, and don’t try to put it all in your book.

It’s not a lecture. You don’t want to spew all your knowledge back at your readers. You will certainly have more research than you will write. That’s fine. Weave your information into the story. Don’t share all the info in one place. Don’t make it sound like your character is giving a class.

Sprinkle the knowledge, like a spice. Don’t explain everything. Again, you’re not teaching a class. If your readers don’t know what a BCD vest is they’ll look it up or figure it out.

Ultimately, you as the writer decides how much description is needed. The story can focus on the story without any backdrop. That’s a personal choice. For example, you may just mention your characters live in New York. He goes to work at the bank, she stays at home and does freelance advertising photography. No details required. I wrote a short story like that called Pumpkin Macchiato.

It’s About the Story

As I just mentioned, your story is about, well, the story. Be prepared to modify in order to keep it authentic. When I first started my book, I absolutely wanted it set in Boston (don’t ask me why). A city I’d visited only once and don’t live close to. I could have researched. I could have returned. But I realized my story could easily take place in Montreal as well. With a lot more ease.


Other than visiting your setting or talking to someone who is in the know, there are other sources of information. Internet is one, but it is common and accessible to everyone. Meaning there won’t be anything original or uncommon that lends realism. Like those places off the beaten tourist track or the tricks of the trade of a particular job. However the web is the ideal place to find answers to questions that arise while writing.

A library may have rarer sources of information that can be more original. Try to find a person who can give you an insider’s view. Are there classes in your area? Is there a club or organization? Go to the place you are writing about. For example, go to court if you want to write a scene there. Courtrooms are usually public access unless the judge has decreed otherwise.

Field Work

I visited the university where my main character teaches, specifically the Fine Arts Department, and discovered there’s a student run art gallery there, the VAV Gallery. I walked around, trying to see it through the eyes of my character. What would she think? Would she be involved in some way? Or maybe just mention it in passing? I asked a few questions (If I sound assertive I wasn’t, I was so afraid of what response I’d get, but people are very nice, in general and I had a friend along who provided encouragement, read: made me!). Take photos and make notes.

Because I lived in the same city it made it easy. I’d been on this campus before, many times. But not recently and not at that department and not paying attention to details for a book. Not visiting it as my character’s work space. What floor would she be on? Where would her office be? Is there coffee close by?

Online Groups

There are Facebook groups dedicated to answer writer’s questions on particular topics. Legal Fiction and Trauma Fiction are two. Special thanks to Alessadra Torre Inkers, another wonderful resource for authors, for providing that information. See how useful online groups can be?

Artistic Liberty

Artistic liberty allows you to deviated from reality, as in taking one element and set it elsewhere. You can make up a business, a home, any place in a city that exists, mixing imaginative and real. That’s your call as the writer. I set a scene on a Caribbean island I’d vacationed on, but in a house that I’d stayed at on another island. You can do as much or as little as you like.

Don’t Forget The Story

This is my opinion. And there are many out there. But my take on this is that writing a first novel is hard enough. Not getting bogged down in research is one less hurdle to overcome. And there will be research to do, even if you try for the simplest approach.

Ultimately how much or how little research you do is up to you. You can go with what you know and limit the amount of research you’ll have. If you choose a time and a place that are unfamiliar or activities in occupations, you can limit the number of details and consequently adjust the amount of research you want to do. In the end it is completely up to you. Just don’t get too swamped, your book is waiting. Happy writing! Are you on my mailing list? All the latest on my book: release date, cover reveal, special pre-order prices, will be announced there first. Also exclusive content that won’t be shared anywhere else.

In honor of my main character being an artist, we’re giving away art to celebrate! Starting with this 12×12 Dutch Pour style piece.  

Post Image: Carol Malmeida on Pixabay