How Much Should I Research for My Story?

How Much Should I Research

Every now and again, I ask my followers on Instagram for blog post ideas—not only does it help me when my inspiration is running low, but it helps me know what my fellow writers would like to see addressed. Well, today’s topic is one such suggested question: how much should you research for your story? The short answer is “I don’t know.” It’s very hard to quantify how much worldbuilding any author, much less story, needs. You’ll also get different answers depending upon who you ask; someone like me who loves worldbuilding will likely encourage you to do lots of research, while an author who focuses more on small-scale (micro-first) stories might tell you it doesn’t matter. However, that aside, I do have 2 tips that should help if you’re debating if you really need to read a book about 1500s England or spend half the day learning about space travel.

The most important question you should ask as you endeavor some story-related research is: what do I have to know in order to make this story work? To break that question down more, you need to determine what aspects of the story world interact with your characters and plot most, then invest your energy into having a mastery over them. Usually, developing the core worldbuilding elements connects to other, smaller, supporting elements that you can then devote time to researching once the main skeleton of the world is assembled—but, ultimately, that skeleton is what matters most. Without it, your story will feel like it’s existing in a void.

Notice that there’s no quantifiable number for elements that make up your worldbuilding “skeleton.” That’s because one story might have one or two, while another may have dozens. The complexity of your worldbuilding skeleton depends upon your story’s genre and your story’s main focus. Also notice that there are no categories given for what type of information you have to research. That’s because each story will require different types of research, even when genre or purpose appear similar.

Here’s an example: say two authors are both creating stories that are sci-fi, set in the future, and involve robots. Author #1 is planning on making a bona fide science fiction epic about AI gone awry on a global scale. Author #2, on the other hand, plans on writing a fun, rom-com-esque tale that happens to be set in a world where robots are an integral part of transportation, economics, travel, and commerce. How differently should these two go about researching? Author #1 probably has a long road ahead of them, filled with technical robotic knowledge on top of politics, economics, war strategy, international relations—the list could go on for eons. If Author #1 doesn’t do their research, it could really show once they actually write. But Author #2 likely doesn’t need very intensive research. They should still read about robotics and make sure their storyworld operates in a way that seems realistic (even if it’s not real), and they may need to do some dabbling in commerce and transportation to make sure small, logistical details are consistent, but their story isn’t about the “sci-fi-ness” as much as the humor and romance and characters. Thus, their focus needs to first be on making those elements shine, and the details about robotics will fill in as they go. Author #1’s focus is the world, and their characters, plot, and prose will fill in as they go once they have a strong grasp on how their evil AI works. In other words, you need to evaluate your story and determine—perhaps even rank—what’s most important for you to convey your vision in a meaningful way.

A second, related point that brings the first into balance is that authors always need to know more about their story and storyworld than readers ever will. That extra research is not wasted time or information! There’s a common saying (often wrongly attributed to Einstein) that goes something like “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t truly understand it.” This certainly applies when it comes to writing. You need to know the details of how your world works so that your writing reflects that level of mastery, even if you don’t go on to explain all the details of what you know. A huge part of believability—especially when it comes to otherworldly genres—comes from feeling that the author knows what they’re doing. And the only way you’ll know what you’re doing is to put in the time to research and develop your story.

The answer to this question, then, lies in the tension between these points. You have to balance the bare minimum necessary with the need to obtain mastery. Determining the right balance for your story and your writing style is something only you can know—sometimes intuitively, sometimes through experimenting, sometimes through necessity. List what genre or genres in which your story can be categorized. Determine if the setting will be small, medium, or large (the bigger the setting, the more research and worldbuilding you’ll need). Ask yourself what main themes or tropes are crucial to your story, and then formulate ways in which you can achieve them. And, most of all, don’t stress about it! Research is almost always an ongoing part of the writing process—you can think you know everything about your storyworld, then go to write an important scene and realize that you have no idea how taxes work for the city where your characters live or what type of food people would eat for breakfast or how long it’d actually take for a character to recover from injuries. Even the most research-loving writers among us aren’t immune to missing important information! Finding the tension for your story is a matter of constant tweaking, in the same way that mastery of anything requires continual practice. One more reason to be thankful for editing and internet search engines, no?

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