Keeping on top of that Research ✍ Neil McGowan



Love it or hate it, no matter what you write there's bound to be some element of research involved. In this post, I'll share some of the tools and methods I use.

I write crime and dark fiction, and the old adage of 'write what you know' often comes up wanting. I've never abducted or murdered anyone (honest!), and my involvement in the criminal justice system is limited to working as an instructor in a prison and as a juror. Both gave me fascinating insights that I've filed away for future reference, but there are still a lot of gaps.

This is where the research element comes in: I like to think of research as the glue that joins the gaps and gives a piece of writing some rigidity and authenticity. Writers of non-fiction will know where I'm coming from, as their work is underpinned by solid research. Lots of research…

For fiction writers, though, it's less clear-cut: how much research should you do? There's no definitive answer, as each piece is different, but for me it comes down to this: do I know enough to write about it with confidence?

This is the key. Something I see a lot of in new writers is a propensity to splash every bit of research onto the page, as if to prove they've done their homework. The end result often reads more like a technical instruction manual than a story, and the drive of the story is almost always lost.

You don't need to educate your readers on every little fact you've learned - just enough to support the story; if you've done your research, that confidence will come across to the reader. I remember writing a short story a few years ago that revolved around cannibalism and I'm lucky in that as part of my day job I work with doctors and nurses (who are an endless source of information in my line of writing). I went to a friendly surgeon with a rather long list of questions. I now know far more about it than most people would want to, including the best part of a human to eat and the reasons why.* Did I put that in the story? Nope. But it meant as I was writing, I was confident that the story would hang together, and that confidence came across in the writing.

The other aspect to this is where to keep all the research., and my choice here would be the unsung hero of Microsoft's Office package: OneNote.

If you've never used it before, it can seem a little odd at first. The best way to think of it is as an electronic ring binder: You can add sections, and pages, and sub-pages; just like a real ring binder, these can be moved about and reordered. But it gets so much better. Taken a photo that you think might fit with something you're writing? Drop it into OneNote and drag it to associate it with your notes. If you've taken a photo that includes text, OneNote will let you search and find the text in the image, and also extract it to paste as standalone words. You can even record audio clips and search them!

I'm not a planner, but when it comes to rewriting, I find it helpful to create a timeline for the story in OneNote; it lets me play around with the order of scenes very quickly and easily.

Best of all, the basic version is free and comes with Windows 10 as a bundled app. Give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. Click here for a downloadable set of tips and tricks for working with OneNote.


*The flesh of a female between 18-30, taken from the inner thigh. Every vitamin and mineral you need is there in the correct proportions and already broken down for you…


Eden Baylee said…
Great post Neil, and welcome to AE!

I don't use OneNote, and I'm not sure it's available for Mac, but I love your points about research.

For fiction writers, I think it's possible to become mired in details. I don't believe I need to become an expert on a topic, but I definitely must do enough research to present credible information to move the story forward. Research is fun, but I've fallen down many a rabbit hole digging into different topics!

Not that I intend to engage in cannibalism, but your detail about the inner thigh of a female is both intriguing and disturbing!

Hope you're well,
Neil McGowan said…
Thanks Eden :)

I've tried other similar packages (Evernote, Google Keep, etc) but none of them seem to work as well as OneNote. There is a version for Apple, although I can't vouch for it (I use Linux and run Windows in a VM).
I think you've hit the nail on the head - credibility. You have to be credible when writing about a topic, without it getting too technical. I recently found a handwritten draft of a short story written almost 30 years ago and it was awful - full of details about jets and all the technical aspects of how they worked. At the time I thought people would find it fascinating, but re-reading it showed me just how boring it really was (and I like jets...)
Umberto Tosi said…
I'm a research junkie and have to restrain myself - not from spilling everything I find into my drafts, but from wanting to share fascinating characters and stories I find out there. I keep my notes, especially these gems, separately, well-delineated, sometimes to include if they develop character and plot, but more often, to consider developing on their own later. Mostly, they languish. I can't run OneNote on my system, unfortunately. Thanks for the informative post and welcome to AE!
Neil McGowan said…
Thanks Umberto, it's great to join you all :)

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