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January 23, 2013

Lissa Bryan: Writing a Well-Researched Novel

Unless you are writing a novel set in your modern-day hometown, chances are, you’ll need to do at least some research. One of the great things about being a writer in the modern age is that the internet has made this aspect of writing so much easier.

A good place to start is by finding writers’ groups online for your particular genre.Often, they have discussion boards where you can ask a question if you are stuck or need some advice. They might be able to steer you to historians or other professionals who can answer your questions. Something else you might find helpful is doing a search for novels in your genre and the common complaints about inaccuracies. This can help you avoid the same pitfalls.

My latest novel, The End of All Things, starts out in Juneau, Alaska and the characters travel from there to the southern United States. I’ve never been to many of the places mentioned in the story, but I wanted to be as accurate as possible in my descriptions. A friend of mine suggested I research the route with Google Maps. I’d used it before for getting driving directions, but I never realized
Available Jan. 24, 2013
just how many helpful features it had. Not only do they have excellent maps for both driving and walking, you can also trace the route in 3-D, and view photographs of the locations. I was able to describe what my characters would see along the road as they traveled, and add details such as whether they were going uphill or downhill. I took virtual “walks” through cities right beside my characters.

I was also able to find vacation photos and travel diaries that were amazingly helpful. Just with a few clicks, I had all the information about a location I could possibly need. My characters stay in a certain motel along the route; I was able to find pictures of one of the rooms, the restaurant next door, even the menu and some of the food items served.

The novel I am working on now is a historical novel, and that presents additional research challenges for a writer. Almost every aspect of life is different, and sometimes it is hard to remember ubiquitous modern conveniences didn’t always exist. (I once read a novel set in the Middle Ages in which one of the characters used a tooth brush.)

I suggest starting with a list of your daily activities and how they would be different during the time period, or the situation, you’re describing. Getting up in the morning, attending to hygiene, dressing, cooking breakfast, travel, listening to music … The internet has articles on the most incredibly esoteric topics, so you’re likely to find the information you need to add little details which will give your story realism.

It is also important that your characters are realistic to the culture in which they were raised. It’s somewhat jarring to see a character espousing 21st century values in a historical setting. Their journey and life lessons can lead them to becoming more sensitive or enlightened, but their beliefs have to make sense within their cultural context.

Above all, have fun with it. You may end up finding something that gives you new ideas. Your story can only benefit from the many interesting, quirky details you’ll uncover.

About the Author:

Lissa Bryan is an astronaut, renowned Kabuki actress, Olympic pole vault gold medalist, Iron Chef champion, and scientist who recently discovered the cure for athlete's foot.... though only in her head. Real life isn't so interesting, which is why she spends most of her time writing.

Her first novel, Ghostwriter, is now available through The Writer's Coffee Shop (which is the least expensive option), Amazon, iTunes, and Kobo. Her second novel, The End of All Things, will be released on January 24, 2013, and is now available for pre-order. Her third novel, tentatively titled Daughter of the Wind and Waves is in-progress.
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