The Deep Dive: Research

Research has always been a favorite part of the writing process for me. This is no surprise to friends and family. I’m the type of person who actually enjoys reading the educational plaques in a zoo or museum. I was the kid who spent summer between 8th and 9th grades reading most of an encyclopedia. Total nerd for knowledge here.

So it doesn’t take much to go down the rabbit hole. What starts out as a five-minute Google search on 1930s fashion can turn into a day-long intensive on fabric, music, film stars, and culture and, more important, how all those things related to fashion back in the day.

If this sounds like a lot, it is. But I’ve never regretted a minute of research, because all that extra detail does much more than build the world (which is important) or boost sensory detail in the manuscript (also very important). Taking a deep dive with research always helps me craft an authentic voice, because all those little details help create a richer history for the character. It gives them the freedom to move through a world in full color.

To get closer to your characters, to slip into their lives, readers need everything in your book to express personality and how each character interacts with the world around them. A 1939 wedding dress can be so much more than a physical description for the reader to see. Perhaps it’s the way a particular type of velvet floats over the skin. Maybe it’s how the cut of a sleeve reminds that character of a dress they saw in a favorite film.

The same goes for describing food, or cooking. If your character is making pasta sauce, research is more than finding an award-winning recipe, or the technical process, or the taste and smell of the ingredients. Enough research can help you link a particular recipe to your character’s childhood or help her cook in a way that makes it clear she’s prepping for a grand seduction.

Researching fashion and food are easy examples, but the rule holds true for cars, architecture, music, the landscape, current and historical events, and just about everything else in the worlds we build in our writing.

Research is easier than ever, so take a deep dive

I remember the days when research meant writing dozens of letters and digging in at the university library. Fortunately, the Internet has made all sorts of research easy and accessible.

My current WIP is a Supernatural that takes place in Arizona and along the Ligurian Coast in Italy. Arizona is easy; I’ve lived here half my life. But I’ve never lived in Italy or overseas. (A good portion of my family does, so that makes primary research easy. They’re a brilliant source, particularly on local customs, recipes, and language.) But there are YouTube videos that give guided tours of landmarks and museums, real estate sites to help set any scene in the house or apartment building or retail space of your choice, Google maps that let a character walk down a particular road into town, and endless listings of material objects (current and antique) on Etsy and eBay, all with lovely descriptions and photos that help the world come alive for the reader. Most libraries and museums are online now, making research even easier in the age of Covid.

How much is too much?

I’m probaby the wrong person to ask since I love it so much. But if I’ve gone more than a couple days without writing, then I stop the research and bang out at least a few pages.

Other than that, I give myself free rein.

How do you take a deep dive into research? If you have a minute, let me know in the comments below.