Research Before You Write The Story

Before The Outline

The first round of research is background material for your story. You may be looking for settings, hidden alleys, a great beach. While an online search, will give you generic information, there’s nothing like going to the place of your story. 
You will discover details that no amount of online searching will offer.

  • what your character(s) know and don’t know
  • route shortcuts that may offer surprises for your action
  • interior details of buildings, rooms, grand halls, and back kitchens

As you meet people and tell them why you are visiting, you’ll be surprised at how people help you with your background research. 

  • They’ll refer you to others You should talk to my neighbor. He was here in the 50s, has a passion for hand weapons, grows herbs, knows all the bars. They will offer details you would never have considered on your own
  • They’ll do research for you, offering magazine articles or websites that address specifics of your story
  • You’ll taste authentic food that is different from the food in your home

Find The Surprises


By Nealmarques – Iphone Camera, CC BY-SA 3.0,

When I went to Ravenna to meet with history scholars at the Ravenna branch of Universitá di Bologna I thought I was on a history search. Between appointments and visiting suggested historical sites, I played the tourist from time to time and wandered. As I was coming home one evening I passed a botanical garden, right in the middle of the city. It was closed.
I returned the next day because I knew that Nikolaos, Argolicus’ lifelong tutor, had a passion and deep knowledge of plants. Aside from keeping Argolicus on a rigorous schedule of Greek language practice and basic fighting skills, his knowledge of plants was part of his character. 
When I returned to the gardens Erboristeria dell’Orto Botanico I took photographs of the plants as a store of knowledge of plants native to Italy. 
At the time, I had no idea how these would come to play in the stories, but I knew I could use them as a reference.  When I started writing The Peach Widow   I knew that Nikolaos and his knowledge would play a key role. On my original trip to the botanical garden, I was concentrating on edible plants but in this story it was his knowledge of poisonous plants that provides a plot twist.
Nikolaos’ expertise comes to play in The Vellum Scribe, another Argolicus mystery and a current work in progress, but for a different reason. Argolicus’ uncle Wiliarit creates books. He arrives for a visit to enlist Nikolaos expertise in finding plants to use in his illustrated encyclopedia. 

“Enough,” he said, rescuing his pride. “Let’s eat.”
He heard a squeal and then laughter from his mother on the other side of the villa. He dropped his sword and ran. Nikolaos ran behind him still carrying his practice sword.
In the entry, his mother was lost in the hug of a huge man draped in brown robes. Behind him, a carter was unloading several wooden boxes, placing each one carefully on the ground.  
“Uncle,” Argolicus cried in Their Language. His face broke out in a spontaneous smile.
The big man turned. “Argolicus. The Father and the Son together!”
“Worship and glorify,” Argolicus responded. “Uncle Wiliarit, where have you been this time?” He embraced his uncle who reciprocated in a hearty hug, squeezing him into the large chest.
Wiliarit continued in the language of The People, “I’ve been in Constantinople working on a commission. But now I’m here to finish and I’m hoping Nikolaos will help.”
Nikolaos heard his name and came closer, still clutching the practice sword. Beside keeping Argolicus in practice with arms, he was an excellent grammarian and had taught Argolicus Greek since childhood. But, his language skills stopped at the tongue of King Theoderic and his people.
“Nikolaos?” Argolicus replied.
“Yes, he knows much about plants and herbs. I’m hoping he can point out some live specimens for illustrations. What I have now as a source are drawings in another manuscript. I want this one to be as excellent as possible. It is quite a large commission.”

Gather Details

The aim of first research is to discover background and details that will enrich the story for your readers. You are in discovery mode. Find details to store away. For beginning writers, gather as much as possible but know that 80% of your research will not show up in your story. The reverse of this that when you want a detail, you will have material to enliven your characters and enrich scenes. 

Know When Enough is Enough

Original research at the beginning gives you a grand overview. As you write, you will discover that with all the research you’ve done, in the middle of a scene you need one more pertinent detail. ​ 
A good rule of thumb for knowing when to stop research activities and plan the story is when you can talk to a friend about your background information comfortably without notes. Then it’s time to stop and move on to story.

​Zara Altair

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