Researching novels-before writing first drafts or as you write?

I am often asked how I research my novels. I know that some writers prefer to do all their research up front before they begin writing the novel but I like to do some basic research when the idea for the novel occurs to me and while I flesh out an outline plot, and then start writing the first draft, while the research is incomplete.


Why this way? Because once I have the basics of the plot, characters and research I can’t wait to start the creative writing process with an urge to complete it as quickly as possible. In fact, I often wish I could brain dump straight on to the computer without having to touch the keyboard. I then continue the research process as I write. On the first draft I often don’t know the ending or even ‘who done it’ because the whole novel doesn’t come alive until Inspector Horton starts investigating and gets into all sorts of trouble as a result. Or if it’s a thriller like In Cold Daylight or In For The Kill, until something happens to my main character, the hero, which takes his life in a new and often dangerous direction.


As I create the characters, and the plot begins to fill out, it throws up more questions which need to be answered by research. So while I am writing the novel I am also researching it. This research is conducted by talking to experts, consulting the Internet (which is a real boon to writers) relevant books, and, of course, talking to my friends in the police service.


I enjoy the research element of writing a novel, but not as much as I enjoy the creative writing although often I will hit on a piece of research that can take my novel in a whole new and exciting direction. And sometimes stumbling across that one tiny piece of research can open up a whole raft of ideas for more than just the novel I’m working on but will throw up ideas for a new Inspector Horton or a new thriller..

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Comment by Jon Loomis on March 19, 2010 at 7:14am
I do some of both--I like to go to my setting (for this series, Provincetown, MA) and walk around, sit in bars and eavesdrop on conversations, gossip with old friends, get up-to-date on recent events, poke around in the library, the museum and the used bookstore. I also do a fair amount over the phone, especially when I need to sort out the complex mechnics of law enforcement protocol on Cape Cod (local cops investigate minor crimes, State Police do most major crimes, but what about the state Fire Marshal? And who does crime scene investigation?). The internet's a huge help with doing research on the fly--but it's also a big distraction, so a mixed blessing. Generally, except for the first kind, I find doing research a necessary evil--I begrudge the time spent away from actual writing, but when you need to know how things work, you need to know how things work.
Comment by I. J. Parker on March 19, 2010 at 7:00am
I think the danger of too much info getting on the page is really greater when you look up things as you go. I do general research ahead of time and consult my notes as I write. Occasionally, of course, a scene requires some additional checking, but by that time my details are set and I only need a very small bit or just confirmation of what I assumed to be correct.
Comment by Dana King on March 19, 2010 at 2:24am
This makes perfect sense. Writers who do all their research up front sometimes feel compelled to make sure all that research gets on the page. Bad mistake. Much of that information should seep between the lines, lending an aura of authenticity to the writing.

I tend to start stories with knowledge i already have, then research as necessary during and between drafts. I read quite a bit of crime non-fiction to keep updating my general knowledge, and, depending on the story, that's sometimes enough.

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