This is the first stage of any research project. You need to put together a research plan so you have time to fit in everything you need to do before your deadline. If you’re a prolific writer like me (I’m writing a book every two months) then you need to get this research done fast, but you also got to get it right, so this stage is super important.
You need to:
I like to talk to people with lived experience, and I prefer to speak to friends or friends-of-friends, so I usually start by throwing a note up on Facebook and ask people to hook me up with someone who can help. I’ve found so many amazing and helpful peeps that way. There are also networks of people who work as sensitivity readers, such as Writing In The Margins.
In the beginning, you probably don’t know much about what you need to know, so you need to do some reading to figure out… what you want to know.
For me, exploratory research is happening all the time as I see and learn and read and watch new things. It also happens from the time I get an inkling of an idea for plot or character. It’s the research you do when you decide you’ll be writing a heroine with an amputation but you don’t know what that means or what it looks like.
You need general background knowledge about your subject. For this stage ONLY, Wikipedia or other general knowledge websites or books are a good place to begin. It will give you a basic overview of what you need to know. Then, you can dive into tangents that interest you, find unique books (I love biographies and interesting history books) and also look for academic essays and papers. This is also a time when I like to throw up a question on Facebook. “Hey, I’m researching Slavic mythology and being bisexual. Does anyone have any books or documentaries they can recommend to me?” I get LOTS of cool responses.
NARROWING YOUR FOCUS
As you research, you’ll begin to put your ideas together and your story and characters will start to emerge in your mind. It’s around this time you’ll start developing certain questions and lines of research you need to pursue. As well as looking in the same places for more specific research, you will need to:
Now you get to put your research together and put words on the page. It’s a little scary, but also heaps of fun!
When writing, try not to let details hold you up. As you write you’ll no doubt come up with many more research questions along the way. When I was writing Wedding the Wolf, I realised during one scene that I didn’t actually know how a person put on/took off a prosthetic limb. When I’m in the flow of writing I leave a gap in the text and a note about what I need to know, so I can come back and add the details later.
My work isn't perfect
When I write characters from cultures I’m not familiar with or with disabilities I don’t possess myself, I usually ask someone within my network (possibly one of my original sources) to have a read over the story and make sure I haven’t made any glaring mistakes. Usually, their feedback is positive – thanks to all the research I’ve done – but they will add one or two interesting details that add depth to the story.
Even if you conduct extensive research and write a compelling story, you may still end up with readers accusing you of getting things ‘wrong.’ Many people have a high personal stake in certain types of stories or certain characters because of their own lived experiences. They may take offence to your portrayal of a character even if you’ve worked hard to create something that doesn’t conform to harmful stereotypes.
They have every right to do so, and you shouldn’t get angry or try and stop them. Readers are complex people and every one of them will have their own reaction to a book. The best thing you can do is remember that they don’t speak for everyone, focus on what you’ve achieved that you’re proud of, and learn and listen so you can improve in the future.
I believe that even if experiences aren’t universal, emotions are. Guilt, pain, humiliation, rage, love, regret, devotion – these are universal to the human condition. By rooting a character in these universal emotions, you can create someone who appeals to a wide range of readers, even though the character’s experiences are vastly different from their own.
I also believe it’s the duty of writers who believe in the importance of diversity to lift up diverse voices and help marginalised writers to be heard. As well as creating your own cast of diverse characters, you should help your audience be aware of books by diverse writers who deserve to be heard. Doing these two things with earnestness and grace helps to create an inclusive book community where everyone has the chance to be the hero of their favourite story.