A week ago, I realised I only knew about 10% of what I should know about Berber culture – a crucial part of my novel. Suddenly, I felt miserable and clueless. Prior to writing this first draft, I had perused the internet, read countless articles and spent considerable amounts on educational books so how was this possible?
How could I still not have enough information to build an authentic picture of a world so rich and multifaceted with confidence?
The internet has its limits. That’s how.
I’m only an amateur writer but as it is with everything, we learn as we go. So to those of you who are only just starting and to those of you who aren’t, I say… There ARE other ways you can do your research.
In fact, here’s 8.
1. The obvious (and easiest) one
That is of course Google. Or whatever search engine it is that you use although frankly, if you don’t use Google, then you’re missing out on their brilliant Google Doodles.
Don’t get me wrong, Google (or the internet in general) is a fantastic source of information. It hosts the most obscure bits of knowledge but for us writers, infinitely curious and irrationally critical, sometimes it just isn’t enough.
2. The underrated one
We don’t read enough magazines. Vogue, Elle or Cosmopolitan don’t count (unless your protagonist is a fashionista and/or into celebrity gossip). We don’t read enough specialised magazines.
More of a science fiction geek? Who says you can’t find inspiration in the real world? The New Scientist is amongst my favourite. For my very few francophone followers, Science & Vie has inspired me on many occasions.
If your story involves travelling, if it is set in a country you have never visited or if your character is a know-it-all tourist guide in the depths of the Amazon Forest (the ifs are endless), you might have heard of the National Geographic? *sarcasm sign* the Lonely Planet have their own printed magazine too.
3. The old school but oh so priceless one
Books (or manuscripts) have been part of our world for a while now. For example, and according to Wikipedia (oh the irony), the oldest known dated Arabic manuscript on paper dates back to 931 AD and is currently kept at the Leiden University Library.
This means centuries, nay, millenniums worth of knowledge that the internet cannot provide in full. Yes, there is Google Books and yes, some books are available as an e-format to read on your screen but that’s the problem: only some. The rest of those books rest inside big, imposing buildings called libraries, waiting for you to snatch them off their shelves.
As some of you may know, I have a favourite here in London. The British Library. But more on that next week.
4. The lazy yet rewarding one
Watch documentaries. Pour yourself a glass of wine if it helps and make yourself comfortable on the couch. With this premise, what is there to complain about?
When I want an Africa fix, I switch to the Discovery channel. When I want to explore the world, any David Attenborough film is bound to leave me speechless. When I want to travel back in time, the History channel rarely disappoints.
5. The personal one
Sometimes, no matter how much information is available to us, there is nothing more powerful than our own experiences. No doubt some of you have heard Mark Twain’s “Write what you know” quote and in many ways, it is true. No book will ever relate your childhood memories, no travel magazine will ever describe the city you grew up in with such candour and emotion. Sometimes, the best research you can do is dive in your memories.
6- The sociable one (and the creepy one)
Talk to your friends. Be friendly to the taxi driver, you never know what stories they might spill out. People watch. Eavesdrop (that’s the creepy one). Ask people questions. Be inquisitive. If you’ve gone too far, you’ll know. But most often than not, you won’t believe how friendly people are.
If there is anything I’ve learnt from 2 years in retail is that a) everyone has a story to tell and b) with a bit of luck, you will strike up a conversation with one of them.
7. The cheeky one
Chances are, someone has already done what you are trying to do. This is valid for those who are writing/editing and those who are looking to publish. If you’re in the first category, read books in the same genre, read books that explore the same themes, read books that have pulled off that first person narrative you’re struggling with…
If you’re in the second category, do your research. Pick books that are similar to yours. Who is their publisher? What does their blurb look like? Who was their agent? Self-publishing? What does their cover look like? Who designed it? Who edited it? I’m not quite (not at all) there yet so that is all advice on publishing I have stumbled upon so far.
8. The unintentional one
You’ll be surprised (or not) at how much your subconscious can come up with. Yes, I am talking about dreams. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are wild. They are bizarre and unusual and they are inspiring. Sometimes, I wish I wrote sci-fi so I could incorporate my dreams into my work. Or maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me I should. Either way, you might want to consider keeping a dream journal. I am yet to start doing so but I’m convinced it will be fruitful so I shall keep you posted.
There you have it. Eight ways to research your novel, only ONE of which is the internet. I hope you’ll find this useful. Do you have a favourite one? Anything I might have missed?