Writing Tools: Research


Another very common question writers ask is, “How much research should I do?”

What you want to do is give the reader a comprehensive flavour of the time or locality you’re writing about. However, this doesn’t mean comprehensively inserting every fact you’ve ever read about said time or place.

A writer might have an in-depth knowledge of, for example, paddle steamers – how they work, when they were invented, where the first route was, variations between those in different countries….

Historic information

However, the reader reading a story that’s, say, a shipboard romance set aboard a paddle steamer in Mississippi – ooh, there’s an idea! –  won’t care about any of that historical or technical accuracy.

So don’t insert great clumps of your research. What your reader is looking for is a flavour of what it’s like on the boat: the sounds, the smells, the passengers, the brass – so the writer inserts enough of that to allow the reader to imagine that she’s actually there.

For a period story (see genres) she’ll want clues that set that period so that she can visualise costume – so you would research that and put in just enough lawn or voile or brocade to give an accurate impression. Gaslights when appropriate. Carriages as against cars, horses as against motorbikes. Steam train or diesel? When did households commonly have fridges?

Background checks

These are the kinds of background facts that can catch out the writer and spoil the enjoyment of the reader if there’s a glaring error. And yes, it’s the magazine’s job to fact check, but it’s the writer’s responsibility, too.

What about places? Can you name real places? Well, not if you’re talking about a village in Somerset and name a particular café that you’ve been to on the corner of Someplace Street and the Square.

But yes if you’re talking about St Paul’s Cathedral, St Pancras Station,  Princes Street Gardens, or Venice’s St Mark’s Square. But you wouldn’t then name a specific café there. You’d invent one and give it a made-up name.


Shirley Blair

Fiction Ed Shirley’s been with the “Friend” since 2007 and calls it her dream job because she gets to read fiction all day every day. Hobbies? Well, that would be reading! She also enjoys writing fiction when she has time, long walks, travel, and watching Scandi thrillers on TV.