Today I am really excited to welcome Colleen Story to my blog for a guest post all about research…
The One Question You Need to Ask When Doing Writing Research
When Suzanne first asked me about the research I did for my newly released non-fiction book, Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, and how it differed from the research I did for my novels, my first thought was, Oh it’s completely different.
But then as I starting looking into it, I thought, Well, maybe not—there actually are a lot of similarities.
In discovering those similarities, I’ve found that no matter what type of writing you’re doing, it’s important to ask one question. The answer will help you determine whether the research will benefit the writing or not.
Health Writing is Researching in its Purest Form
I’ve been researching non-fiction writing for over 20 years. I specialize in health writing. If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, just imagine me writing research papers all day long on things like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, preventative care, alternative treatments, nutrition, and the like.
Sounds about as fun as a root canal, right?
Well, if you’re interested in what you’re researching, it can be fun, and much of the time, I am. Over the years, I’ve gradually expanded into personal growth, motivation, and creativity, which I particularly enjoy, and for which the research can be extremely intriguing.
I’ve written fiction for about the same period of time, but for years, I didn’t research it at all. Looking back, I think I probably avoided it simply to get away from what to me was my “day job” as a freelance writer. Fiction was my time to play and indulge my creative muse—I certainly didn’t want to bring any dry research into it.
When I started writing novels, though, that had to change, at least somewhat.
Gradually, My Fiction Writing Began to Require Some Research
My first novel was a fantasy, so I researched things that appealed to my imagination, like gargoyles, stone sculptures, and ancient myths and legends—all fun stuff that didn’t really seem like “research.” Instead, I was indulging my own sense of curiosity.
You see, in my mind, research is tough. I’m used to regularly reading challenging material that typically goes something like this:
“Most studies agree that the classical pathological criteria for AD, neuritic plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, can account for 40%–70% of the variance in cognition seen in elderly subjects, with additional pathologies such as cerebrovascular disease (Dolan et al. 2010b) and Lewy body pathology (Schneider et al. 2007) working together with AD pathology to account for an additional 20%–30% of dementia cases. (O’Brien and Wong, Annu Rev Neurosci., 2011)”
Not exactly light reading, and this is one of the simpler ones. After a day of it, you’re ready to move onto something else.
So “researching” my fiction has always been restricted to an “as needed” and “for fun” basis. I really didn’t think of it as a key component in my fiction writing—until the last couple years.
Now I’m Researching More for Fiction
I’ve now had two novels published (one fantasy, one literary), and I’m working on a third. This novel has been my most challenging yet, partly because it has required more research than any of the others before it.
This time, I’m having to research a number of things to get them right. To start with, the characters embark on a journey from Iowa to the coast of California, so I had to research that journey. I marked it all out on a map, studied each stopping place extensively online, and even took the actual trip myself so I would know what it’s like. (Read more about that here.)
Yeah, the trip was a kick in many ways, but the research hasn’t stopped there. I’ve had to dig into the physiology of gun wounds, get familiar with various brands of motorcycles and their optimal speeds, study the history and makeup of various landmarks, and create a timeline so I can make sure each leg of the trip makes sense with various characters in play.
In other words, for this book, I can barely write a couple scenes before I have to do more research. That’s made it feel more like work—and more like the research I do for non-fiction.
Writing a Non-Fiction Book is Different than Writing a Non-Fiction Article
When examining the difference between the two, though, there’s one other thing I’ve learned over the years about non-fiction: writing a book is quite different from writing an article.
The difference is subtle. When writing an article or blog post, the main goal is to bring the reader valuable information. For example, “eating cherries helps reduce inflammation and arthritis-related pain.” The goal is to alert the reader to a helpful alternative treatment for her arthritis symptoms.
In a non-fiction book, you also want to bring the reader helpful information, but you have to do more than that. In this example, the goal might be to help an arthritis sufferer to live a higher quality of life.
This requires you put yourself in the reader’s shoes, much like you would put yourself in a character’s shoes in fiction. By doing that, you realize she not only needs good information and new solutions, but a helping hand and an encouraging voice from someone who understands her struggles.
As a non-fiction book writer, you’re more like a coach than a reporter. You want your reader to know she can create positive changes in her life. So your approach as a writer changes somewhat, creating a situation in which your research must also change.
Will this information help my reader reach her goal? How can I present in such a way that it will sound encouraging and motivating?
In other words, the research must serve the “story” you are telling—much as it must in fiction. It’s not enough just to find helpful information. You must find the information that will serve the specific book that you’re writing, and the specific reader you’re writing for.
The One Question a Writer Needs to Ask About Research
In the end, there are more similarities between researching fiction and non-fiction than I thought. Since I’ve realized this, it has helped me create both types of writing with one overarching goal—to serve the reader.
And that has helped me as a writer. To be in a position of service creates a larger sense of purpose, one that brings together all the various types of writing I do under one umbrella.
Will this help the reader? When that question is what propels your research—even if the research is dry—you can’t help but be motivated to get to work.
Boost productivity, improve time management, and restore your sanity while gaining insight into your unique creative nature and what it needs to thrive. Find practical, personalized solutions to help you escape self-doubt and nurture the genius within in Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, available today at Amazon and all major book retailers. Enjoy your FREE chapter here!
Colleen M. Story has worked in the creative writing industry for over twenty years. Her latest release, Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, helps writers and other creative artists escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. Her novels include Loreena’s Gift, a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner. She has authored thousands of articles for publications like Healthline and Women’s Health and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, and cancer. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, and works as a motivational speaker and workshop leader. Find more information on her author website, or follow her on Twitter.
Join me tomorrow for my review of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue.