Digging up background/favourite resources 

So you have a great idea for a novel. You’ve figured out your basic plot points to get you from the Inciting Incident to the climax. How do you fill in the rest, or figure out how to resolve a sticky situation, or make sure you’re getting the details of something right?

Background research may be your saviour.

This type of research is critical for thrillers, mystery novels and speculative fiction, but even if you’re writing one of the fantasy genres, information from various historic and cultural sources can give your writing a richness and authenticity it wouldn’t otherwise have.

I’ve gotten some of my best ideas from my research – if I need to set a scene and want it to feel right, if I’m stumped on how to move forward in a scene or chapter, if I just need to figure out whether one of my ideas would actually be feasible. Although my genre is urban fantasy mixed with science fiction, a lot of my scenes need to be grounded in reality; from there I can freely extrapolate with whatever my imagination comes up with, knowing that I started from a solid base.

Resources are practically limitless, but today I’d like to share one of my personal favourites: the JSTOR Daily newsletter. JSTOR is “a digital library of academic journals, books, and other material”, which sounds pretty dry, but their newsletter brings all kinds of fascinating cultural tidbits to my mailbox every week.

One of this week’s articles is a terrific example: a snapshot of the pearl industry, from all the way back to 5,000 BC, to later enslaved pearl divers, to the invention of cultured pearls and their adoption as a symbol of white privilege, to powerful modern women who are defying and changing that stereotype.

While the article, Pearl Jam, doesn’t include every historical detail, it provides a springboard for taking the idea of a commodity that’s been precious for millennia and fleshing it out into a concept you could use to make your novel so much more interesting.

Take, for example, the tradition of handing down a set of pearls from generation to generation as mentioned in the article. It used to be a thing in the latter part of the 20th century. My mother had a pearl necklace, as well as a mother-of-pearl necklace and earring set, which of course came to me in due time. Neither was my style of jewellery, although I’ve kept them in memory of her. I fell in love with the look of black pearls after watching the movie The Phantom (you’ll have to watch it yourself to see what I mean 😊), and my adorable hubby with fantastic taste gave me a beautiful black pearl pendant one Christmas, followed by matching earrings the next year. Although they’re not the least bit ostentatious, whenever I wear them, someone notices. Such is the power of something with a mystique behind it.

Consider the idea of a commodity that’s so revered that it’s passed on through generations, whether in the same family, or in a guild, or a sect, between women/men/non-gender/intelligent animals…the possibilities are vast. Think of the long history of such a commodity – how has it been acquired, stolen, smuggled, faked, written into wills, hidden in crypts, protected by secret societies, lost to the ages, and on and on and on.

A few tips when doing research:

  • Organize and store it in such a way that you can find it when you need to refer to it
  • I like to highlight the parts that stood out to me the most, even if I’m not sure how I might use them at the moment. When I return to the document, I can scan through easily
  • Research can be like a treasure hunt – don’t get so caught up in it that you neglect your writing. However, when you’re stuck for ideas or just need a break, good research isn’t a waste of time
  • Include images when you come across them; they often contain a lot of relevant detail that you can use to your advantage
  • Either bookmark your source, or include how to find it again in your stored document (the URL, etc.) – you may want to refer to it more than once for additional details once you start fleshing out your idea
  • Follow your gut. There may be other links in your original source that can lead to more good ideas – or not. That’s the nature of research. Not all of it may prove directly useful, but it may help you to eliminate other possibilities, or to narrow your search to one particular facet.

Above all, have fun, both in the research and in adapting it for use in your novel.

There are many ways to find and do research. If you’re interested in JSTOR Daily, the link to the featured article in this blog post also contains a spot to sign up for the newsletter, and if you have a personal favourite among your resources, I’d love to hear about it!

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