Guest Blog by Naomi Wark, author of historical fiction, Wildflowers in Winter and Songs of Spring. Naomi’s work has earned awards for her attention to detail and storytelling abilities. Learn how to research to write better by reading her guest blog on adding realism to your story.
Add Verisimilitude to Your Story Through Research
As a writer, you have spent untold hours honing your craft, developing your story, and putting your words to paper. You know how you want your story told better than anyone else. Therefore you can write whatever you want. It’s your story. While this is true, there is a caveat. You must research to write better if you want someone to read your story and believe it. It must have verisimilitude.
So, what is verisimilitude? It’s a true-to-life feeling that a story can have.
How do you achieve this? Through research. Whether you’re writing historical fiction, fantasy, romance, or science fiction, your story needs to have enough detail to give it a feel of authenticity. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened. They just need to believe it could have happened. Your goal as an author is to invent a tale that didn’t happen, but drape it in a framework of real-life facts.
How, what, and to what degree you research, are governed by genre and the target audience of your story. Is it YA, saga, thriller, romance, or sci-fi? A light romance does not require the level of details of historical fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy both require in-depth immersion into their created worlds. Twisting known scientific facts or getting history or current affairs wrong destroys all validity to your book.
The best research begins with primary sources or first-hand knowledge that give you direct access to the information you are after.
Details from where you have lived or visited add a realistic visual picture. Describe and name a few local businesses. Google maps is a great resource for identifying businesses in an area. Even fictional places will become more real and help transport the reader to your location. What is the scenery like? Are there sidewalks and trees? If it’s a city versus a country setting the houses will look different. Describe the architecture. What are the sounds, the smells, and the demographics? If you can’t visit the location your story takes place, or if it doesn’t exist, find an experience that will add realism to your location, characters, and culture. Visit a museum. See up close the clothing, the artifacts, the homes you imagine. Study artwork from the country or the period relating to your book. Visit a restaurant. Soak in the tastes and aromas of your location.
The Star Trek series has not only survived over fifty-five years but thrived. Mr. Roddenberry never flew a starship or visited “strange new worlds,” but he did fly fighter jets during World War II. Even as a youth, JRR Tolkien began imagining his fantasy worlds. A hike in the Swiss Alps as a young adult directly inspired a scene from Lord of the Rings and Bilbo’s journey across the Misty Mountains. Jean Auel did extensive library research on the Ice Age and even took a survival class before sitting down to write her Earth’s Children novels set in prehistoric Europe. All these well-known world builders drew on personal experiences to create realistic fictional worlds for their readers and viewers.
Interviews and Subject Matter Experts
Interview people who are familiar with the location or profession you are researching. Get to know your local tour operator, attend travel talks, and speak with professionals involved in your topic. Prepare your questions in advance. If you can’t interview in person, make a phone call.
Memoirs, Diaries, Literature
Read other content written during the period and about your real or imagined world.
Reading words written at the time your story takes place gives the author and the reader insight into the attitudes of the time, the language, the idioms, the customs, including foods, mannerisms, hints of everyday life, and social attitudes. Remember, you are building a world for your readers, not simply describing a place. Check out relevant issues of National Geographic to explore different cultures and places. My own discovery of old diaries from a family member helped inspire two novels.
Move to secondary sources, the sources of information that attempt to interpret the primary sources.
- Read biographies and interviews with persons who have knowledge of the time but were not there.
- Watch documentaries.
- Read books about the time and place.
- Study old maps, paintings, vintage magazines, cookbooks, old movies, old music
The internet is a wealth of information, just don’t let it be your sole source of reference. Draw your research from trustworthy sites such as governmental, historical, conservation, and academic organizations. I was able to use the internet to find old maps that identified what neighborhoods were around in early 1900s, and where trolleys and railroads ran.
And don’t forget U-tube. Anything can be found on u-tube. E.g. Lungs collapse from a bullet wound, how would a medic treat that? Found on U-tube.
Research to write better and improve how you portray your characters, their dialogue, fashions, as well as their setting. Whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. Norms, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations vary depending on the era and position in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as a writer is to find sources that will reveal the people you are writing about whether in the real world or your fictional world. Remember that people from other historical periods thought very differently from today’s readers. Your reader needs to be able to relate to your characters. If they sound too outdated, your readers may become distracted. Your dialogue or dialect should fit both the character, the setting, and the period of your story.
Organizing Your Research to Write Realistically
One final note. As you conduct your research, find a method of organization that works for you. Your efforts are useless if you can’t retrieve it when you need it.
Pinterest is useful for pinning photos of fashions, locations, links to old songs, old city maps, and other documents. Pick what works best for your needs. Use a physical folder or binder, divided into sections, or a digital research folder, such as Scrivener, divided into sub-folders for each section of research. These programs are great for storing information. Whichever method of research storage you choose, ensure it is easily navigable and accessible.
Research to your heart’s content, but remember, not everything needs to end up on the page. New writers sometimes mistakenly believe extensive research will make for a better story. Readers don’t want to be spoon-fed every single piece of information. Research is meant to add information subtly. Weave details into your story sparingly, and help create a sense of verisimilitude that takes your story to the next level.
Meet the Author
Naomi Wark discovered old diaries dating back to the early 1900, written by a family member. They inspired Naomi’s first two novels, Wildflowers in Winter, and Songs of Spring. The diaries offered an invaluable resource into the life of a young woman who lived during the time.
Naomi holds a certificate in Commercial Fiction from the University of Washington. She is a member of the Skagit Valley Writer’s League, EPIC Group Writers, and Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association. Different excerpts from Songs of Spring won second and third place awards with different contests.
Read more about Naomi Wark and check out her novels.
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