Research: Developing Characters and Assessing Developments in the Genre

I submitted an earlier version of each of these essays for my chapter’s newsletter:

Research: Authenticating our Characters’ Experiences

My interest in research in the writing process stems from my own personal experience. I admit, I’m biased. I used to be an academic in a field where research was paramount. Everything I wrote had to have a strong basis in research before I could tell the story had on my mind. Without research, the story I was telling would not have been credible. As a result of my experience, research is no big deal for me.

Granted our stories are fantasies, but they are based in the human condition as indicated by their time and place. Because of my interest in contemporary romances, my fantasy world is based in what is happening in the here and now.

So I believe research authenticates our characters’ experiences. My character interviews help me get inside their heads to give me a sense of what they are like: their personalities, their worlds, the people they know and connect with. I can only know about them if I do research that firmly grounds me in the world as it exists for them.

They tell me who they are and I find out what they need. As I learn about them, I learn and grow as well.

For example, in a recent case, I did a lot of work doing intense research on a matter that was challenging for me. It was tough emotionally, but I needed to go there, in order to delve into my character’s feelings. What she might have been experiencing.

So I don’t believe there is such a thing as too much research, unless you think research is a time waster! Any research is useful if it helps make our characters seem like real people with experiences that make them who they are. Even if you think the research can’t be used, the knowledge gained from your work matters if it gives you confidence to write your characters well. What can’t be used can be set aside for future use in a different book.

Happy researching!

Reading Within and Across Subgenres: Another Type of Research?

Although I write contemporary romances with sweet and inspirational edges, I read widely across subgenres. In a similar vein, I’m a member of various on-line RWA chapters where I can connect to other writers and not only within the genres that interest me.

When I was at the RWA, I attended a panel held by a group of writers who are experts in a field that provides context for one of my current heroines. One of the panelists gave out copies of her book. Only two of them interested me. What an amazing gift what was! I devoured them in days. Her books could have easily been research for me on the inner workings of her field of expertise, but I realized I didn’t need as much information as she had, and that was fine. I could enjoy stories about characters similar to my heroine.

I read widely because reading is no longer something I do just for fun. I’m a writer, so I want to know about what is happening in the field, and especially when I read controversial essays, Facebook posts and tweets. I don’t always respond, because the emotional energy required to get involved in those debates would drain me. But I’m aware.

What do I learn then when I read so widely?

I sense the conventions in the subgenres, whether or not I agree with them. I learn what editors and publishers want to see when they sign and promote the authors in their catalogues. I see how indie writers are writing independently of that whole process.

But I also believe I become a better writer when I read. Reading another writer’s book, I assess the effectiveness of the editorial process. Did this indie writer have a developmental editor? What about copy editors and proofreaders? Do publishers seem to do a good job on behalf of their writers?

I don’t always leave reviews on Amazon, so I’m more likely to make note of the books I’ve read on Goodreads.

Reading also gives me a chance to explore my own writing. I was never part of the fan fiction movement, but I have heard of it since becoming a romance writer. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist trying to write in the subgenre after finishing a novel I read recently. I really enjoyed it, but similar to other reviewers, I thought the book was too short. Drawing upon my eye for critique based upon the work I’ve done with my developmental editors, I noticed a big gap where the author could have done a better job at developing a scene. I decided to try a rebuild of it. Now this wasn’t something I wrote for public consumption. It was about wanting to try a different style of writing.

As I continue revising and doing line edits of my latest manuscript, I’m thinking more and more of my research–the critiques I’ve developed from assessing the books I have been reading.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.