Research. Why writers need it and how to get paid to do it

Ask a reader of fiction or non-fiction if quality research is important in a written piece of work, and you’re sure to get a resounding yes! Author Debbie Terranova explains why research is important and what it adds to a story.

Why is research important for writers?

Whether you are into fiction or non-fiction, research should be part of the writing process. Love it or hate it, good research grounds a story and boosts your credibility as a writer. 

As a reader, how do you feel when something about a novel—the location, the fashion, the dialogue, or reference to an historical event—does not quite ring true? When a writer tries to ‘wing it’ or is lazy about facts, readers are disappointed. 

Lee, a Goodreads reviewer, wrote about a recent-release WW2 fiction/romance: ‘WW2 (and post WW2) is my favourite historical time period for books, but I didn’t think this worked due to a lot of the language and actions of the characters being way more modern than they should for the time.’

For historical fiction, such as Enemies within these Shores, I spend more time researching than I do writing and editing. For me, research is a magical discovery tour of people and places and the past. The trick is to know when to stop.

How do you research for fiction?

There is a three-stage process that works well for me: exploration, focussing in, consolidation.

Exploration: Starting with a broad idea, jump online and go where the links take you (within reason and the law). My favourite websites are Trove for old newspapers, National Archives of Australia (NAA) for government records, Wikipedia for general information and leads. Note: use all with caution; what is written is not necessarily true or accurate. Libraries and museums are wonderful places for physical artefacts and inspiration. If you visit an historical museum, take time to talk with the volunteers, who are usually walking encyclopaedias about the collection.

Focussing-in: At some point, draw a ring around the areas of interest and put aside all the other fascinating titbits that you stumbled across. Ringfencing is important, otherwise you might be tempted to continue the tour of discovery and never come to the writing desk. Focussing-in means the approach to your topic will switch from broad-brush to deep-dive. For me, a fellowship offered by the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) came to the rescue. My proposal was to research the arrest and incarceration of 89 Queensland migrant women who were so-called ‘threats to national security’ during WW2. My fellowship enabled me to travel to relevant sites and record interviews, as well as giving me access to the rich resources of the SLQ and the John Oxley Library.

Consolidation: Story and characters are the first considerations of any novel. Your research may have uncovered stories that are true, which you can retell using fictitious characters. This is how I approached a true story of wartime internment in Enemies within these Shores. Alternately you can use historical people in a fictitious story, as in Kate Grenville’s new release about Mrs John Macarthur: A Room Made of Leaves. When it comes to the writing, you will need to check and recheck facts, so it is important to file your research material in an order that is logical to you. I use a combination of manilla folders and electronic files, all appropriately labelled. As a visual person, I surround myself with photos. You may also need to revisit certain sources as your novel takes shape. Tip: keep relevant website links handy.

True stories about real people may be written as biography/autobiography, narrative non-fiction, or memoir. Works of non-fiction must withstand greater scrutiny than fiction, so make sure the references are sound enough to support your claims. Referencing can be a tedious activity. If you add footnotes as you go, you will save yourself weeks of backtracking.

How do you get paid to do research?

Many institutions in Australia offer grants or paid fellowships for research. Just do a Google search to find them. Most are targeted to a particular field of study, e.g. wartime history, or a particular type of applicant, e.g. young people, and are highly competitive. If you find one of interest, make sure you read the guidelines thoroughly and follow the application process to the letter.

What are you working on now?

My upcoming novel, The Bootmaker of Berlin (to be released in 2021), is based on research from the SLQ fellowship. The WW2 historical fiction is about loss, hope, and self-discovery in a barbed-wire internment camp in Victoria. 

If you’d like to learn more about Debbie Terranova the author, click here.

If you’d like to read Debbie’s books you can do so by clicking on the following links: Baby Farm or Enemies Within These Shores.

Debbie loves hearing from her readers and those passionate about writing historical fiction. Visit her website here or write to her at  terranovapublications@gmail.com.

Want more historical Australian fiction? Then you might also like to read this classic Cane Cutter by Davide A. Cottone.

Front cover of CaneCutter by Davide A. Cottone.

Silvana Nagl

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