A text-only version of this article originally appeared on my GoodReads blog on 6/24/09. While I did make some different writing decisions than what I planned back then, I think the advice is still sound. Enjoy!
How much research should you do before writing?
That’s a hard question to answer, to be honest. However, you need to make sure you have the details correct. Your audience may know a lot about your subject matter, even if it’s something that happens in the realm of fiction. For example, in In The Eye of The Beholder: A Novel of the Phantom of the Opera, the majority of the action takes place in 1889 Paris. That’s the year that Gustav Eiffel’s famous tower opened; if I hadn’t mentioned the Eiffel Tower at all, it would have looked rather peculiar to those who know their French history.
Perhaps you’re writing something about combat, maybe sword-fighting? Be sure that the weaponry you describe is doing what it should. I read an otherwise nice short story a while back that had a fellow using a sabre (a cutting/slicing weapon designed for use on horseback) as a thrust-and-parry weapon in ground combat. The blade is not designed for thrust-and-parry; it’s curved, and only sharpened on one edge.
That’s what I mean when I say the devil is in the details. If your reader keeps pausing in your story to say “Wait a minute, that’s not how this works at all,” you’ll distract them and maybe even lose their attention.
I’m researching and writing simultaneously for In The Eye of The Storm: A Novel of the Phantom of the Opera, as well as researching for the final book in the trilogy (title as yet undetermined). The only way to make fiction believable is to know the little details of your setting, so get to know your librarian, the internet and any other sources of information that you have available.
Attention to detail will bring your manuscript alive. I promise.