Think back to the last story or novel you loved. What did you read that you lived in so completely, that you had to stay up two or three nights in a row to finish, and just could not put down?
In fiction, often the most compelling stories have a basis in truth. The more the story veers toward the fantastic, the more important it is that the author includes authentic details. In historical fiction, historical fantasy, and work tied to a specific region, the dialect is integral to a good read. But so are the fashions, foods, geography, and countless other points that make the story rich. The good news is that when you research eras and locales, you’ll undoubtedly discover interesting bits that will add even more meaning and texture.
Whether your story is steampunk, vintage crime, or bodice-ripping romance, including thoughtful and accurate details will work in your favor. Your research will uncover the truth which allows you to lie — the telling details with which your readers can connect so they can freely indulge in the fantasy.
So where does a fiction writer start researching a story?
Try these three amazing resources:
The archives of The New Yorker
The New Yorker is by far my go-to resource for both story inspiration and research. If you’re a print or digital subscriber to the magazine, you’ll have access to the archives going back to its first issue in 1925. When you search by subject, you’ll receive a listing of all associated mentions from an archive of thousands of articles. I’ve come across stories from Fitzgerald and Salinger in the archives that I’ve never seen published anywhere else. Plus, the articles are presented as they originally appeared, which means that you get to see the original ads. Want to know about women’s fashions in the Kennedy era? Look at the Bonwit Teller ad from a 1963 issue for illustrations of the then-latest gold lame gown.
The obituaries in The New York Times
There are more fascinating stories on earth than could ever be conjured in imagination. And some of them aren’t told until the protagonist (or antagonist) has passed. Explore the Obituaries section of The New York Times online or read the Sunday edition to discover real-life characters who may inspire your own. For example, a search of the word “fabulist” led me to an obituary of an agent described as the son of a butter-and-egg merchant who became a “brilliant wheeler-dealer, a lone-wolf dynamo and a manic egotist.” Doesn’t that just make you want to read more?
Don’t undervalue the virtues of paper. Colorful maps — the fold by hand variety — are great resources, both vintage and new. Want to set a story in a mid-South city? Check out the names of the surrounding towns, the number and names of parks, waterways, bridges, and thoroughfares. By mixing the true train station or natural history museum with the fictional venues of your story, your characters will live in a more fully-realized world.
In short, take the time and care to research your fiction as if you were writing non-fiction. You’ll be surprised at how complete and compelling your story will be, and you’ll be full of new ideas for your future tales.