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Ways Notable Writers Approach the Research Process

Research is essential to storytelling in varying degrees. Some stories require exhaustive research on the character's profession, the setting of the story or the time in history when the story occurs. It all depends on what information is crucial to effectively tell a compelling story; the more research matters to your narrative, the more research you have to do.

But more essentially, you need to find a balance between stating the facts accurately and using your imagination to create an intriguing story. In this regard, there are three kinds of writers: the excessive researcher, the creative imaginator, and the imaginative researcher.

The Excessive Researcher

Some writers lean too hard on the research process and leave little room for imagination. These writers believe they need to stay 100% true to the facts, so they painstakingly try to stick to them. An example of this approach is seen in historical novels. Here, they ensure that they do enough research about the period in time they intend to write about. And they uphold the notion that their narrative has a moral responsibility to get the facts straight. 

This approach often results in a slavish dedication to accuracy. But even notable narrative fiction that adheres strictly to the facts still interjects it with some element of imagination that is not consistent with the facts the story is based upon. What makes Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall very compelling is not her complete research that is heavily evident on every page, but the way her imagination displays Thomas Cromwell's personality and the world around him.

The Creative Imaginator

These writers often make up details about their story that are not in line with the facts. They place more emphasis on using their imagination to create a narrative that resonates with readers than trying as much as possible to get the facts straight. To them, the grand theme behind a story or the effect it is expected to have on readers trumps the need to ensure the facts are accurately portrayed. 

These writers also use this approach in writing historical narratives. They do not base their account of a historical era on the facts of that time; instead, they use the story as a metaphor. Whether their narrative is historically accurate is irrelevant to the literary merit of their work or to the truths the book points out about human nature. Instead of depending on exhaustive research to strengthen their story, they focus more on language to create fictional details that seem entirely plausible even when they are not carefully researched. A good example is Jim Crace's Quarantine.

The Imaginative Researcher

These writers put the story first. The aim is not to be factually accurate but to tell a compelling story. For them, the purpose of fiction is to create a striking and extended reality in the mind of readers, and all that matters is for a fictional narrative to be credible and fascinating. For this reason, they try to get their facts right, especially when it makes their work credible and engaging. 

Getting the facts wrong can distract readers and take them away from the surface tension of the creative reality. On the other hand, presenting readers with excessive facts can bore them; in that case, the creative reality becomes less striking. These writers know when to back off from their research and focus more on telling a captivating story. James Hamilton-Paterson's Gerontius exemplifies a writer in this category.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen