If you’re a true beginning writer, you’ll have very little notion of where to start or how you can get from an idea to a full concept you can write about.
Even if you’ve been at this game for a long time, it can still feel overwhelming to sit down at your computer with intent to write or build a world only to realise that you have no idea where to even begin.
I remember spending hours searching for tutorials and examples from other writers for various things, from “how to get started” to “how to organise notes”. It’s frustrating to realise you’re pretty much on your own.
You have to figure out what works for you and that will involve a lot of trial and error as you test approaches and discard the ones that just don’t inspire you or don’t lead you anywhere except into dead ends.
So if the research process is so subjective, why are we here? Why did I bother writing a post just to say “I can’t help you”?
Because I might not be able to talk you through it step by step, but I can show you what works for me.
1. Get a (vague) idea
If you don’t have the beginnings of an idea already, brainstorm until you’ve got one. (I might write an article about brainstorming methods one day, but for now let’s assume you either have an idea already or know how to generate one.)
Much of the time, I go looking for stuff because I already have the beginnings of an idea taking shape in my head. For this example, I’m going to talk about a novella I may or may not write as a sort-of background story to my Guardians trilogy where Denahih Jhiah is sent to a foreign tribe to ask for aid in the upcoming war.
A couple of the early scenes laid themselves out in my head while I was napping, so I know some things already:
- Denahih is headed to the Tahnih Burrows;
- he’ll have to cross the Tahnih Mudlands to get there;
- he’ll encounter some sort of mud-dwelling monster along the way.
I knew very little about the Tahnih or their territory before my nap. My “dream” filled out most of the Mudlands’ make-up for me: I had this image in my head of bubbling mud pits laid out across a labyrinth of dried mud where the only “paths” are less than a foot wide in places and you have to double back on yourself to find a safe way across.
It’s difficult to turn this kind of “snapshot” into lore, but I wanted to write at least a brief paragraph about it so I’d at least have something to refer back to if I forgot the image in my head. I also wasn’t entirely sure the landscape I’d imagined could exist as I’d dreamed it, or sustain the kind of life my brain had put there.
2. Do some research
After having to correct my search term (because Google thought I’d mistyped “British Midlands”) and clicking into the image gallery, I found a bunch of pictures that… looked nothing like what I wanted, actually.
“Mudlands” apparently calls to mind salt flats and beaches rather than the kind of mud pits I was looking for (and also Matthew McConnaughey, for some reason).
I kept looking, regardless, because I didn’t know what else to search for (and blank-minded surfing is as good a way to shake things loose as any).
I was getting pretty desperate for a lead of some kind when the word geothermal popped into my head (triggered either by one of the images that came up in my search, or by all that blank-minded surfing).
“Aha!” says I. “Geothermal because of the bubbling and scalding-if-you-fall-in bit, yeah.”
Don’t get stuck to one keyword
The new search for “geothermal mudlands” was a bust, but “geothermal mud lands” was a hit. (Or, well, it was after I’d corrected Google once again because it still thought I was obsessed with the British Midlands.)
The results still didn’t quite match up with my vision, but it led me to mudpots — which, as it turns out, was exactly what I was looking for!
Standard mudpots (as found in places like Yellowstone and Iceland) tend to be loners surrounded by swathes of land. That doesn’t quite match up with this idea I had of Denahih’s group having to double back repeatedly to find a safe route through, but that’s okay. A couple of the images I found gave me the impression that multiple mudpots can form close together (even if the examples seem kind of dinky compared to what I want).
Even better, Science Clarified says that a mudpot is basically just a hot spring made of muddy clay, and a hot spring is a “pool of hot water that has seeped through an opening in [the] Earth’s surface.” When I searched for “hot springs” , I found pictures showing that they can form together, so I’m fairly sure mudpots can do the same. (I’m not a geologist, though, so don’t take my word for it. A bit of poetic license doesn’t hurt…)
Okay! So I’ve got my Mudlands. Let’s write it up.
“The Tahnih Mudlands are a strip of geothermal mudpots sandwiched between the Tahnih Burrows, where the Tahnih tribe live, and the marsh that leads to Yihlelih’s Sea.
The Mudlands take three days to cross if only because the mudpots are so frequent and large that strips of solid ground are hard to come by. Travelers must zig-zag and double back on themselves to find a safe way across — and that’s assuming they don’t encounter any mudworms along the way.”
3. Inspire Yourself
Right. Yes. That other thing that was in my vision: Denahih gets injured fairly badly by a mud-dwelling beastie.
I didn’t really know what this beastie was going to be at first. Scorpion-esque like in that horrid farce of a movie, Riddick? Some kind of mud-based kraken? Caterpillars of d00m? Who knows!
Except apparently I did because I wrote “mudworms” in the blurb for the Tahnih Mudlands without really thinking about it.
I could always change my mind if I decide I don’t like the worm idea, but it’s worth taking a look-see just to get a feel for how monstrous worms can be and–
HOLY COW!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVES.
(Who decided it would be a good idea to put a picture of this thing on my blog? Oh, right. That would be me. Are you as creeped out by this thing as I am? Denahih doesn’t stand a chance! *maniacal laughter*
I mean, uh. *cough* Carry on.)
4. Research More
At this point, I would suggest doing more research about the new idea you’ve generated from writing about the old one you’ve already researched a little bit. (Confusing? So is my research process.)
However, I’ve kind of shocked myself silly with that worm thing and it’s stupidly perfect for my story. (Give it a hard shell to withstand scalding temperatures and an acidic environment, give it time to grow big enough to sink those fang-claw things into a human being, and BAM! Instant monster.)
Of course, you can’t just make something up and call it done. I’m no biologist, so just slapping a carapace on that thing and giving it a name could come back to bite me in the butt (and believe me, I don’t want old Eunice there to bite me at all).
As writers, it’s our job to not just tell a (good) story, but to make sure that when we ask our readers to suspend disbelief, we’re not asking them to suspend it too far. We might be writing fantasy (or science fiction, or sci-fantasy, or some combination of every speculative fiction genre known to humanity) but that doesn’t mean we can flounce the rules of reality and “just make stuff up”.
(It also doesn’t mean we can nick stuff from the real world, change the colours, and say “lookit what I made!”)
Our worlds have to be consistent and stay true to themselves, and we have to justify everything we say and do. (Otherwise, you end up with a blood-drinking eight-legged spider queen thing siring a bunch of bipedal fish-headed aliens like in Falling Skies, and how the hell does that work?)
In other words, I have to figure out how a worm — no matter how large or terrifying — can survive in acidic, muddy, high-temperature conditions, and how to make it different enough from old Eunice there that no one can say “oi, I’ve met that guy, you totally owe him royalties”.
But where do I even begin?
Google is my best friend (but don’t tell my actual BFF)
“Creatures that can survive in acidic environments” led me to acidophiles, but most of them are bacteria or single-celled organisms — and of the multi-celled beasties that can live in acid, none of them are what I’d call an animal (or worm).
However, National Space Society claims that Yellowstone’s mudpits are “teeming with life”, and we all know that humans evolved from bacteria. What’s to stop a mudpot-dwelling organism from evolving into a giant worm? (No one, that’s who. But just to be sure…)
5. Research More
When I looked up “how to live in acid” , I found very little evidence to suggest that any organism would use an external skeleton to protect itself from acid; they would most likely use chemical regulators to balance their own pH levels instead.
With an idea on how the worms might survive one aspect of their harsh living conditions (or enough of one to satisfy my story, at least, because all that sciencey stuff goes right over my head like whoosh), I turned my attention to the heat.
You might have noticed by this stage that my research process involves a lot of “how can I rephrase this search term to get better results?” I usually just throw a bunch of stuff at Google and hope for the best, then scan through the first few results to see if I’m close to what I want. If I am, I’ll go through the first few pages of results in greater detail. If not, I run crying to my cat and then try something else.
“How to live in boiling water” led me to the term “thermophile“. “How thermophiles survive” didn’t net me many relevant results, but then I thought about searching directly for “thermophile worm”. No joy. So how about “thermophile shell” to see if any of them live in hard skin? No? How about “thermophile carapace”?
Aha! I found a reference from the National Park Service to a crustacean called an ostracod. These critters are so tiny they’re called “seed shrimp”, so they’re the exact opposite of what I want in terms of size — but they live in mudpots and have the carapace I want (kind of like a lobster’s).
That’s enough for me to believe that it’s entirely possible for a creature like my mudworm to evolve naturally. I might be pushing it a bit with the size (extremophiles tend to be microscopic), but that’s where poetic license and the speculative part comes in. (I honestly think that, given the opportunity, these microscopic extremophiles could evolve into multi-celled organisms like we did, but I already said I’m crap at science so what would I know?)
6. Write It Up
My research on the mudworm isn’t really complete (I’ll need to determine things like colours, how it moves, how it detects prey, how it digests, and so on) and I’ll probably want to cobble together some images of the Mudlands to get a better visual, but I’ve got enough of a working plan for them both to start writing about them — and that’s the important part.
All I need to do is write up a brief summary of the mudworm for my wiki, and then add it to the growing pile of “further research” topics for later study.
“The Evekahran mudworm is a grotesque creature thankfully not often seen — but only because it lives in the bubbling pits of the Tahnih Mudlands where its skin has thickened to protect against scalding temperatures and acid.
Mudworms range in size. Some believe the smallest are only baby versions of the giants that rear up out of the mud to sink fangs and spines into unwitting victims. Others think they are separate species that just happen to look very alike. Either way, the Tahnih have taken to stomping out even the smallest mudworms when spotted, just in case they might save a life at some point in the future. (Taking on a fully grown mudworm is inadvisable in all ways.)”
You can see that there’s actually very little description here. I’ll probably use the images I found of old Eunice to fuel descriptions in the early drafts, and then develop my own version and edit the descriptions during revision. That way, I can focus on getting the story written and worry about the details later.
The most important details are there and that’s all that matters at this point.
7. Call It Done
Since the Mudlands and the mudworm don’t make too much of an appearance in the stories, I can skimp a bit on my research (I won’t need detailed maps, for instance).
Other topics and concepts will need a lot of effort and time. Brain surgery and rocket science shouldn’t be half-arsed like this, so you’d better make sure you know what you’re talking about before you invent a warp drive and let your medical officers have at it.
(For instance, it’s generally not a great idea to give your medical staff control of the engineering department in the first place, Star Trek notwithstanding.)
Know when to stop
This is a good place to leave you for now, though. I’ve shown you my thought process and how I can work on one idea (the Mudlands) that triggers another (the mudworm).
Don’t be afraid to write down everything that comes to you, even if it feels stupid or you’re 100% certain it won’t work. That “silly” idea might lead to another might lead, which might lead to another ad infinitum until you find the one that will.
I think it’s important to note, here, that I’ve written less than 200 words for both “articles” put together. In fact, the only bestiary pages on my wiki that are more than a paragraph each are the ones that actually make a significant appearance in the story (e.g. mounts and antagonists). The rest are background noise to give the world some colour; you don’t need to know the mating habits of a bird that twitters once from a tree branch and is never seen again.
Know where to look
I’ve also shown you a little bit about how I find information. I don’t have access to a library so I have to rely on the good old internet — which means “be careful of your sources!”
I do get a lot of information from Wikipedia, but I don’t cite it as the only resource and I always make sure to double-check on what it tells me before I take anything it says as Gospel. (It’s a great starting point for a lot of subjects if you don’t quite know what to look up, though.)
And speaking of citations: save a bibliography of some kind somewhere in your notes! It doesn’t have to be fancy (maybe even just bookmarks in your browser), but I can’t count the times I’ve needed to re-find a page to double-check on a detail only to realise I have no idea where I found the information in the first place.
(It’s probably a good idea to save your google search terms, too. As you saw, “geothermal mudlands” gets far different results than “geothermal mud lands”, so you will struggle to look stuff up again a year from now if you have no idea what search terms you used in the first place.)
How do you research?
So that’s my research process, and how I got from a vague idea that came to me in a dream to two new wiki pages (as short as they are) that will help fuel my writing for at least two scenes.
I now have something to work with when I start writing Denahih’s novella — and it took me all of an hour to do all those searches, scan for relevant information, read the bits that mattered, and then write up a couple of blurbs. Moreover, most of the scenes I’ve imagined since doing this research has stemmed from what I found so I’ve inspired parts of a story as well as the world it’s set in!
What’s your process? Where do you do all your research? What’s your favourite search engine?
How much do you develop concepts before you start writing? Do you need a fully developed profile sheet for every character, creature and place, or do you prefer to wing it completely?