Doing the legwork to improve your story

As I mentioned before in my Write What You Know posts, I love to do research.  As my ambitions for writing of urban fantasy have grown, however, my need to be more thorough in my historical accuracy has increased as well.  This increased need has made me re-examine how I do research from my college days, requiring that I develop new methods for finding credible information.  I won’t be going into every method one can employ for researching, but I will show you where I get most of my information.

Researching combat styles

The one thing research has shown me, if nothing else, is that humanity has done a lot of stuff.  This, in turn, means that no matter what you are writing, there is something you research to make your writing more well-rounded. As the prerequisite for writing in the urban fantasy genre is that it must be primarily set in a city – a real city – this requires a bit of  background information.  Let’s say you’re doing a story about a man surviving in an entirely alien environment compared to his homeland.  You decide all he has is a knife and his military skills.  Well you have some research ahead of you, friend!  What type of military is he from?  You decide he’s Israeli.  Do they have some sort of combat style that they teach in the IDF?  Why yes, it’s Krav Maga!  Let’s learn about their techniques in knife combat and how often they attack eyeballs.  But where do you go for this information?  Well, as I said before, there are a couple of places that are sure fire ways of getting the credible info you need.

First: I find the experts.  In this I may be a bit spoiled.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I have many colleges and universities to choose from when finding experts in any field.  Depending on where you live, this number may be significantly less, but, in this day and age, the process for finding someone is still the same.  When looking up experts, I go online to the surrounding institutions for higher learning, navigate to their teacher directory, search for the department I need, and take my pick of professors.  I tend to look for someone who looks or sounds (if they have bios up) like the kind of person who would be open to a conversation with a non-student.  From there I get references to other professors who may have a better understanding of the thing I am researching.  Be sure to act extra respectful when speaking to these professors.  They are literally helping you out of the kindness of their hearts.

Next, to the library!  The Internet is fine for preliminary searches to get your feet wet, but I have actually found, for research more tailored to my needs, book hunting still yields better results. Head to your local library to find the section pertaining to your research.  Oh and be sure to get help from a librarian, they’re there to help you find things (just remember to be courteous).  Also, if you’ve been talking to professors, chances are you’ve had some books recommended to you.  If not, ask!  They’ve already done the work, so take advantage of their passion.

Once you’ve gotten your pile of books, schedule a day to do solid research.  When that day arrives, order some take-out and start reading.  One thing to keep in mind is to keep an open mind: don’t pigeon hole what you are looking for. If you find something that suits your story better, don’t be afraid to change tracks.  I recently did a chunk of research on laborers in San Jose, thinking I would get a lot of information about Mexican workers.   Turns out the Portuguese community actually suited my needs better for the story.

The third and final step, which may be a little hard to produce but I want to put it down, is to find an editor who specializes in the major subject matter of your work.  My primary editor is a young woman named Elizabeth Matsushita.  Along with being a fantastic editor, she is also getting her PhD in history.  The work I get back from her is filled with invaluable questions and suggestions like, “I don’t think they did that,” or “Did this exist at that time?”  I always find researching gaps in my work with her checking on me and my stories are much better for it.

As I said before, there are plenty of avenues one can go down when doing research for a story; these are only a couple of suggestions.  Let me know what you do to research for your writing in the comments below, I would be happy to hear them.

Good day,

-Stephan McLeroy

Stephan is not only an aspiring author but works with creatives to help them acheive success in life and project management as well. If you are interested in Stephan's time and project management consultation or ghost writing services, please email

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