5 Free Research Hacks for Fiction Writers

5 Free Research Hacks for Fiction Writers

You roll up your sleeves and sit down at your desk with a mug of your beverage of choice. It’s time for another productive day working on your novel.

Well, it would have been.

After writing 300 words, you run into a question about the day-to-day work of your protagonist’s career. You bounce around Google and Wikipedia for a while before getting sidetracked by social media. You still don’t have an answer when you finally return to your book an hour later.

The same thing happens a few paragraphs later… and again a few sentences after that. Four hours later, you call it a day. You’ve written barely three pages and have wasted most of your time in a rabbit hole of clickbait articles and social media.

Fiction writers are well-acquainted with the time-suck of book research. At best, research is time consuming. At worst, it keeps you from achieving your goals—or maybe from finishing your book entirely.

Book research may seem daunting, but with the right tools, you can learn to write about anything for your novel. Try these 5 research hacks for fiction writers. They’ll make your research easier, faster and less likely to lead down a social media rabbit hole.   

1. Use Quora

Google is great, but sometimes you just need to ask a real person. Quora is the easiest way to crowdsource your book research from real subject-matter experts. This question-and-answer forum “connects the people who have knowledge to the people who need it.”

Simply post your question and wait for replies to roll in.

People from around the world will be able to answer your question, and you’ll be able to view their credentials and experiences so you can decide for yourself if they’re qualified enough to give a valid response. You can also peruse the forums by topic if you don’t have a specific question but just want some general knowledge.

2. Request informational interviews with experts

So your protagonist is a molecular physicist and your plot hinges around her ability to save the earth with an untested theory about atoms?

You might want to talk to an actual expert about that.

Informational interviews are typically less time consuming and more helpful than trying to understand a complicated topic on your own. You can find experts by searching keywords on social media, checking out the speaker lineup at industry conferences, seeking out professors at your local college or looking for the authors of recently published scholarly articles.

Educators and professionals working in a given field are often more than happy to help you out as long as you’re respectful of their time.

3. Listen to TED Talks

Sometimes you aren’t able to snag an informational interview, or the questions you have are general enough that you don’t need an actual meeting with an expert.

TED Talks or other seminars are perfect for you.

Listening to a speech, conference panel or seminar is a great way to gain a wide range of knowledge in a short amount of time. The perk of TED Talks is that they bring industry leaders right to your computer.

But don’t rule out in-person events. You may have to pay to attend the event, but you’ll have the added bonus of connecting with other attendees (or the speakers themselves) who may be subject-matter experts.

4. Go to the library

It sounds archaic to head to the library for book research, but those books have good information in them.

Plus you can’t get distracted by a BuzzFeed article if you’re paging through a physical book!

Books aren’t the only useful resource in the library. Librarians themselves are a wealth of knowledge. They may know of a book you hadn’t thought to look at or an online resource that escaped you, despite all your Googling.

Your library may also offer access to academic journals that would otherwise be off limits to you.

5. Take a class

If your main character works on Wall Street, it wouldn’t kill you to take an Intro to Finance course.

I’m not saying you need to get the same degree your character has, but a 101-level course is an efficient way to gain the basic knowledge you need to write your novel without getting bogged down by research.

There are plenty of free or affordable options for online courses through Skillshare and Udemy.

If you’re willing to invest a bit more, you could even audit a class at your local college.

Book research doesn’t have to be a waste of time. Rely on these sources instead of Google, and you’d be surprised how quickly you’re able to stock up on all the knowledge you need.

What are your favorite tips for book research? Share them in the comments!

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Filed Under: Craft


  • Amber Dulaney says:

    Thank-you for this resource article. Until now, I have never heard of Quora. I will definitely check it out.

  • Emma says:

    Quora seems great…except it’s soooo easy to get caught up in all the cool feeds going on. I just spent an hour getting sidetracked in conjectures of what would happen if humanity received a transmission from aliens. Just a thought—any writer who uses the site should be prepared to buckle down and *focus*!

    • Ashley Brooks says:

      I’ll admit Quora offers it’s own brand of distraction. A trick that can help is scheduling your Quora research session right before an appointment or event. That way you’ll have a hard stop time and (hopefully) won’t get sucked down the never-ending link wormhole. Even though it can be distracting, I always learn something new while I’m there!

  • Ariel says:

    Something I do to help is mark all the information I need with a “catch word.” For example, if I know I need details, but I can keep moving on without it right that moment, I’ll write ELEPHANT. Then at the end of the writing session, I’ll search for elephants, write down the things I need to research, and handle that at the end, once I’ve already got a lot of content done.

    • Carlene Brown says:

      WOW! This is a VERY helpful tip. I would never have thought of this, and beats going back and trying to find the places you need to add stuff.

    • Ashley Brooks says:

      Such a great tip! What a smart strategy for staying on task and saving research until later. Thanks for sharing, Ariel!

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  • CNJ says:

    Two questions…how would we know that Quora is any more accurate than things on Google?

    I am also working on a young adult novel with the plot revolving around teenagers who are in a city children’s home and are in social services.

    There’s also foster care involved in my story.

    I just want to make sure I get the social services laws and other details right.

    Would Quora be able to answer those sort of questions?

    • Ashley Brooks says:

      Google can be used to find sources that are highly accurate (expert interviews, scholarly journals, government reports, etc.) or wildly inaccurate (biased blogs, Wikipedia, etc.). It’s up to you to do due diligence when vetting any research source, including Quora.

      In general, Quora is accurate based on people’s expertise and personal experiences. You can view a user’s credentials to help determine if they’re qualified to answer your question. It’s also pretty noticeable if five people give the same answer and one guy’s response is out in left field.

      With that in mind, Quora would be a great place to source real-life experiences people have had while in foster care or while working as a social worker. These perspectives can give an added dose of realism to your writing that’s hard to find through the usual Google search. For specific laws, your best bet is to interview a social worker or simply look up the law. (Remember to look for laws local to the area your story takes place in since they vary by region.)



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