Research: The Secret Ingredient to Writing Good Stories

In my experience, the most frequently given writing advice is, “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, I’ve also often seen it taken the wrong way—that you should only write about things that are completely, 100% relevant to you. But that’s not what “write what you know” is really trying to get at. It can mean many things. For one, it means to write about the emotions and real-life experience you’re familiar with. How do you react when you’re angry? Characters should react the same way. How do real people communicate in relationships? Characters can do the same. But the other part of “writing what you know” comes from one very important—essential, in fact—but oft overlooked aspect of writing: research. 

Research enhances storytelling in so many ways, making it more authentic, detailed, and engaging. Conducting research in order to have greater accuracy in your work is both important and worth your time. Even in a story that is more fantastical than it is real, research will help make those fantastical elements more believable. In this blog, we’ll cover why research matters, real examples of research in writing, tips on conducting research, and how to ensure you’re drawing from a diverse set of sources as you continue your writing journey.

Why Research Matters

Research is a habit only acquired through sheer force of will, but it is necessary for finding plots and writing good stories. It adds authenticity, helping you craft accurate details to make stories more believable. This leads to increased depth and detail, layers that add richness to the narrative. Research also serves as inspiration, sparking new ideas and plot points as you delve further into it. It also provides you with better credibility. Well-researched content will stand out and build trust with readers.

Research in the Real World

Authors everywhere conduct research to make their writing more memorable, impactful, and accurate. Even literary fiction requires research. If you’re writing about a barista at a coffee shop but have never worked as one, how do you know the steps they take to make a latte? 

When writing All The Light We Cannot See, a historical fiction novel that takes place during World War II, Anthony Doerr was inspired by traveling to Saint-Malo, France, a city nearly destroyed during the war. The novel took 10 years to write, and most of that time was spent researching. The product, however, was worth it—winning the Pulitzer Prise is no small feat, after all. 

Other areas of storytelling require similar research efforts. For The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien conducted extensive research into languages, mythology, and history to create Middle-Earth. Prolific science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote a series of non-fiction essays that both speculate on scientific topics and explain them. While some of the science is now outdated (when Asimov was around, we still thought there might be sentient life on Mars, for example), much of it does hold up and has been imbued into his work. Not only does this make the work more believable, but it also fed his story plots, characters, and technologies. 

This is not to say that you can’t invent things for your world. Technology that has yet to exist is, after all, a hallmark of the sci-fi genre, as is magic in fantasy. But the more research you do about everything surrounding what you make up for your story, the more real it will feel to readers. Plus, the occasional expert who encounters your work may be pleasantly surprised by what they find. 

3 Tips for Conducting Effective Research

Conducting research can feel like standing in an endless library, searching for the perfect book to read, and no idea where to start. There are so many topics and, these days, so much noise surrounding every topic. Here are three tips to help you get started:

  1. Start with questions. First identify what you need to know in order to support your story. For example, if you’re writing a science fiction piece, what areas of science do you need to know more about? 
  2. Utilize a variety of sources. Books and academic papers will provide in-depth, reliable information. Online databases and archives will have the widest range of topics and perspectives easily on hand. By interviewing and consulting with experts, you can gain insights from real people with first-hand experience or specialized knowledge. Documentaries and news articles can often provide you with the most visual and current information. Don’t write off social media, either. While you have to be careful when vetting your sources—and always make sure additional sources back up what is being shared, some of the best first-hand accounts of particular research topics can be found there. 
  3. Organize your research. While researching, take detailed notes and citations so that you don’t lose what you’ve discovered and so that you can refer back and cite properly when utilizing it in your story. Tools like Evernote, Notion, Scrivener, and research journals can all be helpful in organizing your research. Work to implement a system that can be easily referenced during the writing process so that you don’t break your own writing flow while searching for information you know you have.

Ensuring Diverse and Reliable Sources

It’s easy to fall into familiar habits when researching, such as going to sources you already know or focusing on topics you’re more familiar with. But just as it’s important to research, it’s equally important to ensure any research you collect comes from diverse and reliable sources. Differing viewpoints will only enrich the narrative you create. 

When looking for reliable research sources, make sure to: 

  • Check the credibility and expertise of authors. 
  • Cross-reference all information using multiple sources. 
  • Seek out sources that offer balanced and varied perspectives. 
  • Utilize other people, like beta readers and sensitivity readers, to ensure the quality and accuracy of your work. 

Remember, you can’t get everything right 100% of the time—and it’s okay to be wrong sometimes. Using all the tools available to you is the best way to prevent getting it really wrong while also helping you produce the best possible work you can. And remember, everyone and everything has bias. It appears even in places where it seems most unlikely to, so always ask: how is this information potentially biased? Did the organization that published it have a stake in how it’s presented? Did the author? Is anyone making money from this? Is there an agenda behind this piece that might affect the information it’s giving me? While the answer to those questions is almost always going to be that there is some potential bias in the information you’ve gathered, it’s up to you to determine how this affects how you’re using the information in this story. It should often still be usable as long as you’re aware of the bias it holds. 

For example, let’s say you’re researching how baristas make lattes and come across an article from a popular café chain like Peet’s Coffee. The article supplies you with all of the steps their baristas take when crafting the perfect latte. In this case, keep in mind that Peet’s Coffee is always trying to get you to buy more of Peet’s Coffee. Since that doesn’t really affect the steps of making a latte, you can disregard that potential bias. However, you may want to check out a couple other articles about making a latte to see if the general information provided aligns. This is because Peet’s Coffee baristas may make their lattes using a specific piece of tech that you’d need to include in your story to make it believable if you’re only trusting this source. A great idea here would be to interview your local coffee shop’s barista to see how their routine differs. 

Practical Steps for Evaluating Research Sources

  1. Search for the author’s information. Use academic databases, author profiles on university or other organization websites, and professional networking sites like LinkedIn to find detailed information about the author. This can help you confirm if they are truly an expert in their field or not. Using our barista example, if the person who wrote the Peet’s Coffee article can be found on LinkedIn, it would inspire greater belief in their credibility if “barista” is experience listed on their profile. 
  2. Review the author’s other publications. Examine their previous work for quality, relevance, and bias. If they don’t have any other publications, it might be worthwhile to double-check their work through other sources. 
  3. Check citations and references. Look at how often the author’s work or article is cited by others in the field, which can be an indication of its general influence and accepted expertise. Let’s say the Peet’s Coffee article is linked on several other niche blogs. This betters its credibility as it indicates that others have found the information to be useful and accurate. Of course, you’ll want to give those sources a skim to make sure they’re not just panning the article. 
  4. Read reviews. Sometimes, word of mouth (or keyboard) is the best way to get a feel for how much of an expert an author may really be. Comments on blogs, reviews in academic journals, and other reputable review platforms and sources can help you determine who this author is and if they truly are an expert. 
  5. Analyze the content yourself. Critically assess any content you’re using for depth, accuracy, and balance. Ask questions like: What does the author get from saying that? What is the overall argument and message of this piece? How did that statistic come about? Trust your instincts—if something seems off, there’s a good chance it is. Determine what might be off about it and adjust accordingly. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter in the context of your research. But other times, it can change everything. 


This time, we’ve put together two different exercises to get at different aspects of the research process. Both are important, but you can tackle them at any time or in any order you like. 


Head to your local library with a topic in mind such as: outer space, South Korean history, theatrical costumes. Roam among the shelves (or talk to your librarian) until you find reference material that gives you a deep dive into your topic. Spend at least one hour researching the topic, taking notes as you go. Another day, return to those notes and determine if there’s a story somewhere in there—I bet there will be!


Interview someone about something that you know very little about. For example: interview a pilot about flying planes, ask a doorperson at a building about their job, question how a sculpture artist builds their sculptures. Following the interview, write a story about the topic, using what you’ve learned to inspire your characters, setting, conflict, or overall narrative.

Your Recipe for Writing

In conclusion, research is essential to the writing process. While it can feel overwhelming or like a drag, try to have fun with it! Going to your local library to do some research is not only a great way to get on the path to storytelling, but while you’re there you may also be able to expand your writing community. There’s so much to learn, so try to focus on topics you really care about and that will help breathe life into your story. Continue researching the storytelling journey and more tips for improving your writing by staying up-to-date with Facts of Fiction!

Maribel Leddy

Maribel Leddy is a passionate writer, editor, and creative content strategist based in New York, New York. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. in Writing Seminars and has been with Brink since 2018. With experience in writing professionally for over five years now, Maribel enjoys crafting engaging, thoughtful, and well-researched content across a variety of topics and industries. For fiction writing, her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy. She currently lives with her sister and their two cats, Cleo and Chai.

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