Research 101: Creating a Believable World

Head on over to the Harlequin Community June 18, 2015 between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. EST , where Harlequin series authors are discussing how they approach research and are ready and waiting to answer those burning questions you’ve been dying to ask!

Want tips on research before you join our Community forum today? Read these great suggestions from Editor Julia Williams.


For all writers, research is a vital part of the writing process. While not everything you write needs to be researched in depth, without it your characters won’t spring to life from the page and convince your readers they are real.



How to begin?


Research begins at home! Write what you know, says the old adage, and a great starting point is mining your own experiences for:


  • Career choices for your characters
  • Places they live
  • Family stories you can adapt to give a fresh twist!

However, that won’t sustain you forever, and you might like to try writing about people with different experiences from your own.

Talk to people!

  • Engage in conversations with people from different backgrounds – either in Sinara - Silenceperson or online.
  • Read articles/ books about other cultures and viewpoints
  • Watch the news to get an idea about what is happening around the world.

Above all, open your mind to the potential stories out there and remember being in love is the same whether you live in India or Peru!

The internet is a great resource and an easy place to look, but check your facts and sources—the internet isn’t always right! The great thing is that you can delve into a wide range of different areas:

  • Lambing via a BBC farming website
  • Cornish flowers from a botany blog, complete with handy pictures
  • Ballroom dancing via You Tube videos

These are all subjects I have become briefly expert on thanks to the internet!

Go old school. Once in a while you can’t beat a bit of old-fashioned research!

  • Writing a war story? How about a trip to the National Archives at Kew or your local archives or museum where you can find a wealth of relevant material.
  • Medical author? Kate Hardy suggests one of the Oxford Handbooks used by junior doctors in the UK.
  • Setting your story in a specific location? Go and visit it; take photos; get hold of a Kernan - Running Wolfmap to give that authentic feel.

Direct action! Want your characters to do something different? Why not try it out yourself?

  • Writing a rugged kind of hero? Go on a survival course to find out what he knows!
  • Heroine is a painter…have you ever tried art classes?
  • Setting a story in a French chateau? What better excuse for a holiday do you need?

How much is too much?

This is where it can get tricky.

It’s easy to get really hooked on research: we’ve all read books where you can feel the 9780373070534author bursting with pride at her knowledge, but in doing so she’s lost sight of the story.

The late great Penny Jordan compared research to an iceberg. The readers should only ever see the tip, but under the ice is all the hard work you’ve done!

The most important thing about research is that while it should inform your writing, it shouldn’t take over. You are writing a story, not a textbook. If people want to learn about trekking in the Himalayas, they can look at a Lonely Planet guide. You need to take your readers on that journey with your characters: show them the sights, smells and sensations of the trip, so by the end of it they feel they’ve been there, too!

Research can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be dull. And who knows, when you go off down that interesting cul-de-sac you weren’t expecting to take, it can send your story in a whole new direction!

Renee - TexasDon’t forget to join more than 15 published authors at Harlequin Community June 18, 2015 between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. EST to ask questions and chat about the research process in creativing great romantic fiction!

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #sytycw, and follow @HarlequinSYTYCW.




9 replies on “Research 101: Creating a Believable World”

As an author of Native American romance, I’m excited to see the title Running Wolf as part of the Harlequin family. Researching the Native culture has been fun and at the same time daunting. However, you would be amazed at how much more realistic the entire story becomes even when you don’t mention what you’ve learned. The dialogue itself is richer and the experience is more developed because of it. Great post, HQN. xoxo

Hi Elle! Thanks for your comments! It’s interesting to hear how research helps you really live in the world you’re creating.

For me as a reader, you have lost me if I don’t believe the characters know there stuff. So if you don’t know something, would it not be better to have your heroine learn along with you about something? Like how the history and stories behind a heritage site?

Yep! I agree. Two things really bug me. DNA results take weeks to come back and they are not always conclusive. The other thing is tracing a phone call. Everything is digital! There are no more traced calls, how do they thin caller display works? It doesn’t take three minutes. It is instantaneous.

Elle That’s great to hear. I agree with you, the more research you do the more depth you give your story. And also often you can find the story in the research!

Yvonne, that’s a good point. Yes, one way of feeding things in for reader is getting other characters to reveal that info, but it has to be done in a subtle way, otherwise you may as well read a textbook! In historicals I do love a historical note putting the story in context, or a family tree/list of kings and queens so you can see how things fit together. But it is an art to get the information across without swamping the reader. And it’s also jarring if there are obvious inaccuracies, such as someone using a gun before they were invented. I still haven’t got over my irritation at the scene in Elizabeth:The Golden Age when Walter Raleigh single handedly destroyed the Spanish Armada. a) he wasn’t there and b) the English sent in fireships which were more like barges than a full blown warship! It ruined the film for me. Similarly in fiction it’s important for authors to get the facts right and for editors to check and recheck, so that people aren’t pulled out of a story for a glaring error!

Ivy, that kind of thing is really irritating I agree. And is why research is so important. You also have to make sure that if your characters are in the more recent past, say the 90s, they aren’t using modern day technology. Contemporary/near contemporary fiction can be fraught with difficulty!

Yes, if they have cell phone, make sure it is the right model for the time period.

Thanks Julia, you are a huge help to me!

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