John Meils on The Power of Research in Novel Writing


6a00e54ff9f2cf88340120a786bd73970b In a perfect world, we’d all sit down with our best idea and write, write, and write some more. After say, six months to two years, we’d give birth to a shiny healthy manuscript that was complete, well-rounded, and ready for publication. Indeed, this works for some. For the rest of us, however, our imaginations need a little help. 

While writing my first novel, I needed to learn about life in colonial Connecticut. To do this, I visited a few local libraries in the area where I wanted to set my novel. What I found was a trove of invaluable information that not only helped me with setting, but inspired a range of back stories for my novel that I never would’ve dreamed up on my own. Moreover, I could only have found these old newspaper clippings and local histories in these little town libraries. After only two research trips, I not only had a wealth of information to backstop my story, but a surprising surge of inspiration to carry it forward.
For those who’ve been reading my last few columns, you know that I’m zeroing in on an idea for my next manuscript. I live in Peru at the moment, so I plan to set the story here, which has been a challenge. I grew up in Connecticut—the setting for my last manuscript—so it wasn’t difficult to nail the place. The background research was fairly minimal. It’s different here, obviously. But in a sense, my research has worked almost exactly as it did before.

To wit, my next story will revolve around a kidnapping in South America. But where exactly? Why? Who’s involved? Now that I’ve been in Peru for a couple months and traveled a bit in the country, I came to see that mining and oil exploration is booming here and has caused all kinds of tension with indigenous communities. Then there are the politicians, many of whom are corrupt and benefit hugely from kickbacks and other graft related to the mining and oil boom. Essentially, there is a triangle of tension in Peru between the indigenous population, multinationals, and oil companies—one that could serve as a perfect backdrop to my basic idea of a tourist kidnapping.

This past weekend I was touring a gold mine (yes, literally) in the northern Peruvian Andes. (FYI, my girlfriend does aid work—that’s why we’re in Peru and why we're at the mine.) During the tour, I came to see that, though the damage done by mining companies to the environment is horrific, many of them do a good job of helping the communities directly impacted by their mining. As it turns out, much of the tension and problems that Peru has with mining companies and the communities affected by them are stirred up by local politicians and aggressive foreign environmental groups, both of whom often use violence and intimidation to achieve their ends. This was unexpected, which immediately made me think it’d work well if woven into my original idea.

The trip, from a research standpoint, was a huge success. By the time I returned home to Lima, I had the basic characters and plot for my next manuscript set. All I need now is a locale, which I’m fairly sure is going to be in the Amazon (but that’s another trip, and story, altogether). More to the point is how, for a second time, a simple research trip took my ideas in a whole new and more defined direction. Yes, they ultimately led me to realize that I need to do more research before I begin writing, but my planning process took a huge leap forward.

This week’s question: Is research important for your writing and if so, how do you go about doing it?


JMHammock1 John Meils is currently finishing a first novel, tentatively titled The Warring House. He has written for Elle, Men’s Health, and, among others. To learn more about him, visit

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  1. Research is at least a little bit important for me, or if I could include the multitude of books that I've read and the movies I've watched and the music I've listened to among my research, research would actually be very important. You have to find inspiration somehow. Sometimes I find something in the newspaper, on the news, or on the Internet that catches my interest, and I suddenly have the urge to learn more about it. Then, I discover some way to add it to my story, and it feels like I finally found that missing piece needed to complete the story. One might not have to do research for their novel, but it certainly helps.

  2. With fantasy,one could probably excuse a lot and chalk it up to "magic". But then a piece of wet tissue paper would have a lot more substance than that excuse. I need to do research still in my story, and a lothad to do with biology and physiology. Also I needed to understand how the lack of technology and today's simple toilet paper, impact everyday life. It isn't always pretty I'm sure.

  3. I use research to flesh out existing ideas and to corroborate my knowledge. Even as a fantasy writer the world has to be constructed in a believable way with natural rules and laws that function (if only in the world of imagination). I may be the author you indicated in your blog (sit down and just write, beginning to end), but research gives my ideas and concepts depth and life.


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