Research as a Scaffold for Fiction

                          RESEARCH AS A SCAFFOLD FOR FICTION

“Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guesswork. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.”

                       Author Margaret Culkin Banning (1891- 1982)


Have you ever wanted to know how the FBI investigates Internet predators?

Or how hackers manage to get into supposedly secure systems?

Or what an emergency room doctor does when someone is brought into the ER unconscious?

Or how artificial intelligence algorithms can be used to create a video of someone saying something they never said?

Or what plants you might use to counteract a spell that’s made you speak in Shakespearean English?

Or how to temporarily disable a security camera so that you can steal that plant which is only available at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden? (not that you should actually do this!)

These are just a few of the things that I’ve researched when writing my young adult and middle grade novels.

That’s why being an author is such a great career for a perpetually curious research geek like me.

When I write a book, my research is done in three stages:

 STAGE ONE RESEARCH – Wide and Shallow

·       Read wide and shallow to get a broad sense of period, country, or issue. I call this the “Wikipedia” stage.

·       Make a list of questions you need to ask for Stage 2 research – this list will grow and evolve as you start writing

·       Look for sources to read and interview for next phase – when you need to go deeper into the issue

·       Find ideas for plot points - facts can be helpful when you’re looking for ways to create conflict


STAGE TWO RESEARCH – Deep and Targeted

·       Look for detail – sensory, historical, information that will make your novel come alive

·       LIBRARIES - Research librarians are your friend! University libraries are great places to find rare books

·       Expert interviews – this is the fun part, when you get to talk to really interesting people who know a lot about the subject you’re writing about.

·       Site visits – If you can afford to go to the place you’re writing about, actually visiting the setting will help you find those small details that create a sense of place.

·       Forums and groups can be found online for even the most esoteric subjects

·       Bibliographies are good sources for additional research on a topic.

·       YouTube

·       Google Earth, Maps, Images

·       Citizens Police Academy, FBI Citizens Academies

Now here’s the tricky part: AVOIDING THE RESEARCH VORTEX

Facing the blank page is hard. But here’s the most important part:



The process of writing your first draft will inevitably lead to more questions to research. For example, I hate naming new characters, so I spend WAAAAAAY too much time on the Baby Name Voyager looking up what names were popular when my characters were born.

But here’s the problem: I’m a curious geek who always wants to learn more, and there’s always something else I can discover the need to research while I’m writing. It can be something big, or a minor detail that I nonetheless want to get right.

If I stop writing and start researching guess what happens?


 *cue Twilight Zone music* 

I search for that one point, and then get interested in something else I read and go to another website, and then find something else interesting and end up on a third site, and then I check my email and social media and find something else to click on, and before I know it an hour has passed and I haven’t written another word.

My solution?

·        Make a big RESEARCH XYZ LATER note in what you’re doing and keep writing.


When you’re done with your first draft, it’s time for revision and Stage Three. 

STAGE THREE – What to include and what to leave out

Now you’ve got your freshly written first draft and lots of information you’ve researched. It’s all so interesting. You want to include it because surely your readers are going to be as fascinated with the things you’ve learned as you are, right?


While it’s tempting to bake all these facts into your fiction pie, you’re only going to use a soupçon (fancy French culinary term for a very small quantity of something) of what you’ve learned.


The late James Michener, who wrote sweeping historical fiction family sagas, compared it to an iceberg.

“What research is done should be like the tip of the iceberg: one-tenth visible in the finished work, nine-tenths submerged, but available to give the whole stability and a sense of force.”  




Here’s an example of a small part of research I did for my novel, WANT TO GO PRIVATE?

Some of the information in the novel was given in the form of a police report. I checked my police reports with a detective in the Special Victims Unit of my local police department.


I also created a timeline of all the events in the novel, and checked them with the FBI, so that I could ensure that my fictional investigation would unfold in a realistic way.


You know your efforts have paid off when a 20 year-detective at NYPD says your book is a must-read:

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN! Go forth and find the scaffold for your own fiction.

Copyright 2020 Sarah Darer Littman
PO Box 201, Cos Cob, CT 06807-0201