Turning Research Into Play

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Research play

When you say the word “Research” to many writers (particularly writers of fiction), you’ll get a moan or an eye roll. For many, research is the least pleasant part of writing. Many writers would rather get on to the fun stuff of stringing words together and creating worlds than dwell on pesky things like geography, authentic details, or the nitty gritty of their main character’s occupation.

(Side note: I’m an oddball who loves research. Probably because it means many trips to the library and stuffing my head with useless information that makes me a joy at parties. “Oh, you want to know all about the climate on Mount Washington? Sure, I can tell you that.”)

However, research doesn’t have to be a drudge. You can begin by taking it offline. There are many ways to immerse yourself in a topic that are far more fun than repetitive googling. You can go to museums or reenactments, infiltrate hobby groups, check out old maps and documents, do in-person interviews or ride-alongs, or take a trip to your novel’s location. Any of these are more fun than staring at a screen.

If you want to do more to make your research even more fun, consider playing. Now, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of play, even for adults. I just think that people need to relax and find the pure joy of having fun more often. If you can combine that with work, so much the better. Some would argue that writers do nothing but play. We play with words and we make stuff up.

You can take it further, though. Say your main character plays baseball, but you’ve never played. Get out there! Join a local rec. league team, or your company’s softball team. Or just get some friends who know the game to play with you. Sure, you’ll still have to do some research on the pro game (if your character is a pro), but you’ll be ahead of the writer who’s never hefted a bat. And if you can, get tickets to a pro game (minor league will do) and see how it looks in person instead of passively watching on TV. Take your friends, too, for a fun night out. You can try out just about any sport for free or just a few bucks somewhere, so give it a go.


Are your characters fighting for their lives? Get some willing friends and stage a mock battle. You can see how bodies move (and fall) and where weapons would be in a fight. (Use fakes, please! Don’t hurt your friends.) If you don’t have friends, get some action figures and let them battle it out on your desk. They won’t have quite the realism of people, but you can still move them around so you can better see and describe the action. Any time you can get action out of your head and into the real world, I think you have a better chance of describing it in a realistic way.

What other kinds of play can you engage in? If your character is an artist, go get some supplies and try it out. You don’t have to be Picasso or spend lot of money to capture the smell of the paint, the sound of paint brushing on canvas, or the heft of a brush. Does she knit? Try a free knitting class at the local craft store. You can try out just about any hobby for very little money.

Is your novel set in a fantasy world full of dragons, dwarves, and mages? Get a copy of the Dungeons and Dragons basic rulebook and set up a play date with some friends. (Or you can go it alone.) Craft adventures that your characters might go on and play them out to the end. Or if your characters live in the modern world, I recommend using the computer game The Sims to craft characters, give them jobs and relationships, and see how it all plays out. There are also excellent board games (and more computer games) that replicate famous battles, allow you to run through a dungeon, or live in different eras.

Like to build? Use Lego or Erector sets to build vehicles or building prototypes. Build a mock up of your city or your character’s house. It doesn’t have to be fancy or architecturally sound, just something to go by. Prefer to cut and paste? Create collages showing your characters, their clothes, locations, and anything else that helps you visualize your story. (Yes, you can do this on Pinterest, but it’s more fun and creative to do it the old fashioned way with old magazines or catalogs.)

There are all kinds of ways to turn research into something playful instead of something to be dreaded. Use your imagination and figure out how you can make learning fun. Not only will you enjoy the research more, you’ll have real-world experience with a topic that you just can’t get from Google.

(Photos courtesy of MonikaP, click)


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