(ed: Rob Hart is a former journalist, and so if you need someone to tell you how to start researching for your novel? He’s your guy. (Also, his newest, Paradox Hotel, fucking rocks. It’s slick, cinematic sci-fi noir.)
Around when I was 18, I decided I wanted to write novels. I was failing out of an art conservatory, and realized graphic design was not in my future. When it was time to change majors, I figured: a creative writing degree is a clear path to waiting tables but if I go for a journalism degree, at least I can make some money!
If you read that and decide you don’t want to take any advice from me, I will understand. But… I was 18. Cut me a little slack, okay?
Anyway, I excelled in my school’s journalism program, then landed a job working for a daily newspaper in New York City, which I did for four years. At which point I saw the industry was on the verge of cratering, so I turned tail and ran for the hills.
But journalism placed some great tools into my fiction-writing toolbox. I’ve got good observational skills. I type real damn fast. I don’t miss deadlines. I understand the need to kill darlings, because often you’re dealing with a word count (or in my case, column inches), and a sweet-ass detail or quote might not fit—and that’s okay.
I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about research. That, I think, is my writing superpower. It helped me on The Warehouse, which was about what would happen if one online retailer completely took over the American economy and housing market (and then, slowly, the government). And it helped me again with The Paradox Hotel, which is about time travel but also evil billionaires and Buddhism and stuff.
For your reading pleasure, here is my research toolbox. As with any and all writing advice: your mileage may vary. Take what works for you and discard the rest. Oh, also, some of this would be tough to do in the United States of COVID, so make sure to have a mask handy.
CREATE BASKET, FILL WITH IDEAS. Every time I get an idea I think has legs, I create a Google Doc. For months, The Paradox Hotel was a Google Doc that said “time travel hotel.” As I come across relevant books or articles, or have stray ideas I think might fit the concept, I toss it in there.
I like Google Docs because they’re collaborative, easy enough to access, and I can keep an icon on my phone’s homescreen, so even if I’m on the subway or standing in line at the coffee shop or waking screaming from a nightmare, I can jot down notes.
But you do you. Carry a notebook. Shout ideas at strangers. Get notes tattooed on your arm. Just find something that fits your style.
ASSEMBLE YOUR AVENG… ER, UH, SOURCES. For me, there are two types of research. Direct and indirect sources.
Direct sources are explicitly about the subject matter you’re writing about. They can come from books, but also documentaries and news articles. So for Warehouse, it was books and articles on Wal-Mart and Amazon (Wal-Mart being better for this purpose; Amazon is a new company and not as much has been written about it, whereas Wal-Mart has been around since the 60s, so there’s a much deeper record of how it reshaped the economy).
For Paradox, it was a lot of time travel and quantum physics and Eastern philosophy.
Indirect research is more about tone: for Warehouse, I read The Trial by Franz Kafka and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. But I also read a lot of mainstream thrillers just to learn more about their mechanics. For Paradox, I watched movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Bad Times at the El Royale and Timecop and Primer.
Sometimes you need to live in an adjacent fictional world for a little bit. Besides giving you more of a frame of reference, it’ll help you see tropes and ideas that you can put your own spin on.
Pro-tip: Want to make your life a lot easier? Read your research books in eBook format. You can highlight stuff, and then it spits all your highlights into a file. It is game-changing.
THE NEWS IS YOUR FRIEND EVEN THOUGH IT HATES YOU. If you’re writing speculative fiction, or anything with an eye toward current events, it’s good to read the news. A lot. Which can sometimes be very depressing! But I’m a news junkie and besides informing my books (I tend to enjoy writing about how billionaires are douchebags), it’s also where I get most of my ideas. The entirety of Warehouse sprung out of this one article.
This is why a Google Doc, or just some other repository, is important to have. My Warehouse document was 80 pages long. Half of that was just links.
News articles are also a great way to find information that you don’t need to waste time reading a whole book about. For example, in Paradox, time travel is what the space industry is turning into: it was developed by the government and later, as a way to raise money, was opened up to tourism. So I did a little reading on the commercialization of space travel. And I learned why reaching space is so valuable (it ain’t just to send rich people to ride on rockets that look like wangs—but you can read the book to find out more…).
MAKE NEW FRIENDS! People like to talk about themselves and their jobs. Use this.
Before I settled on Paradox, I was working on a book about a world where the power grids got wiped out by massive solar flares. I found an expert at the forefront of sounding the alarm on this. I sent him an e-mail, told him I was an author working on a book about the subject, and asked him if I could send him some questions. He said yes. I also spoke to Con Ed, the power utility in New York (which is where the book would have been based), to talk about their countermeasures, the science of it, what recovery would look like. And I spoke to the Office of Emergency Management, trying to figure out what the response to a massive, permanent blackout would entail. Those last two, I contacted their press/PR departments.
How do you find these resources? Think about your subject, and who the authority on it might be. My second book is set in a strip club; I had a friend put me in contact with a friend of his who was a stripper. My fifth book was about the heroin crisis on Staten Island; I met with a recovered heroin addict who lived on the island. Paradox features a trans character; I talked to two friends who are trans to get their perspectives.
Reach out respectfully, offer to buy coffee or a meal if you’re setting up an in-person interview (always the best kind), record the conversation (with their permission) but don’t be afraid to jot down notes in case the recording fails, and do your research beforehand so you’re asking good, targeted questions. Their job is to fill in gaps in your research, and provide personal anecdotes you can use to inform your story.
And always ask the most useful questions in journalism: is there anything else you think I could have asked, or information this has brought up that you think is worth knowing? That’s a good way to end things. Sometimes they’ll see an aspect that you didn’t even think of, and that’ll bring you down new paths.
GO TO THERE. For Paradox I knew I needed the hotel to have a “look.” And we all know what hotels look like, but there was a lot of value in being inside a hotel, and looking at it from a storytelling perspective.
I knew the Paradox needed a loot, and after a whole lot of Google Image searching, I settled on the TWA Hotel at JFK (I think a lot of hotel-based stories lean into Art Deco design, whereas the TWA is mid-century modern, which looks both retro and futuristic, which worked well for a time travel book…).
Lucky for me the TWA hotel was nearby. I wrote a nice e-mail, which I sent to a few of the addresses on the website (the media contact, the manager, the archivist). An event coordinator got back to me and gave me a tour. He told me about the construction, design, and history of the space, and let me take a ton of photos, (you can find some of them on my Twitter and Instagram). It helped immensely—not just in being able to visualize my own hotel, but in creating action and momentum in the plot.
Pro-tip: That Google Doc or research file you’re keeping? Create an acknowledgements list. This way you don’t forget to thank the hotel event coordinator when you finish the book two years later.
GOOGLE EARLY, GOOGLE OFTEN. Seriously, the Googs is your best friend—sometimes you just have to spend a day shotgun-searching relevant phrases and picking through endless links to find what you need.
But also: Image search is how I found the TWA Hotel. Street view is like a writer’s best friend. Writing about an unfamiliar city or neighborhood? Boom. Go for a little “walk.” I’ve used map and street view a lot when writing books about unfamiliar locations, or locations I hadn’t been to in a long time.
Street view is also helpful if you can’t afford to travel—or don’t want to, what with the world being on fire.
PATRONIZE YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY; YOU ALREADY PAID FOR IT [WITH TAXES]. Your library is chock-full of resources. Reference books. Old newspapers. Some of which haven’t been digitized so you wouldn’t be able to access them otherwise.
And the best part? The very best part?! Librarians are awesome. You can say “hey I am looking for information on this subject” and instead of getting borked by Google search algorithms, or spending hours clicking through non-relevant links, you get a real-life smart person who can help guide you.
It’s like the internet but way less frustrating.
This is an especially good resource if you’re writing anything historical, especially if it’s about a certain town or city. Local libraries (should) have local newspapers going back decades, and again, a lot of this shiz will not have been digitized; i.e., you ain’t gonna find it on Google.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP. This is very important. For me. I like the research phase. I like learning new stuff. But I will often fall down rabbit holes. Like this book on warehouse management which I read half of for Warehouse and was a complete waste of time.
Eventually you have to know when you have enough information. And, sure, you’ll find new things to check along the way. But, how do you know when enough is enough?
I dunno. You have to figure that out. For me, it’s when I’m getting completely exhausted by the work and the story is starting to claw its way out of my chest. Then I know it’s time to take all that research and write like a motherfucker.
Rob Hart is the author of The Paradox Hotel. His last novel, The Warehouse, sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. He also wrote the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson.