Writing Research – How to Do It & How to Use It

Headshot of Sandra Danby

Journalist and indie author Sandra Danby (Photograph © Simon Cooper)

Every novelist undertakes some degree of research, some do more than others. How do you to turn that research into fiction without wearing the ‘hey, look at me, I did loads of research about this subject’ badge? Self-published novelist and journalist Sandra Danby researched adoption for her first novel, ‘Ignoring Gravity’. Here she shares what she learned along the way.

First, a confession. As a journalist, I love facts. I was taught to fact-check, double and triple check. I painstakingly learned shorthand so I could be sure I’d quoted people correctly. After more than 35 years as a journalist, I’ve found it difficult to shake off these ingrained habits. Not that I wanted to get rid of them totally, but to write fiction I needed to be less rigid.

Examining Identity

I’m fascinated by identity, what makes us, us. As a child, I fantasised about being a different person. When I was I older, I wondered what it would be like to find out you weren’t, after all, the person you thought you were. What if you were told you’d been adopted, and every family story you’d been told by your parents was a lie? That’s the premise of Ignoring Gravity, first in the ‘Rose Haldane: Identity Detective’ series. When journalist Rose is 35, she reads her mother’s secret diary and discovers she was adopted as a baby.

Birth certificate example

Uncovering secrets (Photo © Sandra Danby)

Different Ways to Research

I started researching adoption with the broad theme of identity in my head, Rose’s sketchy character, and no real plotline. I read lots of books about adoption, hovered in online adoption forums, and watched Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost Family on television with a notepad and pen to hand. I took loads of notes, all colour coded and cross-referenced with my box of index cards. I realized early on that plotting my novel shared similarities with plotting a detective novel: secrets to be kept, hints to be dropped, red herrings to be presented.

baptism certificate (Photograph © Sandra Danby)

Piecing together clues

As I read, the information filtered through my brain and trends began to emerge. One thing was clear. There is no right or wrong way of reacting to finding out you are adopted; there is only your way. Researching adoption was a phase of writing my book, but it was also a rite of passage during my transformation from journalist to novelist. After doing all this research, I understood that it had freed me to let my character react the way that was right for her. Some reader reviews have said Rose’s reaction is harsh, unsympathetic, selfish. Others have liked the realism, commenting that Rose is believable, that her story is told sympathetically.

The Resulting Story (And Series)

Cover of Ignoring Gravity

The result of Sandra Danby’s research into adoption

Her story is a difficult one. All adoption stories are difficult. Was I prepared for the very personal reactions of readers? I’m not sure I was, but I know now that my research gave me the foundation to be true to Rose’s character. Ignoring Gravity is her story, an adult who discovers she was adopted as a child. It is not the story of her birth mother or her adoptive mother. The second book of the ‘Rose Haldane: Identity Detective’ series, Connectedness, is the story of a birth mother. Art student Justine finds herself unable to support her baby so she takes the most difficult decision any mother can make. She gives away her baby so she can have a better life. Three decades later, Justine asks Rose Haldane to find her daughter. Sweet Joy, third in the series, is about a foundling, a baby abandoned on a doorstep and subsequently adopted. As an adult, how do you come to terms that not only did your birth parents not want you, they abandoned you. Each book in the Rose Haldane series tells an adoption story from a different point of view, and it is up to Rose to solve the mystery.

What’s Next?

Now, my interest in identity and adoption continues but the hardcore research into adoption has paused. I’m currently re-drafting Connectedness. What am I doing differently with book two? I’m more relaxed about my knowledge of adoption. I’m interested in identity and adoption reunion, so reading around my subject happens pretty continuously. I’m not using index cards either. I guess doing the footslogging in the beginning, gave me the confidence to free my imagination.

What am I researching now? Justine Tree in Connectedness becomes a globally successful artist, so I have been reading biographies of artists, visiting museums and art exhibitions. I write my notes, collect art books, and watch documentaries on television. Yesterday I watched a television profile of Tracey Emin called What Do Artists Do All Day?  She said that, contrary to expectations, she does not draw or paint every day. She runs a business, she has business meetings with her accountant, her PR team, her exhibition team, she is travelling to the Far East, to Australia. As a result I am now rethinking how I portray Justine’s day-to-day existence in Connectedness. It is not essential to the plot, but I hope it contributes to her being a believable character.

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26 Responses to Writing Research – How to Do It & How to Use It

  1. Dean Morrissey March 9, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

    I tend to organize research into chapters in the early going just to follow the flow and see where it goes on its own first.This process has had me change directions many times.,but its the only method I really trust

  2. Emily Arden September 4, 2015 at 9:21 am #

    Great insights – thanks. As a trained historian who is now an author of historical fiction, research is very important to me.

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

      I can’t imagine the detail needed to research for historical fiction, Emily. The research I do can become consuming, stopping me from writing. Do you write about a period you studied?

  3. Denise Barnes September 3, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

    Your post was really interesting, Sandra, as I had to do some similar research for my second novel of The Voyagers Trilogy, and again on the third book, as they are both to do with adoption and identity. I find it fascinating and love the programmes you mention.

    Good luck with your debut novel. It sounds great.

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

      Thanks Denise, I will check out your books too. I have a stack of episodes of both TV programmes waiting on my Sky+ planner!

  4. Lynne Pardoe September 3, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    What a great post and a great subject for a novel. I was a social worker for many years and worked in fostering and adoption & never had one boring day, its fascinating as is the whole of social work. I remember one little girl who lived in a grand household had no idea she was adopted until she overheard two maids talking about it when she was in her teens. The shock lasted years. I love your cover and will read you book, it sounds great!

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

      Hi Lynne, I’d love to touch base with you, someone with your experience is like gold to me. If you’d like to chat via e-mail, could you drop me a line via the contact page at my website? Thanks

  5. David James September 3, 2015 at 11:18 am #

    As you say, creating a believable character is essential. So many historical novels, for example, are so overburdened by research that the reader gets choked. I’m not just thinking of Hilary Mantel and Peter Carey now, but lesser fry whom I’ll not embarrass by naming. The important thing is do you become immersed in the problems of a consciousness, not whether the history of glassmaking or whatever is exact.

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi David, I always find my first draft is too research-heavy, but that’s a relief as my word count is far too high. It is quite a subtle trick, though, cutting just enough research to get it right.

  6. Toi Thomas September 3, 2015 at 12:30 am #

    I too use the adoption theme in many of my stories based on my personal experience with it, but research is still needed when getting into semantics. I also enjoy researching aspects of identity as it pertains to names and their meaning. This book sounds like an interesting read.

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

      Thanks Toi, I find identity absolutely fascinating. I think because I turned out so different from the rest of my family!

  7. Heather Sylvawood September 2, 2015 at 10:14 pm #

    I tend to do the research en route as I write. Even though I knew the subject well from my own experience, I found there were many points in my novel ‘More Than I Could Bear’ that I simply hadn’t foreseen – like were cassette players invented in the year of my novel? Who would have been featuring in the newspaper headlines and what would public opinion be about current books? Crazy things totally unrelated to autism – the subject of my book.

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

      I research before and during writing too, exactly as you say, Heather. I did it the other day, I was writing about the Royal Academy of Art and had to stop to check facts. Turned out the assumption I had made was completely wrong. But that’s one of the things I love about writing, it takes me in directions I didn’t expect.

  8. LuAnn Braley September 2, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    My bugaboo is using ‘research’ as an excuse to not ever finish a work. But I’m getting better. Thank you for this instructive post!

  9. Ann Swinfen September 2, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    By coincidence, my most recent blog is about research. I talk about the different types of research I do for my historical novels – places, people, major events, details of daily life, clothes, food and so on. If anyone in interested, it’s here:

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

      That’s a really helpful post, Ann. I too gather visual information, particularly photos. Music is helpful too, if I find something that fits the period or character I am writing about.

  10. Philippa Rees September 2, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    At the risk of seeming self promotion, I wondered whether you would be interested in the story behind A Shadow in Yucatan which was featured some time back on this self same Alli guest blog slot. It is about the background story of an unmarried mother faced with giving up her child for adoption in sixties Southern America.

    If interested you can read my encounter with her here

    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

      This looks interesting Philippa, I’ll check out the link.

  11. Corey Furman September 2, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    As an adoptee, this sounds like it might be an interesting read… Though the article seems less about research and more about the subject matter.


    • Sandra Danby September 12, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

      Hi Corey, Thanks for commenting. Yes I agree the post is a bit superficial about the research detail, but if you’re interested I have written more about research at my blog

  12. Wendy Jones September 2, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    What an interesting blog post. I loved the insight into research. I agree it is important to research without then using it all in an info dump.


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