The Role of Research in the Writing Process

by Steve Alten

So you've decided to become an author. You've got the basics of your story, perhaps a few characters and their arcs, and now. . . you're stuck in neutral. Is it that infamous "writer's block?" No, it's called lack of research.

Research is the elixir that reinvigorates your storyline, opens your chapters, and liberates you when you've written yourself into a suffocating closet. It makes you an expert in things you know diddley about, and elevates you from a wannabee to an author.

So how do we begin?


First, let's start with a basic premise. In my third novel, Domain, I began with a "what if?"

What if the asteroid that struck Earth 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs, wasn't an asteroid...

Step one: access the internet.

The internet is an incredible tool for authors in that it leads you down paths you never knew existed. In researching the asteroid I was led to the Chixulub Impact Crater off the Yucatan Peninsula, to the Mayan homeland, to the Mayan folklore, to the Mayan Calendar and its 2,000 year old prophecy that predicts humanity will perish on December 21st in the year 2012.


Refocusing on the Mayans, I found similarities in other cultures. The Inca. The Egyptians. Now I'm researching pyramids and other mysteries, and my mind is swimming with the ingredients of a real thriller. I now have a starting point (65 mya) and end (the day of doom in 2012) and now my characters can be re-created to move the storyline forward.

CONTINUING RESEARCH happens once the words start hitting the paper (or monitor). Where should I begin the intro to my main character? After many misses, I finally hit upon a mental asylum in Miami. Back to research. I need a mental disorder, asylum details, some terminology that sounds like I know what the hell a paranoid schizophrenic is, voilĂ ...and chapter one is down.

Is it that simple? Hell no, but research simplifies the process.

Domain takes place in the year 2012. Back to research. What is the near-future like? Buildings, cars, roadways, economy...who is the President? When is the next election? Damn, this is getting complicated...but the novel is growing. I am not stuck in a dark closet with my basic plot and nowhere to go, I am adding flesh to my story, letting it take me to places that I had no inkling were there for the taking.

A scene with the new President? Okay, but do I need to stop by the Oval Office? No, just a click on my computer and I have schematics that detail the White House. An alien encounter? More difficult, but I have collections of "alien artwork" to help inspire my imagination. (The internet is great, but it is not everything. My real-life visit to Chichen Itza definitely made an impact.)

Bottom Line: If the devil is in the details, then it is research that exorcises him.

Steve Alten is the New York Times bestselling author of MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror and The Trench. Both books were bestsellers about carcharodon Megalodon, the 60-foot predecessor of the Great White shark. His latest novel, Domain, is a thriller about the Mayan Calendar's 2,000 year old prophecy that predicts Humanity will perish on December 21st in the year 2012. His next novel, Goliath, will be released by Tor in June, 2002.