Mining your research for ideas and inspiration

Get your finger out of your nose!

That’s not what I meant.

What I mean is that research can be more than just checking the facts, ma’am.

Example #1: Names

I am lousy with names. I write down one name  and then forget it. And I am lousy at coming up with names on the spot. So when I’m reading a magazine or doing research for a project (wiki-walk anyone?) I write down names that I can use later.

Example #2:  Story seeds

Sometimes an idea for a story pops up in my mind while reading an article or book. For example, I read a piece of news about a kid falling down the mine shaft. But what was that kid doing there in the first place? What happened to the kid afterward? Yes, the idea is not original, but the story you spin out of it is all your own.

Example #3: Location, Location, Location

Research on any subject matter tends to unearth a lot of interesting locations; towns, cities, battlefields, castles, mountains, the works.  By tracing the history of a given location you can unearth ancient names for heroes, cultures and artifacts which you can then use in your writing.

Example #4: Themes

Themes are the building blocks of characters, plots and locations. It what gives your story narrative depth. Readers love to explore the multiple layers created by the themes in your book. As you do your research, you are guided by a theme and will also uncover many more. What motivated the King to murder his whole family? Why did the towns folk rebuild their village near an active volcano? What drove the soldier to surrender in the face of the enemy? Why do people remember the star crossed lovers centuries after their death? The themes tie in nicely with mining your research material  for story seeds.

With these examples in hand you can transform your research from a chore to a powerful tool in your writing toolbox. And don’t be afraid if your research takes you (and your WIP) into unexpected places. Wherever you end up might just be the place you needed to be and if not, it may the the starting point for a new story.

Q: Have you ever encountered any of the examples above while doing research? Are they other things that have come about or discovered while doing said research?

8 comments on “Mining your research for ideas and inspiration

  1. Most of my research is done for my world building. Although story ideas come from anywhere. Love your quick tips and will consider them when writing next time.


  2. I’m guilty of WTF names – There was a character (a minor one) whose introduction in a combat story coincided with the first escalation of trouble which would (eventually) lead to a full-blown war. Her name? Majuba Hill. That didn’t go down well with those who knew the reference. I even had the temerity to name a character Michael Simon Trent the third – a “clever” nod towards Mystery Science Theatre… That I interrupted the story every couple of paragraphs to take the piss out of the story I was telling deflated any subtlety that it may have offered. Most of the time I try to remove the dumb pop-culture infused names before I let anyone shoot the idea down, though the temptation to go mad with those kinds of things is always present.

    It isn’t just the history of places I get interested in, it is the hidden places. There are a lot of strange and wonderful secrets tucked away in pretty much any city, but London has more than its’ fair share of hidden no-go areas. Using a mixture of history books, maps (old and new), biographies and word of mouth, anyone with a couple of weeeks in the city should be able to discover at least one or two important sites that have been hushed away. There is still (well, as of 2008 anyway) a graveyard on private property with the headstones of at least a few historically important individuals. A ‘no trespassing’ rule can only be enforced if you’re discovered though. 🙂

    When it comes to research, Rule Of Cool trumps Shown Their Work.


  3. I’ve been doing a lot of research for a non-fiction project. Lots of book reading and note taking, which is good, solid, steady, etc. But a wiki walk isfun and tends to lead to a much more creative research process as each new link sparks another idea.


    • @Impreston

      Fact checking and world building are the main areas for research, no doubt about that. Hope the tips help.


      That’s an epic story unto itself, that is! I found plenty of “hidden” places and things in my research. Of course it doesn’t hurt if you are able to actually visit them or see them. Hope you don’t get caught and good hunting. 🙂


      Wiki walks are the best, if you have time for them. On the other hand you have to known when to stop researching (at least for the moment) and start writing at least for multi-drafters like myself. Otherwise you get nothing done.



  4. Not only do I keep a list of interesting names, I also have a couple of “what to name the baby” books that I’ve underlined names I like for easy reference.

    And you know how some blogs you have to type in a varification before you can comment? If it’s even remotely pronouncable I have a list for it too – comes in handy when you want someone to say something in an alien language. 🙂


    • Baby name books are great, especially for foreign language names. I tend to pick names of reporters and persons in history books and subjects of articles, but baby name websites are also useful.

      As for captchas (sp?) I never thought of using those, but I can see the appeal.

      Thank you Carol for those suggestions.


  5. I’m terrible with remembering names. I tend to use commonplace ones, and as a result, forget what I’ve named different characters. I keep lists of names and characters, just to remind myself who’s who (and so I don’t end up with three ‘Greene’s running about).

    And then, of course, in the research side of things, I’m fascinated by the minute details and anecdotes.

    Great quick tips!


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