It’s all about the research – or is it? – Zara Stoneley

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By Zara Stoneley

‘Write what you know’ is one of those phrases the majority of aspiring writers have heard. But if that’s all we did, and abandoned those wild flights of fantasy a lot of us have, we wouldn’t need research, would we? But I still think it’s great advice – depending on how you interpret it.♥

What is ‘what you know’? I go along with those that think this has been misunderstood (it’s fine though for you to take it however you like). To me it’s about emotions and not events. Authors (in the main) haven’t murdered anybody, haven’t lived in or created fear, can’t transport themselves forwards or backwards in time, and haven’t necessarily tried out all those positions in bed – but they do know what it’s like to feel fear, love, lust, pain, jealousy, to be excited, to feel choked or to laugh until they cry. You don’t have to research those things (they’re the bits you know), you just have to work out how to put them into words that will stir the same emotions in your reader.

A good story isn’t just about emotion though. You need to write about events you may never have experienced, the story needs a setting, and the characters need backgrounds and lives (even if all the detail doesn’t all come out in the book) – and you need to get your facts right. There’s nothing pulls some readers out of a story faster than reading something factually inaccurate. Here are my top three areas of research that will apply to more or less any novel.


Years ago you would have had to visit a place to find out what it was like, but now, with the internet there are words, pictures and videos that can take you right there. When I write, if I’m paying a fleeting visit to a place then I might make do with online research, but if a location is key to the story I like to go there. Describing location is about creating a feeling, it’s more than just sights – it’s sounds, smells, how the place makes you feel. My Tippermere books are set in Cheshire, which for me was a logical choice as I know a lot of the villages pretty intimately and love them, it made it easy for me to create the imaginary Tippermere and make it real. In The Holiday Swap, I again used Cheshire as one location, but the other setting is Barcelona. Without knowing what makes the place tick and seeing day-to-day life it would have been a lot more challenging to transport readers there.

A moment in time

When you paint a picture, you need to get it right. Check facts out – don’t describe dancing daffodils in December, or frolicking new-born lambs in September (okay these are obvious – but make sure you get the trickier ones right). Know the country and its climate – I spend a lot of time in Barcelona for example, and I know what normal weather conditions are like, the months it’s windy, the months it rains. Know your seasons for the setting, and if the story is set in the past make sure historical details are correct.


If you’re writing about a teacher and your only knowledge of the classroom is a hazy memory from your own time at school then you need to do your homework. Find somebody to chat to (a lot of people love talking about their work) – times change and your facts have to be right for the era your story is written in. Get the facts wrong in a contemporary story and somebody will tell you about it. It’s essential to know your characters background, so that their actions are plausible. If your character is a vet, you need to know that it takes 5 years at University (in the UK) to qualify. If they suffer from a medical condition you need to know the causes, symptoms, treatment.

So you’ve done your research, and now you get to the tricky bit. How much to include in the story. Here’s some do’s and don’ts –

  • Don’t let your story read like a how-to, or visitors guide. Use your facts sparingly, as seasoning. It’s more important to know the facts than it is to include them in the novel.
  • Do let the facts colour your story and add depth and life. If you know what you’re writing about, then it will show.
  • Don’t expect your editor to tell you what’s wrong – it’s not their job to do the research.
  • And as for the sex bit – it’s wise to work out if it’s physically possible to get in that position!

Best-selling author Zara Stoneley was born in a small village in Staffordshire and wanted to be James Herriot when she grew up. After completing an IT degree, working as a consultant, running a dog grooming business, teaching, and working at a veterinary practice, she decided she had more than enough material to write several books! Her books include The Holiday Swap, Stable Mates, Country Affairs and Country Rivals, all published by HarperCollins. Her latest novel Summer with the Country Village Vet, the first book of a new series, was published by HarperCollins in June 2017.

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