Dan Brown’s Research Techniques Meant He Sold Over 200 Million Copies World Wide
With 200 million copies sold world-wide, Dan Brown is a name most of us recognise. But Brown was late to the writing party, he stumbled across writing at the age of 30 just by luck. He was holidaying in Tahiti and happened to pick up the book ‘Doomsday Conspiracy’ by Sidney Sheldon. After reading it cover to cover he was amazed.
It was the first time he realised that this genre extended to an adult audience and he thought to himself.
“Hey I could do that”
In 1996, two years after Dan became a full-time writer, yet his success was a way off. Two years later he published his first novel, Digital Fortress. Brown tells the story of his first signing experience, he was excited, you would be wouldn’t you. The 3-hour signing began.
He waited and he waited.
Except for the one person that asked him the directions to the restroom.
That is a far cry from where he is today, Brown is worth a staggering $160 million and has everything any one person could dream of. He does what he loves for a living, he’s really quite good at it and most importantly he loves it.
From that very first book signing, Brown realised one thing. You have to love the process, you have to write because you love to write. The process is the reward, nothing else.
And part of that process is researching.
Now Brown differs considerably from most fiction writers because he embeds a heavy amount of fact into his writing. Finding those facts, finding the right settings for his stories, understanding the ins and outs of art, religion and science, well that’s all in a day’s work for Brown.
1. The First Step is Exploring You Must Answer One Simple Question
Do I want to write about this?
When you first start anything, especially something you don’t know much about, the first question to answer is: do I want to write about this?
You might think you want to write about this thing now and so you start the research process. However, if halfway through it might become apparent that this thing isn’t particularly interesting, it’s not holding your attention enough to spark curiosity. In reality, you’re finding it a chore to read about this topic.
If that’s the case.
The first question you are trying to answer is a very simple one. You must want to write about this subject else the whole novel will be a slog. Don’t worry about the details for now, in that very first stage of research, answer that one question.
Do you find this topic interesting enough to write a novel about it?
2. The Second Step is Research in Depth
Now it’s time to get serious.
Now you’ve confirmed that you find this subject interesting enough to spend more time on it, next comes the research of depth. This is a much different type of research.
This is a type of research that might take a while.
For example, in writing Origin, Brown tells us how he read 4 books concluding that Darwinism is all made up. Now, of course, Brown didn’t believe that but he read those books to get a deeper idea of what people might be reading.
He wanted to understand the counter-arguments.
This is where you’ll likely find interesting people and interesting places. Brown says he doesn’t set out his research with spaces in mind. He will find them by accident and realise how they fit perfectly.
If he finds the perfect space or person he’ll put it in his (metaphorical) pocket and save it for later. Depending on where he is in his writing process it might be just the place he was looking for or it might be something he can use later.
As you research, you will be building pillars which will help you set the scene, save these places and people, they come in handy later.
3. Talk to Real People Once You’ve Gotten a Decent Understanding
Once you’ve got a basic understanding of the subject, take modern art, for example, you need to delve deeper. In his book Origin, Brown writes about the Guggenheim Museum, so he went to visit it himself. He spoke the curator and asked him about modern art.
There will be things that the internet can’t tell you.
In that case, you need to get out there and speak to real people and see what they have to say. You will be amazed by how helpful people are, people love to talk about their craft and educating others on why they love this thing so much.
But when you go and speak to these people, remember that they are busy.
Don’t waste their time with questions you can find the answers to on the internet, if you could do that, there is no point going to see them. Instead, ask questions that perplex you now you’ve got a deeper understanding of what the subject is all about.
You want to get insights that no one has ever gotten, so you don’t want to be wasting time asking questions for which the answers are readily available. You need to think of these experts as a fountain of knowledge and your job is to understand what of the fountain has already been told and find out the rest.
Don’t waste time asking the same questions as everyone else, do your research and dig deeper.
4. Absorb First and Then Write Down
When you are somewhere new, this place that you are planning to use in your book or novel, you need to first understand what it feels like to just be in it. Don’t worry about scribbling it down or recording your thoughts.
Worry about how you feel.
Absorb all this place has to offer.
That way when you write the details down of this place you have an instinctual feeling towards it. You’ve spent time there. You know how the light shines through the windows. How the floors feel. What the air smells like.
This is much more telling in your writing than anything else. People will know the difference.
Feel the space you are writing about before anything else.
5. Research Exhaustively to Find Connections
The further you go, the more connections you find.
Brown asks us to not skimp on the research, it will kill a book in the end. When he research he’s not focused on the structure or the plot, he’s just letting the research guide him.
He has this fascination with connections, how one thing relates to another.
If you have 100 pieces of information, you’ve been exhaustive in your research, you are bound to find the connections. There is more opportunity for these pieces of information to be connected.
If you decide to pull out 3 pieces of information then try to find the connections between the two, the likelihood is that there won’t be any connections.
Work hard to gather information, you have a much higher chance of finding connections if you do.
6. Recognise When It’s Turned Into Procrastination
The trouble with research is that it can quite quickly become unproductive. You need to find the balance between researching effectively and exhaustively but also not wasting time.
You don’t need to visit the Guggenheim Museum 7 times to get a feel for it, 1–2 times will do. You don’t need to find 700 pieces of information in order to find enough connections for a book, 100–200 pieces will do.
Nothing, according to Brown, replaces sitting down and doing the work. Be careful to not use research as an excuse to procrastinate.
There is a point at which research becomes procrastination.
You need to recognise the point at which you know enough to get going. You, as the writer, need to appreciate that you don’t have all the answers right now but that level of information isn’t needed to start the book.
And if there comes a point whereby you get stuck and you don’t have enough information to write about the Guggenheim Museum (even though you’ve been there 7 times) leave that bit blank and move on.
Dan Brown uses ‘XXX’ for the missing pieces of information that he needs to go back to find later. You could do a similar thing. You need to recognise that the research is important but equally, so is writing the book.
In Conclusion — Dan Brown’s Lessons
The overarching theme here is the important role research plays in a great book. Research isn’t something you should be glossing over and quickly finding the answers, in order to plug the gaps.
Research should be fun and should educate your reader as they explore your novel. Research gives a level of confidence to the reader, that you’ve done the work required to write a brilliant novel. For Brown, it’s absolutely fundamental to the work he does.
He takes it very seriously.
Research should first be inquisitive, you’re trying to figure out whether it’s the right subject for you. Then it should be deep. It should explore every corner of this topic, to make sure you are fully competent, enough to write about it. Then, to add greater depth, you should talk to the experts, people that have worked in the area for years. Then comes the time to connect the dots, piecing the information together bit by bit. Once you’ve got all that, don’t let it fall into procrastination.
The research will make or break your book. You should take it seriously.