Module 3: Writing

Writing Your First Draft, Part Four: Research and Character Dialogue

Join Jim Menick, an editor at Reader's Digest, for the final session on "Writing Your First Draft." You'll learn how to write realistic dialogue for your characters and how to conduct research for your settings and references. Whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction, dialogue and research are critical pieces of your book that you should not forget.

Video Transcript

Hello again, this is Jim Menick, and we're up to the final webinar of "Writing Your First Draft." This time out, we're mostly going to talk about dialogue – writing good dialogue. You've probably heard the expression, or thought this yourself, that a certain writer has a really good ear for dialogue. And what this means is they really capture the way people talk on the page, but it's not a literal thing. People talk differently than you write dialogue. Writing dialogue requires certain tricks and certain understandings so that it sounds good in the reader's ear as they're reading the book. That's what we're going to talk about in this webinar.

Whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction, dialogue and research are critical pieces that you should not overlook. Without research, your readers may be turned off or even insulted by mistakes in your references to places, eras, occupations, terminology and any other facts woven into your book.

Dialogue, by definition, is the part of the storytelling process in which your characters communicate. The role of dialogue in our stories must accomplish multiple tasks to be successful. Dialogue must first increase your story's pace. It should also showcase the character's unique voice and reveal who that character is by allowing readers to see how the character treats others. Dialogue can also be used effectively to increase the conflict and complicate the plot by revealing the secret or lie.

After you've written dialogue, make sure to read it out loud. Don't use dialogue to simply deliver information about a backstory. For example, "I can't believe our home was repossessed last year, honey" isn't good dialogue, because it's obvious that the partner already knows this information and its only purpose is to tell the reader. Next, remember you're creating a story that is meant to be entertaining and not just another day in someone's life. You don't want a character who goes on about nothing. You also don't want small talk, because this type of dialogue does nothing to move the story forward, and it doesn't help develop your characters. In real life, people ramble on about things just to converse, but in a storyline, the words that come out of the mouths of our players should fill some purpose.

Make sure your dialogue feels natural and has a flow that will keep your readers in the moment. Avoid things like having your characters repeatedly call each other by their first names. It's not normal to constantly say a name such as: "Mike, can you do this?" and "Mike, that's not how you do that." The reader should know who is talking by the way you've set up the scene. Don't let your characters become too dramatic. Let your characters show emotions with actions. It's very easy to fall into the trap of letting your characters sound like you. To avoid this, you have to keep your characters completely distinct in your mind. Also, don't overuse descriptive tags – the text after the quotation that identifies who is speaking. Typically, you can simply stick to he said or she said. Overusing descriptive tags tends to draw too much attention to the tag itself, when the reader should be focused on the dialogue. Finally, make sure your character's speech is consistent throughout.

Research is a critical preparation step that you shouldn't overlook. Without research, your readers may be turned off or even insulted by mistakes in your references. The first and most important part of writing nonfiction is the research. Reliable source material is critical. Always choose original sources first. Expert interviews are more reliable than secondary sources, such as journals, databases and books. All source material needs to be properly annotated. Try to back up every fact with three sources. This ensures reliability. Note that it's not necessary to include references as part of the main manuscript, but they should be part of a submission package to a publisher. As a fiction writer, you want to create an authentic world with believable characters. The goal is not to bog down your story, but to paint a realistic picture in the minds of readers using descriptions, terms and settings that are accurate and believable. To create a truly authentic fiction story and a solid nonfiction book, here are some ways to conduct research before you begin writing: talk to experts, visit or visually tour your settings, read books, tap into local resources and utilize the Internet.

It can often be beneficial to speak with experts. Most experts are easily accessible by e-mail, phone and some may be willing to meet in person. Many experts offer this type of help because it enhances their own reputation and credentials. Here are some tips on how to prepare for speaking with an expert. First, define your questions ahead of time and only ask what you can't discover easily yourself somewhere. Use this visit with the expert for the hard-to-find specialty information you need. Respect their time. Like everyone, they have busy lives and other obligations. Limit the number of times you contact them for help and the amount of time you spend with them during each session. Be grateful for all the information you get from the expert. Thank them for their time and their expertise. Finally, give the experts credit if they offer extensive or critical help that you used in the book.

The setting of a book can be as important as the main character itself and can make or break a book. One of the best ways to achieve a realistic perspective is to actually visit the place. Take notes. Take photos and video. Record your thoughts. Record information from your five senses. What's in the storefront windows? What do you hear? Is there a smell in the air? These are the tools that you can use in your writing to bring readers into that place, that moment. If you're unable to travel to the place, find videos or television shows that highlight the location. Read travel guide books about it. Study maps of the area. You can even use Google Maps to virtually walk down the street and view photos of buildings and attractions in the area.

Another way to learn about a time period, profession, culture or place is to read books about your topic. Reference books and novels can give you a deeper understanding. Additionally, read other successful authors who write in your genre. Many local colleges have classes on any number of subjects. It is a wonderful way to learn about a particular topic, plus you can often chat with the professors to gather more details. You can also check your local paper or look online for upcoming lectures and special events dedicated to a topic that interests you. Finally, contact local clubs that can provide material on your desired topic.

Online source material is commonplace and easily accessible in today's world. But be aware that websites with a .org or a .edu are much more reliable than websites ending in a .com. That said, web sources need to be backed up with extensive supporting material. Never use sources such as Wikipedia or Though these sites may send you in the direction of valued source material, their standards are considered subpar by the reference community. When researching family history for a memoir or biography, often you can find information by accessing online newspaper archives, birth and marriage registries and immigration records. The National Archives has census records, military records, land records and much more. Libraries often have databases with access to this information also.

That concludes our series on "Writing Your First Draft." Next up, we're going to talk about the all-important skill of polishing your work after you've done that first draft. For information about publishing your book, go to, where you can get some information and a free consultation.