Calling this a phase isn’t quite right, because research for your novel is continually weaved into the writing and editing rather than standing as a preamble.
The bulk of researching, however, is done prior to putting down your first words, serving as a foundation and inspiration for your story and the world in which your characters live.
I am writing historical fiction and so my novel may rely on more real world details. However, even a science fiction novel or vampire romance is better when it feels genuine. That comes from the reader’s belief in the world you’ve created, a world that is consistent and well defined.
If you’re travelling through a black hole and give me some science around how that would work, then I’ll say, “OK, sure. That makes sense.” If your blood-thirsty sexy vampire can’t fly until he reaches some higher plane of vampirism, and you lay out the rules or requirements for reaching that level, I’ll be like, “of course he can’t fly. He needs the runestone of Garbithia and the blood of an elder vampire! Doi.” OK, maybe there’s no research for that exactly, but you can research what happens to organs when blood stops flowing, or what wood is best for long lasting moisture resistant coffins.
Good research is key, and to make sure your time spent researching is not wasted or needlessly repeated, you must organize your findings.
Tips for organization:
From a website:
- Get the URL! You can bookmark it or copy and paste it to your notes, but if you find something good, get the URL before you leave the page. I forgot a few times and was frustrated when having to retrace steps to find it all over again.
- Add a note for where it was on the site. The full URL is great but if you are really only interested in paragraphs 3 to 5 out of 30 then make that note with the URL.
From a book:
- Get the Title, Author, etc. in case you don’t have the physical copy.
- Highlight the good stuff. If you read hundreds of pages and then need to reference something later, you’re gonna hate yourself when trying to find that one crucial fact.
- For every highlight, make an entry in your notes. Page number, paragraph, what it was about, if not just writing out the highlighted text.
- Organize your notes under subjects and/or use #tags. Some things will go under multiple subjects. It’s better if you have duplicate information under many headers than trying for an exclusive match.
- Keep the extras. Even if you find that a lot of your initial research is no longer needed, like you took a different direction with your novel, don’t just delete old research. There may still be good information there you’ll want to go back to later. Just move it under a new subject at the end of your notes. Who knows? Maybe that will all be part of book two in the series!
- Save images too. People, houses, clothing, cars, sunsets. The details of these images can really help feed your imagination and help in your descriptions on the page.
- Make a timeline. This one might be more specific for my novel, but knowing when real world events happened can influence the character journey, dialogue, or which shoes they wear that day. Even holidays can change the course of the story. I looked up where religious holidays fell in 1812 because my main characters would be planning their lives around such things.
You’re going to record a lot of great information, and a small fraction of it actually makes it into the book. Solid research, though, helps create a solid image in your mind, and that will translate to the reader.
For fun, here’s some of the things I researched, all within the constraints of the United States in 1812: German Baptists, baptism, men and women’s clothing, distilleries, crop planting and harvesting dates, newspapers, travelling speeds for horses, wagons, boats, weapons, the Odawa language, animal trapping, the fur trade, naval and land battles, cleaning chickens and pigs, Pennsylvania flora and fauna, river and road names, county lines, grain and lumber mills, turnpikes, architecture, various religions, political parties, professions, treaties, and so much more!
Thanks for reading. Please follow, subscribe, and comment. Do you have any additional tips for improving the effectiveness of the research phase? How much time did you spend researching versus writing?