That's right! It's time for everybody's favorite part of novel writing.
(Okay, that was sarcastic.)
If you are a Plotter like myself, you're probably down with doing a bit of research. As for my Pantsers...well, I do apologize in advance.
But guess what? Researching your novel doesn't have to be a pluck-out-your-own-eyeballs kind of event. I can even teach you how to become a research ninja if you give me the chance. But how exactly does one make researching a fairly painless task?
By creating a plan of attack! Say goodbye to mind-numbing internet browsing and dull, old encyclopedias. Gone are the days of crappy research. It's time to usher in the era of research champions. Hi-yah!
Something tells me that you're a fighter, and that you won't stand for the same old boring research. Am I right? Well, you don't have to fight alone....
Identify topics that need researching. Start compiling a comprehensive list of research topics. Keep this list somewhere easily accessible, either in a notebook you use daily or in software like Scrivener or Evernote. You can also try out the brainstorming worksheets I've put together above. Simply click the PDF button to download all four pages and print.
Identify offshoot topics. Chances are, some of the research topics you listed are pretty broad. Take the time now to think of any offshoot topics or subtopics that you may want to research. List them under your original topics (or in the lines provided on the brainstorming worksheets).
For example, if you are writing a story about World War II, one of your research topics may be women in the 1940's. Offshoot and subset topics may include popular female names in the early 20th century, female fashion in the 1940's, WWII jobs for females, and letters from the WWII battlefront.
Organize your topics by level of importance. Not every research topic is going to be as crucial to your novel as others. Reorganize your topics and subtopics by level of importance so that you can organize and optimize the time you have to research.
Set a purpose and goals for each research topic. Each topic you've listed should be there for a reason: to add value to your story. Consider why you've chosen to include each topic in your research time and ditch any topics that just don't serve a purpose. You can also set goals for each topic so that you know exactly what you need to look for when you start digging into the books.
Using our example from above, you may need to research popular female names in the early 20th century in order to keep your story feeling realistic. That is your purpose. Your goal for that topic may be to find names for the mother and her four daughters, as well as ten other names that you can use for minor characters.
Create a research agenda. Now that your research topics are planned out, consider how you are going to go about your research. You definitely don't want to wing it or you'll lost valuable productivity time. Here are some good questions to ask yourself so that you can set research parameters...
- How much time per day and total do I want to spend researching?
- Do I know anyone who I might be able to interview for personal, first-hand information?
- Are there any places nearby or that I'd be willing to travel to that would give me hands-on experience on one of my research topics?
- What websites and books will I visit, check out of the library, or buy in order to complete my research?
You don't need to spend too much time answering these questions. A quick Google search should give you an idea of where you want to go, what book you'll purchase, and what websites you'll visit. Getting a plan together ahead of time will help you stay focused while you work.
Conducting an interview is an easy way to get some fantastic research. Interviews allow you to collect warm and realistic information about your topic rather than learning everything from a textbook. Here are some steps you can take to conduct a professional interview...
1) Always offer a gift to show your appreciation. Your interviewee is taking time out of their day to answer your questions. You should be thankful! To show your appreciation, bring a small gift like flowers or wine to the interview. You could also try hosting the interview over brunch, your treat. If you are interviewing a professional in their place of work, ask if they are allowed to accept tips for their time and expertise, and don't be stingy!
2) Prepare your questions ahead of time. Your interviewee is already giving up a good chunk of their time for something that doesn't really affect them. Don't make them wait further by bumbling around for the notecards you haphazardly shoved in your bag. And certainly don't make up your questions on the spot. Always come to the interview with a plan in mind.
3) Make sure to record the interview. Don't ever rely on your memory when it comes to research. Believe me, I learned that the hard way. When interviewing your subject, record the session on your phone or take shorthand notes. Make sure to back up these notes as soon as you get home so that you don't accidentally lose a day's work.
4) Be aware of the interviewee's emotions. In some cases, you may be asking the interviewee to tread on thin emotional ice. Never insist that a question be answered. If the interviewee becomes uncomfortable, ask if they would like to end the session. Treat them with the love and respect they deserve.
5) Show additional gratitude after the interview. Make sure to send your interviewee a hand-written thank you note. Yes, handwritten. Show them that you truly appreciate what they have done for you. And if your book gets published, remember to send your interviewee a free copy with another word of thanks.
Taking notes in public can seem a bit uncomfortable, especially for us introverts. But there is no better place to research your novel than in a place teeming with experts. Here's how you can take unobtrusive notes with ease...
1) Always come prepared. Bringing your devices is a given, but don't forget to also bring a notebook. Some places may not allow for photography or cell-phone use. If that's the case, be respectful of their policies. They are in place for a reason. It may be frustrating to not have access to the research you really want, but don't be the idiot that ruins the fun for everyone.
2) Ask questions. There are tour guides and event facilitators for a reason. These people are experts in their field. They've got the knowledge that you need! Don't hesitate to ask them some questions, and be sure to thank them for their time.
3) Take in everything. People rarely take the time to read all of the available information at museums. At events, workshops and lectures regularly go unfilled. Don't let valuable information pass you by. Actively seek out every opportunity to learn more about your research topic.
4) Back up your notes as soon as you get home. Don't lose the information you've just spent the day collecting. Unfortunately, accidents do happen. Safeguard yourself immediately by saving your work in several places.
The internet is a scary place. Plenty of websites present information as true when in reality it was written some random guy behind his personal computer screen. Sketchy, I know. Be sure to search out legitimate resources when browsing the internet. Here's how you can do just that...
1) Use Wikipedia as a launching pad. Wikipedia is a huge online encyclopedia but the articles can be edited by just about anyone, making the information not quite trustworthy. But that doesn't mean you should ditch Wikipedia all together.
Use Wikipedia to get an overview of your topic. You can use keywords from articles to search for more legitimate resources, as well as lifting the references listed at the bottom of each page.
2) Gather information from legitimate sources. Universities and organizations usually offer valuable and trustworthy information on their websites. Try finding sources that have URL's ending in .edu or .org. Business websites can be also be great, so long as the business is well-known and reputable.
3) When in doubt, double-check your facts. Mistakes happen. Even big name universities and businesses won't get everything right. If you think you might have stumbled upon some false information, do some fact-checking on multiple sites. It may take extra time, but double-checking will save you a load of embarrassment should their actually be a mistake.
Reading an entire book can take up a good chunk of your time and it may not be as productive as you'd think. Here are a few techniques for getting exactly what you need from a research book in as little time as possible.
1) Check out the table of contents and the index. There's no need to read an entire book when just one section will do. The table of contents and the index will tell you exactly where you can find valuable information in each book.
2) Scan the section headers of chapters. Some non-fiction book chapters can be massive. To save time, skim the section headers-they are usually bolded or underlined-to find a section that is worth your time.
3) Be your own Google. Put very simply, Google brings up search results by scanning websites for keywords that match your search. You can do the same when researching in a book by scanning the contents for your own keywords. It may take a bit longer to find exactly what you're looking for, but skimming is still a lot faster than actually reading the entire book.
By now, you've probably got a hefty chunk of research notes. Hopefully, you've gotten them all organized into one place and backed up for safe-keeping. Right? Now let's put all that information to good use.
Keep it simple. Don’t beat your readers over the head with all your new-found knowledge. Your notes are meant to enhance your writing, not become it.
Subtly sneak in references throughout the piece so that your readers feel engaged and impressed by the realism of your story. Also, make sure to present your information in a way that's easy to understand.
You may now be an expert in whatever you just researched, but don't write your story like one. Lose 90% of the fancy jargon and just write.
Show, don't tell. On a similar note, don't state facts in your novel and expect your readers to be impressed. Facts can't stand on their own. Instead, think of your research like a fine thread. It must be woven into the tapestry of your novel in order to create a masterpiece.
Know when to fudge the facts. Sometimes, you just have to change the facts to make your story work. This is fiction after all; you are allowed to make stuff up so long as it's reasonable. Your reader probably won't notice small changes to known facts. And even if they do, they probably won't care.
Readers want to be swept up in your story. At the end of the day, they'd rather be intrigued by an inaccurate story than bored by textbook-worthy discourse.
At last, you've reached the end of better research. Hurray! Do you feel like a research ninja now?
Hopefully you've taken down some great notes. Next up? Prepare to outline your novel like a boss. However, if you find yourself stuck in a research rut, give me a shout out with your questions. I'd love to help!
Do you have any ninja research tips hidden up your sleeve?
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!