5 Tips for Maximizing Your Novel Research

5 Tips for Maximizing Your Novel Research

Maximizing your novel research is vital no matter what kind of fiction you write. I spent almost as much time researching modern-day Chicago for my portal fantasy Dreamlander  as I did the Third Crusade for my historical epic Behold the Dawn. I’ve always found it odd that some authors approach research as if it were the bane of their craft. Since most of us write fiction in an urge to learn and grow, novel research is a natural extension of that.

On average, I spend three months researching any given novel before diving into the writing. And I love it! I love discovering the facts—the bricks—that will turn the imagined walls of my story into something solid.

That said, I’m very much aware that research can be both overwhelming and frustrating. Following are some of five tricks you can adopt for maximizing your novel research.

1. Identify Your Questions

Usually, I decide to set a story during a particular period or place because I already possess some interest in, and at least a basic knowledge, about it. Using that foundational knowledge, I’m able to finish outlining my novel. By the time I officially begin my research, my story is already almost fully formed in my head, and I have a very good idea what questions I need to answer during my research phase.

Behold the Dawn by K.M. WeilandFor instance, in Behold the Dawn, I knew I needed to spend a lot time learning about not only the Crusade itself, but also the world of the tourneys—the huge mock battles that were loved by the knights and banned by the church.

2. Find the Right Resources

The first thing I do is run several searches through my libraries’ online card catalogs. My goal is to pick up every book my libraries have available on my subject, so I try to be as thorough in my keywords as possible. After evaluating whatever I’ve come up with, I’ll complete my research library with the necessary purchases. If I have any blanks remaining once I’ve finished my books, I’ll utilize the Internet—although it should go without saying you need to be careful about the reliability of Internet sources.

3. File the Gems for Easy Accessibility

Research notes aren’t worth much in the long run if they aren’t easily accessible, so I’ve constructed a system of note keeping that, although a bit time-intensive in the beginning, pays huge dividends over the course of the novel.

Whenever I run into a snippet of information I think might prove useful to my story, I either highlight it (if I own the book) or pull out a notebook and mark down the page and paragraph numbers and the first and last three words of the information I want. For example, if I want to remember something on a book’s thirty-first page and second paragraph, my shorthand note looks like this:

31:2 “First three words… last three words.”

If I wanted to make a note of this sentence in this post (assuming it was on page 31 of a book), the note would look like this:

31:10 “If I wanted…look like this.”

The next day, before settling in for more reading, I take my books to the computer and use my notebook to find the passages I marked the day before. I type them up in a Word document, which I divide into appropriate headings. For Behold the Dawn, I used headings such as “Animals,” “Children,” “Home Life,” “Tournaments,” “Warfare,” etc. I keep a list of the my research books’ titles at the top of the document and reference each note with the titles initials and the respective page numbers.

Screenshot of Research Word Document File From Behold the Dawn by K.M. Weiland

This may initially look like a lot of extra work, but it’s not. When I’m in the middle of a scene and need to know what kind of food an earl would serve at a banquet, my elaborate note system keeps me from having to dig through piles of dog-eared books in search of a minute detail. Instead, I can either look through my research document’s headers in search of “Food & Dining,” or I can simply hit the Find button and search for “banquet.” Either way, it takes seconds to find the information and continue writing my scene.

4. Don’t Forget to Include Images in Your Novel Research

Something else I find extremely helpful is a folder of images. Maps and landscape pictures are particularly valuable when I’m writing about a place (such as Syria—or Chicago) with which I am totally unfamiliar. But it’s also nice to have pictures of period clothing, diagrams of weapons and machinery, and maybe even a collection of people pictures for character inspiration.

Behold the Dawn Settings Image Folder

5. Take Responsibility for the Facts You Know–and the Facts You Don’t

Very probably the single most important facet of portraying authenticity is chutzpah. If you act like you know what you’re talking about, most readers will buy it, whether it’s true or not. But hand in hand with that understanding goes a realization of the responsibility we have for giving our readers truth in exchange for their trust. None of us is ever going to get the facts one hundred percent correct, but checking and double-checking our sources is important, lest we convey an incorrect fact or impression.

The line between learning as many facts as possible and using our imaginations to fill in the blanks is a delicate one. If, for whatever reason, I ever intentionally depart from the facts (as I did once or twice in Behold the Dawn, in regard to dates and such), I always make note of it in an afterword.

As writers, our fertile imaginations are what allow us to create something out of nothing. But it’s as researchers that we’re able to make that something into a solid delivery of facts that will keep readers from blinking twice at suspending their disbelief.

Tell me your opinion: How do you conduct your novel research?

5 Tips for Maximizing Your Novel Research

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great article on research. One thing I would add for those who research history, contact historical societies, museums and colleges in the area your researching.

  2. Good point. For that matter,they don’t even have to be in your area. Many people connected with historical societies are more than happy to do a little legwork for authors.

  3. I’m floundering as a writer. I don’t know what I want to write about and I won’t be happy until I do.

    Writing a book sounds like something I’d like to do but I have no story concepts dying to get onto paper.

    I enjoyed reading this blog regarding research and I respect you greatly for the time and effort you put into it. I’m certain that it pays off when you’re writing.

    I’ve got so much to learn and I’m sure you’re someone I will continually look to for writing knowledge.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with doing research and for your detailed instructions on how to make those pertinent facts easily accessible.

    (I’d love it if you’d go to my blog and look at “Run, Shaddy, Run.”)

    Enjoy your weekend.

  4. Most of the time my problem is the exact opposite: too many stories begging to be released onto the page. I’d say… just start writing and see what happens. Your blog is definitely a great start. And my experience, for whatever it’s worth, is at your service. Feel free to contact me anytime you have a question.

  5. Liberty says:

    Wow, you are WAY too organized! 🙂 But, I’m going to have to take some of your tips with me. I don’t do a ton of research for my projects; most of the time I run across questions as I write, and either make a note to research it, or look it up right then and there. Of course, I don’t write historicals either.

    Though, a good map has probably been my best resource lately. And Google Earth.

    Thanks for the great blog!!!!

  6. Yes, I’m admittedly a bit of an organizational freak. OCD, anyone?

    I found myself doing a lot of on-the-spot researching when I was writing Dreamers Come last year. It got to the point where I was spending most of my writing time Googling instead of writing. Not good. I had to start unplugging my wireless card whenever I sat to write and looking up my questions the next day.

    And, yes, I love Google Earth. I utilized the maps feature extensively in the Chicago scenes I wrote.

  7. I can only hope to be as organized as you. Thanks for the wealth of information that you have written in your blog. You inspire me to dig deeper and be more. Thanks.

  8. Organization is the only way I survive the craziness of life. I’d be up to my elbows in paper scraps otherwise!

    Thanks for reading.

  9. My goodness, you are so organized with your writing. Thanks for all the great tips!

  10. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you found some of them helpful in your own research.

  11. Great post. Great ideas. I keep all my “gems” in a journal. I have one huge journal for each book idea. While I do break it down into chapters and subheadings by topic, I like the ease of “search and find” in an electronic document.

    You maintain an excellent blog here! Keep it up! 🙂

  12. Typing up notes can be a pain, but I really believe it saves time (and frustration!) in the long run. Although, I will admit, I do get a special feeling flipping through pages upon inky pages of notes!

  13. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

  14. I agree. Thanks for reading!

  15. This is really useful, and I particularly like the fact that you use books first, internet second. I do find though that where I live in Somerset the libraries are not that well stocked on books on London. So I get on the net and all organisation goes out the window….

  16. If my libraries are lacking the materials I need, I usually turn to a bookstore or Amazon to fill in the gaps. It can get expensive – but usually it just feels like I’m really, really spoiling myself!

  17. Hello my friend! I want to say that this article is awesome, nice written and include almost all vital info. I would like to see more posts like this.

  18. Glad you enjoyed it! You can find more of my posts on research here.

  19. Thank you for sharing these great tips. I am particularly surprised at how much time you spend in the library and I take special note of your comment about the reliability of Internet sources. I have limited access to the library at the moment and tend to do a lot of research online which most times is also distracting. I have invested on books but there seems to be not enough time to read them and there is so much “begging” to be written. The take-away from here is that I need to work harder at being organised.

  20. When researching time comes around, I take the hours assigned to my writing and devote them to sitting down and reading my research material. Writing is more fun, granted, but this is the best way I know to discipline myself to get through the research quickly and effectively.

  21. This blog is very nice and thoughtful.Put on my knowledge and a great motion.
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  22. What I got from this post is, the ever important question is to know what is need to known. Then you can dig yourself in the research process. When I was outlining my current novel and working through your blogs character interview. There came a question about where the character lives? And the realisation dawned on me that I had no idea what kind of life does a leader of a small tribe lead. This kind of questions keep bobbling in the outlining process. So yours is a good approach to outline first and then dig yourself into research

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like sandwiching the research between the outline and the first draft, because that way the story influences the research, so the research can then influence the story.

  23. thomas h cullen says:

    Both. Keeping to a usual routine, as well as taking a break from it will help you to “research” ideas for a story.

    I myself am averse to usual routines – those operating at least outside life’s necessities – but having them I admit nevertheless helps to stimulate the mind’s creativity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m totally a routine person – and I definitely find it helpful to walk outside that routine on occasion. Shaking up our normalcy – whatever it may be – is always useful in giving us a new perspective on things.

  24. I seriously regret not following Tip #3 for my just-finished manuscript. I spent hours, days, weeks researching the Iraq war, army bases, ‘flashover’ in a house fire, penalties for buying or selling babies, military weapons, jurisdiction for law enforcement agencies, etc.etc. but in my impatience I allowed many of those resources/articles/blogs to drop away. Maybe I won’t need them for this book, but what about the next. What if I want to confirm a research point? Your tip for documenting these daily in a Word document is priceless.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The great thing about living in the digital era is that we’re able to copy/paste so much. I love reading digital research books, since I can just email myself all my notes and save myself the time of having to type them up.

  25. Heather M. O'Connor says:

    Great article!

    I use Scrivener to keep all of my research in one spot. It holds websites, photos, docs, PDFs, and it’s easy to organize and search. Its footnoting and other metadata tools link and connect my manuscript to my research for detailed reference.

    I also like to scan book pages I think I’ll need.

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