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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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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