How to Research Your Novel Effectively
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Whether you love it or hate it, researching a novel is no easy task.
The good news is that the research process doesn't have to be a pluck-out-your-own-eyeballs kind of event. By getting savvy in our research techniques and creating an epic plan of attack, we can say goodbye to the endless web-surfing cycle of doom and hello to focused, intentional, and highly effective research — and it doesn't even have to be a bore!
But where in the world do we begin in tackling such a task? And how can we apply the research we've done to our stories? I'll break down everything you need to know in today's article, writer.
Learning to research with intention...
There may be times during the writing process when you realize you need to google a quick bit of info, but if you want to avoid the frustration that comes with researching as you write, I highly recommend tackling research during the pre-writing process.
Here's a look at how I create my personal plan of attack:
Step #1: Identify areas of interest.
Begin by compiling a list of generalized topics you know you need to research in order to tell the best version of your story. Make sure to keep this list organized and accessible from day one if you want to set yourself up for success. I recommend creating a physical research binder or storing your work in a Scrivener document or other easy-to-access folder.
Step #2: Define specified topics.
Break down the generalized topics you listed in step one into more specific areas of interest. For example, if you're writing a story about World War II, one of your research topics may be women in the 1940's. More specified topics might include popular female names in the early 20th century, wartime jobs for women, and letters from the European battlefront.
Step #3: Refine your list.
Get intentional with your research time by first refining the list of topics you've created. If you can't define a clear reason why you've included a certain topic, it's likely that taking the time to research it would only prove a waste. Review your list now and ditch any topics that don't serve your story in some way.
Step #4: Prioritize your listed topics.
To optimize your research, take time now to prioritize your areas of interest and specified topics. When you do begin to research, begin with the topics that will have the biggest impact on your story.
Step #5: Create a research agenda.
With your topics now identified and prioritized, consider how you'll approach the research process. Here are a few helpful questions to ask:
- How much time per day or week do I want to commit to researching?
- Do I know anyone I could interview for a first-hand account?
- Is there a place I'd be willing to travel to research or gain hands-on experience for my novel?
- What websites or books could I utilize to help complete my research?
Your plan of attack doesn't need to be ironclad, but having a fair understanding of what work you need to complete in order to properly research your novel can save you a lot of time and frustration. But how can you make the most of the researching process? Let's discuss!
Conducting successful interviews...
Depending on your research topics, conducting an interview may be a great way to collect firsthand knowledge and experience that will inform and inspire your story. But how can you ensure you make the most of this research avenue?
Tip #1: Come prepared with questions.
If you've found someone kind enough to allow you to interview them, show your appreciation by preparing questions ahead of time. Ensure every question is necessary for your research, and consider your interviewee's time restraints and potential sensitivities. Don't press them with questions that may upset them if your interview topic is of a delicate or painful nature.
Tip #2: Make sure to record the interview.
Written notes are fallible and easily lost. If your interviewee approves, make sure to record the interview for later review.
Tip #3: Show your gratitude.
Again, your interviewee's time should not be taken for granted. Show your gratitude by bringing a small gift, hosting the interview over a meal, or sending a sincere thank you card after the interview is complete. If you're interviewing a professional in their workplace, ask if they are allowed to accept a tip for their time and expertise.
Taking effective notes at museums and events...
If heading out to a museum or event or simply visiting a landmark could be a good way to gain valuable research for your story, here are a few tips for taking effective notes...
Tip #1: Go fully prepared.
It may be tempting to simply grab your smart-phone and go, but many museums and events don't allow for flash photography, videography, or indeed any cellphone use at all. Respect policy and bring a notebook or recorder instead, taking notes the old-fashioned way.
Tip #2: Ask questions.
Tour guides and event staff are often happy to answer any questions you may have. Don't hesitate to make use of their knowledge and expertise, then be sure to thank them for their time.
Tip #3: Take in everything.
Museums and universities often offer free or cheap workshops, lectures, and other events that regularly go underutilized. Don't let these valuable opportunities pass you by! Do a little pre-research digging to discover if there are any unique events in your area that could easily allow you to dive deeper into your field of research.
Tip #4: Back up your notes.
Cellphones crash and notebooks go missing. Before you risk losing the valuable information you've taken such care to collect, take the time to create a back-up (or four!) the moment you arrive home.
Gleaning veritable information from the internet...
Let's face it: the internet is a scary place. For every legitimate and valuable source, there are a thousand websites that could easily lead you astray with false or outdated information. Here are my top tips for avoiding that dilemma:
Tip #1: Use Wikipedia as a launching pad.
Wikipedia is doubtless a fantastic well of information, but because modifying entries is fairly easy for anyone to do, you can't inherently trust all the information found there. That said, you can use Wikipedia to gain entry-level knowledge of a topic and to discover keywords you can use when searching for more legitimate sources.
Don't forget to take a peek at the references included at the bottom of many Wikipedia pages as well.
Tip #2: Gather information from legitimate sources.
Universities and organizations often offer invaluable and trustworthy information on their websites. Try finding sources that have URL's ending in .edu or .org. Business websites can also serve as a fantastic source if the business is well-known and reputable.
Tip #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 could save you a load of embarrassment down the road.
Finding valuable information in books...
Researching written sources can often be a pain. Some documents may be difficult to access, while sifting through physical books can take far more time than you may have to dedicate to your research. That's why I'm sharing my best tips for making quick(er) work of finding valuable information in written sources:
Tip #1: Review the table of contents and index.
There's no need to read an entire book when just one section will do. Indexes and tables of contents can tell you the exact page to turn to find the information you need.
Tip #2: Scan section headers.
Some non-fiction chapters can be massive. To save time, don't hesitate to skim section headers to better locate the exact information you're looking for.
Tip #3: Be your own search engine.
Google and other search engines produce results by scanning websites for keywords that match your inquiry. You can an employ a similar technique when researching written documents by scanning the text for keywords related to your topics.
Utilizing the research you've gathered...
With your research complete, it's time to think about how you'll sift through all the information you've gathered and begin working the best bits into your story. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. If you're passionate about your research topics, it can be tempting to include every last detail in your story, but in most cases, this would be a mistake.
Personally, I'm partial to stories that only include information needed to contextualize the story world or advance the plot, though not all readers feel the same. There may be those who share your passion and wish to dive deep into the researched topics you discuss throughout your story.
But if you aren't careful to weave in such details with literary flair, it's all too easy to end up with a novel that reads far more like a textbook than a captivating story. Don't make this all-too-common mistake!
Focus first on including the information that adds true value to your story, then consider whether adding any additional information can be done in a way that flows naturally in the narrative. If not, it may be time to kill your darlings and let those details go. I promise your story will be better for it.
Remember, as well, that most of your readers won't be experts on the topics in your novel. It's okay to occasionally fudge the details if doing so would produce a better story, so long as you do so respectfully. At the end of the day, a well-researched novel is still a work of fiction. Focus on narrative first, using research as a tool to bring your story to life!