4 Tips for Researching a Novel

Research is an integral part of the writing process for most writers. I write historical novels and as you can guess, the research process is quite extensive. Whether we write thrillers, suspense, or contemporary romance, we’ll all have areas within our stories to research.

Granted, contemporary genre writers may have fewer things to research than a historical writer like myself, especially if they’re an expert with the subject matter. For example, Dr. Richard Mabry writes romantic medical suspense. After practicing as a medical doctor for many years, he weaves his firsthand knowledge into his stories. He obviously doesn't need to expend much effort researching the medical aspects of his stories.

Most of us, however, aren’t experts in all the various topics we want to thread into our stories. And so we resolve ourselves to the fact that research will indeed be part of the writing process much the same way editing is. Research adds authenticity, depth, and interest to our stories.

Fortunately, in this day and age, most of us have the benefit of the internet. A click of the keyboard can unleash more information than we can possibly use. And yet there are times when the research process can become overwhelming and even bog down our writing if we’re not careful.

Occasionally, I get asked about my research process. I certainly don’t claim to be the expert researcher! I’m sure there are many others who are much more proficient at it than me. But I’ll share a few of my research steps (and in the comments, I’d love to hear your tips!).

1. Set the foundation before beginning the first draft.

I spend approximately two months researching and plotting before I’m ready to begin writing the first draft. Intensive upfront research is usually more typical of historical writers. We have to become familiar with the time period, search out appropriate plots, and understand the motivations of characters from long ago. I often read several biographies, search out original documents (like diaries or letters), and read books about the big topics within my story.

All of the initial research helps lay the solid foundation for the development of the plot and characters. We immerse ourselves into the setting so that when we start writing it flows naturally, as if we're already comfortably living in that time and place.

2. Try not to let the ongoing research stop the story-flow.

Once I start the actual writing, I try not to stop too often to look up information. If I come to a point in the story where I don’t know something, I often highlight the word or phrase so that I can come back to it later, or I make a note in the margins. When I switch settings between scenes or chapters, sometimes I may need to do additional research in order to get a grasp of the setting. I’ll take an hour or two to get enough of what I need to proceed. But I try not to linger too long over the research so that I don’t hinder the flow of the story.

3. Go deep but stay narrow.

The Preacher’s Bride is set in the 1600’s. And my second book, now titled The Doctor’s Lady, is set in the 1800’s. Two different time periods. Two completely different settings. I’m not an expert in either era or place. Sure, I’d probably make life easier for myself, if I stuck with one particular time period in history and became an expert on it. But at this point, that’s not apart of the program!

Instead, I try to narrow down exactly what I need to know for my particular story. I don’t have to learn everything about England after the Restoration. I lay the beginning foundation as mentioned above, but I don’t need to acquire a PhD in English Civil War history in order to research the pillory and its usage for the poor of the 1600’s. I dig deep for what I need and don’t get side-tracked by all the rest.

4. Keep a record of all documents and research.

At the beginning of each new novel, I open a three-ring binder specifically for research. I divide it into several main categories. And as I research, especially online, I print out information, three-hole punch it, and stick it into my binder. Then I can easily refer back to it during the story. I also keep a running bibliography of all of the books I’ve used.

I’ve realized now how important it is to save a record of all the research. During the line and copy editing phases of the publication process, we’ll be asked to verify the tiniest details. Having those links, books, and pages at our finger tips can save us effort later.

Your turn! How much effort do you put into research? And are there any other methods or tips that help you in the research process?


  1. Great post! I'm writing a sci-fi novel that has some strange medical technology. I felt I needed to research even though my book is in the future. And I specifically made sure to keep all the info I researched. It is a life saver.

  2. Oh man, I do nothing like that! My research skills could use some work.

    I reviewed PBride today!! I learned a ton of historical stuff while reading it but it was all fascinating and fit perfectly into the story.
    You smartie! :-)

  3. pretty much what you do - the great difficulty is not to research too much because its so interesting!!

  4. When I wrote a time travel, I did extensive research; and like you, kept a bibliography and used cards with tidbits of info directing me back to the book and page. Because there is nothing more frustrating than retrying to find that one paragraph!

  5. I keep my research down to a base minimum. I just gather what I need to know to make myself not sound like I don't know what I'm talking about. I draw on past experiences as well as what I find online to help me retain my "expert" status.

  6. The keep it narrow idea makes good sense. You find out what you need to know, then write about it.

  7. Jody, Good advice. Even though I'm a doctor and write medical suspense, I have to research quite often to be certain the information I put out is accurate and up-to-date. And sometimes it's tough not to get bogged down.
    At one of my first conferences, Randy Ingermanson introduced the group to what he calls the "look how much research I did" trap. I recently read a novel by a very good author with a couple of those sections, each represented by three pages that I skipped over because it was b-o-r-i-n-g. I try to avoid those, and I'm sure you do as well.

  8. These are great tips. I hadn't really thought about having to provide those links, etc. in the future so thank you for that tip alone! You've saved me a lot of time backtracking!

    As I'm reading The Preacher's Bride, I've been thinking about how much research you must have put into it. I'm really enjoying the story. Elizabeth is a character for whom I quickly developed a fondness.

    The research you put into this project really lends an authenticity to the story that I appreciate.

  9. Thanks for this post! I am beginning the planning stages for my next novel and this helped a lot. I like the three ring binder idea too.

  10. Is it possible to do all reasearch on the internet now days? When I was a kid I "helped" my dad reasearch his doctoral thesis, and we spent hours at the KU library. But I don't think I'd know where to start if I needed to research something at the library. What do you think. Is this just an old outmoded way to research, or is there anything of value?

  11. This is awesome!! Especially the idea of the three ring binder and saving all of your research.

    I just finished a epic fantasy novel where I basically had to build a world from scratch. Even though my place doesn't exist I still had to have it make sense. I reasearched governments, foods, plants, civilizations, fuedal systems, religions, etc. so my world had "real world" anchors so that it all made sense. My world has to have an economy, a religious system, irrigation plans, structures. I spent a lot of time doing that so when I created things in my world, it made sense and added a ton of depth to it!

  12. Love the 3 ring binder idea. Tracie Peterson brought up keeping track of your research at ACFW last year and it stuck in my brain. Never thought of it before! LOL

  13. Great information.
    When I started writing novels (1986) the internet was in its infancy. I persisted in using the web to find information and turned it into a second career as America's first online writing teacher. I have always said computers and the internet are the greatest tools a writer ever had.
    Good luck to you going forward.
    Lary Crews

  14. Ah research... a topic near and dear to my heart. As a bench scientist, research is what I do for a living. As an author writing forensic crime, research is what I do as well. I'm really lucky that I have access to the materials made available by working at a University. I taught myself the field of forensic osteology and I couldn't have done it without that access.

    But I agree with Dr. Mabry: it's a fine line between research that is crucial to the story and research that overwhelms the character interactions. It's a difficult dividing line for me on occasion because not everyone is a science geek like me. This is where my critique group was great to say 'Whoa. Too much detail here!'.

    Hats off to you, because writing a different time is a completely different kind of research altogether. You'd have to immerse yourself in the time so that you can write it accurately and, clearly, you've done a great job.

    As far as keeping a record of all documents and research goes, I wish you could see my 'office' (that's my dining room table, BTW) - binders of journal articles and piles of text books and those are only the hard copy materials; there's a ton more electronically. For this novel it turned into a three page bibliography of the references used, but referencing is just what we scientists do.

    Thanks for bringing up another great topic!

  15. Great tips and advice on research, Jody. I especially like your idea of documenting and organizing all your resources in a 3-ring binder. I used a similar system with file folders for the research I did on my first historical novel. It's so important to be able to find things six months (or six years!) later. I may try the binder approach for my current WIP. It sounds more portable. Thanks!

    Jessica McCann
    Author of All Different Kinds of Free

  16. Wow, that's intimidating! I'm always amazed at impressed by how much research historical writers do.

    I usually have to do research on settings or occupations. In that case, I like to go a little deeper than what I need. I like to learn and research a little extra because it gives me a better feel for what I'm researching. Even if I don't end up using it in the story, it makes me feel more confident writing a character in that setting or with that particular job.

  17. Yeah for binders. My drawers are full of them.

    I talk to people. I ask them about their profession, their home life, etc.

    It's amazing what conversation can spring forth.

    Great tips.
    ~ Wendy

  18. Great info, Jody. I'm bookmarking!! :-)

  19. Excellent point about keeping the research in one spot. I need to do more of this!

  20. "During the line and copy editing phases of the publication process, we’ll be asked to verify the tiniest details."

    Thank you, Jody. I didn't know this. I keep a detailed bibliography, but haven't expanded my research records beyond that. I do mark and highlight my research books, though, and can usually find the source pretty quickly that way when I need to double check.

    You are scary organized, btw! :)

  21. Lori, Sometimes I scare myself too! ;-)

  22. Melissa Gill asked: Is it possible to do all reasearch on the internet now days?

    My Answer: Great question, Melissa. I think this really depends on what type of genre. For some writers, the internet may provide enough. But as a historical writer, internet alone doesn't provide enough. I need biographies, original documents, longer & more detailed descriptions, etc. Sometimes it even helps to visit a location (though not necessarily because so much about settings have changed over time). I often find diaries especially helpful to get an "accurate" first-hand account of settings, language usage, etc.

  23. I do love to research whatever miniscule details I can, but nothing like what your up against. I write contemporary fiction and I'm pretty much up to speed on that. ;) Thank you for sharing this was fascinating!

  24. I enjoyed hearing about your process, Jody. I thoroughly enjoy the research I do for my historical romances. I learn so much. What's fun is figuring out how and when to input some of the little snippets I've discovered into the story. I think of the historical details like spices. Too much or too many can overpower the story.

  25. I think I'm most afraid research, because I didn't have a good strategy to tackle it. Since I do write Contemporary Women's Fiction the most I need to know is about a specific area or profession.

    But the task of infusing those facts into writing can seem daunting when the info isn't at your fingertips. I love the binder suggestion- I'll try and incorporate it!

    Jody- I loved The Preacher's Bride. I want to be just like you when I grow up:)

  26. Jody, good timing on this for me....Im putting together a workshop on this topic and it's good to see confirmation on a lot of what I have mentioned.
    Thanks - good post.

  27. Binders are wonderful inventions! There is a shelf in my office closet devoted to them... one per novel, several containing articles on the craft of writing, one for submissions info, etc.

    While I don't have to research for historicals, I still do for my contemporary settings and even for simple details like the functions of a specific brand of wristwatch. I use my camera a lot, and print out paper copies of photos to include in the binder. When I print something from the internet I select the option to print headers and footers, which then provides the URL and date on the sheet.

    I appreciate your hint not to let the ongoing research interfere with the story-flow but I'm not sure how to avoid it sometimes. While I research a lot of things before I begin writing, questions always seem to crop up along the way and even if I leave myself a note to check a detail later, it will bug me until I finally stop and look it up. :(

  28. I may be one of those people that asked you about how you do research so thanks for this. I'm writing contemporary but this WIP requires a lot of research.

    Thanks, Jody!

  29. I posted about this topic on my blog.
    Its true that a strong foundation is required, because its too easy to get carried away by all the cool info and facts dug up during research.

  30. This was very helpful. The three-ring binder idea, in particular, is brilliant. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  31. Again you've given us wonderful advice. I usually just save research information I find online to a file on Word, but I'm thinking printing it out like you do would be much better.


  32. Excellent post. I'm in the middle of my umpteenth revision and I wish I'd had your words of experience a year ago. I stopped time and again during my first draft to research room layouts, clothing styles and various other details that could have been left until later. It sucked the initiative out of me every time.

    On a different note, I'm hoping you could give me your opinion on another matter. I recently finished a Bethany House published novel and believe I found an error of sorts. It involved two minor characters and the information was many chapters apart but it jumped out at me. The age of a young man is greather than the number of years his mother has been married. It could be intentional, but I thought I should still bring it someone's attention. So who do I tell? The author through her blog or the publisher?

  33. Hi Jody -

    Your advice to keep it narrow but go deep will stick with me. I tend to get lost in too much information.

    I also like your binder idea.


    Susan :)

  34. Hi Clover,

    I'd probably go to the author's website, track down her email or use her connect box, and then shoot her an email. She may be able to clarify the issue. And if it's a mistake, I'm not sure that there would be anyway to fix it at this point! I'll just pray nothing like that ever happens to me! :-)

  35. Thanks so much for your post. My current project takes place during the Salem Witch Trials. I have found out a lot of fascinating information, but would have a hard time finding the exactly website again if I needed to access it. Fantastic post!

  36. Thanks, Jody. I guess I was thinking that it would need to be addressed if there were additional print runs.

    I was trying to put myself in the author's shoes and trying to decide (if it was an error) what the most painless way to find out would be. When my second published article EVER came out in a national magazine I discovered the copy editor had inserted an error when cutting some copy. I was mortified! My complaint to the managing editor turned into a freelance job checking facts and continuity for the magazine so I guess I look back fondly on the experience now!

  37. Hi I write fantasy fiction there is not much room for research. But sometimes when I am writing other stories I need to do a lot of research, which I do on the internet.

  38. I'm so glad you wrote about this. I love the research part of writing. I love organizing all that I read about a subject. I actually do quite a bit of research when I write. It challenges me to find interesting tidbits and inspires me on the subject or setting I'm writing about.

    One of the other things I do is I set up a folder in my "favorites" and drop websites I might need to come back to in there.

  39. The 3-ring binder idea is terrific. I'll use that. Then, I'll have a physical copy of the information. I also keep a notebook, and I have a file box for the novel I'm working on.

  40. I'm currently researching for a historic novel taking place in the 30years' War. I use EverNote as the place to store it all. No printing but searchable. You can search for text in PDFs or even in pictures! Since the data is stored on your PC as well as on EverNote's servers you can sync between your PCs (and smartphones) and do not need to backup.


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