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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?


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