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How Should Writers Research? All at Once or As Needed?

Almost all writers have to engage in research. Of course some genres will require a bit more digging than others. But generally, research is an important tool for adding authenticity and depth to any kind of story.

When we take the time and effort to add realistic details, we're better able to give our readers an enlightening and more enjoyable reading experience. In fact, some of the most memorable stories are those that transform us to another time and place. They’re the kind that when we turn the last page, we come away feeling as if we gained something for having read the book.

Even contemporary novels need research. Last month I was privileged to read Katie Ganshert’s debut novel Wildflowers from Winter (releasing in May). I don’t read many contemporaries, mainly because my passion is reading and writing historicals. But as I was reading hers for endorsement purposes, I was struck by the level of research she’d done in order to bring some of the farm scenes to life.

Yes, no matter the genre, research is important. If you’re not doing any, why aren’t you?

Recently Jim asked me this question about how I research: “Do you write first and research when you need it, or do you try to get all your data compiled in advance so you have your resources already in line?”

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do research—except that we make sure we ARE actually researching and that we’re doing it thoroughly with reliable sources. But since I’m deep into research for my next novel, I’ll offer a few of my thoughts on research (as long as you make sure you chime in with yours!):

1. Before writing, research the big-picture stuff.

I spend many, many weeks researching before I start a first draft. Of course, that’s part of the nature of writing historicals. But I think all of us—no matter our genre—can benefit from developing an intimacy with story details before we begin our first draft.

When we lay a foundation, we’re able to build the story more solidly and naturally. The words will flow with more confidence and credibility. In fact, that initial research often sparks ideas for plot twists and turns.

The trick is knowing when we finally have enough research to start our story. We don’t want the fear of not having enough information to keep us from writing. Even if I don’t know everything, I usually reach a point when I finally feel immersed into my time period and setting that I can write about it with a degree of knowledge.

2. While writing, try not to interrupt the story flow.

Once we start the first draft, we should try as much as possible to keep the flow of the story going. Our creativity needs permission to proceed without hindrances. Often writers get “stuck” because they’re letting their internal editor have too much freedom during the first draft. When we constantly stop the story to nitpick a word, or to research types of underwear, or to find out if our heroine would have been drinking tea or coffee, we risk inhibiting the muse.

Obviously we can’t anticipate every piece of research during the planning phase of our books. We’ll invariably run across things during our writing phase that need further research. I try to determine if the information is integral to the plot. If so, then I stop and research as much as I need to keep going but no more than that. If I don’t need the particular piece of information at that point, then I highlight the word or put a bubble into the margin with a note to remind myself to research it later.

3. During editing, polish up the small research details.

Editing is the time when we want to analyze and check accuracy of details. So while my mind is in edit mode, I go through my document and spend time researching everything I’d previously put off. In fact, as I re-read my story, I keep a running list in a notebook of all the things I need to research further.

When I wait until the editing phase to finish researching, not only do I find myself being able to write a faster first draft, but I also can write that first draft with less frustration. I know I’ll get to particular details later which allows me to enjoy the story more.

Your turn to chime in with your advice on researching! What do you think is most helpful? Writing first and researching as you need it? Or researching first and then writing?


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