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?


  1. Jody, as a contemporary Christian romance writer I may not have to research a lot of historical info, but as you pointed out, research is necessary to some degree in whatever genre we write. Research and establishing accuracy through even the smallest details are what make our work come alive. I prefer to gather notes/research prior to my first draft and then add to that as I go. As you indicated, it makes life easier. :)

  2. First of all Jody, I think historical writers rock. :) I love to read your genre, but I could never-ever write it. I can't imagine doing the loads of research you must have to do (lol, types of underwear). I seriously can't.

    I'm going to vote for research first (as much as you possibly can) when writing contemporary as well. I've run into the problem of not being able to effectively edit my opening and ending (not good :P) b/c I need certain details that require research that I've been putting off. I love your idea of highlighting the word and putting the bubble in the margin so it doesn't break the flow! Informative post...thanks.

  3. Good morning ladies! Yes, I really did get a book recently from the library entitled "The History of Underclothes." (Actually, my husband checked it out for me and felt rather weird doing so!) But, I was doing some research AFTER I'd finished writing the book, after some questions arose about the historical accuracy of using the term "undershirt." So, perfect example of researching after finishing a first draft!

  4. I do both. I find I research first but then as something comes up I will go off and do a bit of research on it so I know I am being as authentic as possible. I have just posted about inspiration and research on my blog too. Have included a link to this post

  5. I write contemporary stories, but I research much like you. Big picture first and then combing through details during edits. Many times I keep websites I've used bookmarked so I can jump to the screen if I need to. That doesn't throw me off and I don't always do that.

    I'm excited about reading Katie's debut! :)

  6. Hmmm, I didn't do much research for my first novel, but that's probably because I based a lot of the details on things I'm already familiar with. But I anticipate having to do research in the future, and I'd probably do what you do. Research first and fill in the details later that I didn't anticipate.

  7. For my current WIP I got my idea for the story in June. Spent All of July through October researching and started writing in November. Even with the months of research I did everyday that I write I find myself distracted by a word or two that I need to research to verify its historical accuracy. It really does inhibit the muse!

    Now, the history of underclothes sounds like a book I need to go check out from my library!

  8. This last WIP I didn't have a lot of time to research up front as I got the idea late in October for the November NaNoWriMo (2010), but I was pretty familiar with the time period in a big picture way, so I went ahead and plowed through the first draft. I stopped occasionally only if it affected the plot, but otherwise put in brackets what I needed to research for that part in the story and then keep typing. After it was over I delved for about 3 months into reading up on biographies and social customs, etc boning up for revising the first draft. Then on the second draft I went through and marked what more things I needed to research, etc. and went forward.

  9. A while ago, I started writing something set during the Salem Witch Trials and didn't do enough research ahead of time. Having to stop and look up details that were important to the plot, really did inhibit the flow of the story and I grew uninspired after a while.

    Then I became busy and my writing got thrown on the back burner, so I've yet to even attempt continuing my previous efforts. If I'd done more/better research from the beginning, I believe I might have kept on with the story; so researching a decent amount ahead of time is a great rule of thumb.

    I always love finding out what methods others have that work for them, so thanks for sharing yours! :)

  10. I did A LOT of research before I started my current novel. I formed my plot around that research. My process for research is similar to yours.

    I've bookmarked websites, and printed articles. My husband reads a lot of newspapers in his job, so he's always sending me articles about my topic, which is helpful.

    I'll be fine-tuning certain aspects of my story during the edit phase. Even though my novel is 100% fiction, the idea is based on something that could happen. And some think it already has happened, we just don't know it. *wink wink* (How's that for vague?)

  11. I love your plan of attack! I do research quite a bit while I'm brainstorming in order to generate an outline. But I'm not very good at turning off my internal editor during the first draft, and too often I find the perfectionist in me doing research in the middle of a chapter to get a detail right. Thank you for reminding me that I need to plow through and check details later.

  12. I'm the Jim reference above, and I love the plan of attack as well. Talking with you Jody at that point changed my approach. I stopped writing and started doing more research. Not only did it help me have a clearer picture of where things were happening, but it opened up a couple of storylines that really enhance the way things flow. So, as always, thanks for the great advice.

  13. Hi Jim! Glad that my initial advice to you was helpful! That's always good to hear! Thanks for asking a great question that we've all had to struggle through at one point or another!

  14. I average about 25% before, 50% during drafting and 25% in polishing.

    Then again, each genre will probably be different. For my sci-fi WIP, I researched for years before putting down the first word, probably a sign of how overwhelmed I feel about writing that book.

  15. I like to get the story down (before it escapes) then research. Lotsa colored sticky note reminders dot my ms for further digging. :)

  16. I follow the same plan you do, Jody. I do as much research upfront as possible, because I hate it when research derails a plotline. Better to know that early in the process. I do spot research as necessary before starting each chapter, then try not to stop the flow. I use a lot of highlighting and "XXXX" blanks to remind myself to check later.

  17. Essentially I do the same, although so far I've kinda stuck with topics that I already know quite a bit about, thus lessening my upfront research. From placing it in cities I've lived in the past to having plot points that I'm personally familiar about, it helped. But I know the further along my journey I get, the more research I'll need to do! A LOT of my research thus far has been in the "after" mode.

  18. Pleased to see that I already follow your example in how I structure my research! With my current WIP, I'm finding OneNote surprisingly useful for storing and organizing my online research findings (as well as for planning, plotting and saving random bits of information).

  19. I do pretty much the same as you and during the first draft i make a quick note if I think something need to be looked up - and do it later - like you I want the flow to continue- research I find is ongoing all through the writing perios as well as the planning but maybe thats the nature of my books (future)

    any way good post thanks

  20. Thank you for the input everyone! It's interesting to see how most of us land upon the same method eventually! Ultimately the most important factor in gripping readers is the story. And while we want our research to be authentic, we can't let it overshadow the story!

  21. Writing is so much fun. Most of my ideas come to my as images. I'll get a character or two in a scene. Then I have to build on that.

    When I started writing my biggest problem was that I didn't know how to build on that. A friend, Shirley Meir, who is a 20 year professional, showed me how to ask the right questions.

    Because it all comes down to the questions. If you don't know what questions to ask, you don't know what to research.

    I'm writing a rather large fantasy series. I'm serializing the first draft on one of my websites:

    I know a lot of people who think that everything in Fantasy is made up. Think again folks. There's a lot of hard work in writing Fantasy.

    How do you build a mud hut? How much does a sword weigh, and how hard is it to swing? How were certain types of houses heated? How did certain types of political systems operate?

    All I can say is that I'm glad our local educational TV station carries the British archaeological show Time Team. I've caught every episode that I could, and it has helped a lot. The library, archaeological websites, used book stores, and Amazon have filled in the blanks. I think that I've spent close to $400.00 on books for research so far.

    I've got about 150,000 words of background material that will never be published. This includes maps, socioeconomic, religious, and other information.

    Bits and pieces of it peek through. It impacts the characters every move. Upper and middle class women wear (in reasonable weather) dresses that expose one breast, the left if they've had a live birth, the right if they haven't. It is a form of boasting to them, and if you think it through, tells you something about the culture.

    You can tell when a writer has done their research. I think it can make the difference between a good book and a great book (think Lord of the Rings, which is a hard book to read, but the background is so well researched...)


  22. I write within contemporary settings so I'm usually familiar with the particular locale and general details before I begin. I do research first for special topics that may be going to play a part in the story. But there's a temptation to get too immersed in research and never get to the actual writing. So usually when I have enough basic info to start, I push aside books and internet, and get busy. As I'm writing, if I come to some detail that needs more information, I don't stop. I don't want to lose my momentum. I'll either insert a message to myself in red text, or insert the letters "jkjkjk" so I can do a search later to easily return to the spot, and I continue the headlong dash. I think this method goes with my seat-of-the-pants approach to writing. :)

  23. Thanks for another great post, Jody.

    I prefer to do my research in big slabs, taking a copious amaount of notes, but have to admit I find it easier to write the actual story a few weeks, if not months, after letting the ideas mature in my mind.

    Otherwise, I tend to subconsciously regurgitate the facts almost word for word...

    Thanks again and I look forward to your next post,

  24. I do a boatload of research before starting a book. And I find I'm always researching as I write. I love to add little details that make the story feel real. Great post!

  25. brilliant! that's exactly how I do it. Glad to hear I'm not alone/the only one. In my experience, if I start researching (again) while I'm writing, I lose momentum. B/c I get all distracted by the cool stuff I'm discovering... :D <3

  26. If I waited until I'd done all the research, I'd drive myself nuts. At the same time, I do consider myself thorough. I will make marks in the WIP to note details that I know need to be confirmed. And, I will get several sources to confirm those details or make my best guess if I have no other choice.

  27. I follow the same approach as you - preliminary research before starting to make sure you know enough about your setting/plot points, then hold off on nitty gritty research until you've finished the first draft. I do occasionally break this pattern though - if I want to work on my writing but I'm too tired to actually write, I might choose to research some of the points I wasn't sure of at time of writing. Thanks for another great post, Jody. :-)

  28. Thanks for the mention, Jody! Thankfully, I have a brother-in-law who is a farmer, so he let me tour his farm in Wisconsin and answered lots and lots and LOTS of questions.

    Plus, during line-edits, my line editor and I had to do extensive additional research to make sure a couple scenes were accurate. After speaking with an equestrian vet, we realized one wasn't, so I had to rewrite the whole thing!


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