When writing a story set in a different time and/or place than what you personally know, doing novel research will be a major key to your success. Without proper research, you run the risk of building an unconvincing world, creating weak characters, and altogether failing your story. The idea of research can be overwhelming for some. It might even be giving you term-paper flashbacks right now, but don’t worry. I’ve put together a list of tips that will help you get focused, so you don’t wander too far down any rabbit holes.
Get as Specific as Possible
Start out by making a list of what exactly you need to research. It’s okay to start out broad, for example, the 1400s. But you’ll want to narrow your focus more before you actually start writing. What about the 1400s do you or, more importantly, does your reader need to understand? If you’ve chosen to set your story in a historical era, chances are you’re interested in it. But this can lead to dangerous time sucks.
Remember: just because you want to know about a thing, doesn’t mean you need to. To keep focused, try writing a separate list of things you want to look up outside of your novel research time.
Set Your Priorities
Organize your research topics in order of importance. What do you absolutely need to know before you can even start writing, and what can wait until you’re ready to use it? Setting your priorities will help you avoid getting stuck in a research-as-procrastination cycle, and ensure you have what you’ll need to start building out your world and characters.
Set Aside Time Just for Research
Just like you created a schedule to get your writing done, coming up with a set schedule for research will help you achieve your goals. Take a moment to think about the overall timeline of your project. When do you actually want to start writing, and how long does that leave you for researching? Schedule your time accordingly. Having a research deadline will also help you avoid staying in research mode for too long.
Check Your Sources
We all know you can’t believe something just because it’s on the Internet. (Except this blog, of course!) Wikipedia might be the easiest place to go for information, but it’s not always the most reliable. Generally speaking, government (.gov) or university (.edu) sites are going to be the most trustworthy, followed by private organizations (.org) and news sites. Verifying a source’s reputation is always a good idea, regardless.
One good tip: use Wikipedia for its references. Look up your topic and scroll to the bottom of the page. There’s usually a list of sources cited within that Wikipedia article. It’s at least a good place to start!
Another good place to get help with your research is your local library. Reference librarians are professional researchers and will be able to help you find exactly what you need. Looking up any relevant museums near you can also provide some fun in-person research opportunities!
Research is only useful if it’s there when you need it. There are a few different ways you can organize your research once it’s done!
Everyone’s favorite writing app also provides you a space to store your research. If you’re writing in Scrivener, this makes things very handy. Scrivener lets you store text files, as well as audio or video, and save entire web pages. The bonus of storing your research in digital form is that it’s easily searchable when you need it. (Check out She’s Novel’s post on how to get your research into Scrivener!)
If you’re not using Scrivener, never fear! There’s another perfectly great tool out there that provides very similar tools. Evernote lets you create digital notebooks to collect all your research. Like Scrivener, it holds text, audio, video, web pages, and images. And it’s also completely searchable. Bonus: Evernote has apps for iOS and Android and stores your information in the cloud, so you can access your research anywhere, anytime!
There’s something satisfying about a binder full of research, isn’t there? I feel ya. If you’d rather kick it old school, you can always get yourself an IRL binder/folder set up and organize your information as you see fit.