Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled while writing your book? I bet you have some good ones. Writers are always researching the most interesting things in order to write with authority on a wide range of subjects. Research is a necessary part of writing almost any book, regardless of genre or subject matter. Some books require only a quick internet search here and there, while others stretch the limits of your knowledge and have you putting in days, weeks, or months of research before and even during the writing process.Research is a necessary part of writing almost any book. Click To Tweet
If you’ve never attempted this before, it can seem like a daunting task. But if you build a framework for your research and break the task into manageable pieces, it’s absolutely achievable – and it can even be fun.
Getting started with research
The biggest factor to ensuring successful research is to create a framework or system for your research and allow it to evolve over time as your needs change.
This doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, but you’ll want some kind of plan for your research before you start, or it’s easy to get lost and waste precious time. It’s therefore best to use a notebook, app, or writing software to make your notes.
Take time to brainstorm about your project. Simply make a list of your topics for research or create an outline or a graphic organizer. The method is up to you, but you’ll want to answer these basic questions in some organized form:
- What are the main questions or topics you need to research?
- Is there an order you need to follow in researching these items?
- Are there smaller subjects within these larger categories?
As an example, let’s imagine you need to research Albert Einstein for a character in your novel. Your outline will vary depending on what role this character plays in the story, but assuming this is a main character, your outline might include some of the following:
- Different styles for different occasions
- Common phrases
- Get examples of dialogue
- Include accent/dialect?
- Nature of his work
- What did his office look like?
- How did his work interfere with other commitments and relationships?
- Family life
- Overview of family life
- Nature of his relationships
- How did these beliefs influence his life, work, and behavior?
As you get into your research, you’ll see that this outline needs to change. You’ll need to add or remove items. You’ll need to reprioritize your list. Be sure your framework is flexible and evolves based on your growing needs for the project.Your research needs will change as you progress. Adopt a flexible system. Click To Tweet
The key here is to have a system that allows you to stay on task. It can be tempting to get lost in your research or use it as a means to procrastinate on your writing. A strong and flexible framework will help you avoid this pitfall.
Knowing where to look
A big hurdle for many novice researchers is not knowing where to begin looking for the answers to their questions. Here are some basic options to help you begin:
- Start with an internet search. You can find a wealth of information online; just be discerning about the websites you trust. Often, you’ll find an overview of your topic in a blog post or museum article (if your topic touches on history) that will draw its information from more detailed sources. If you need to go deeper, you can try to access those original sources.
- Check your local library for books or other media on the subject you’re researching.
- If your subject is based on images or music, tailor your research accordingly.
- News articles, podcasts, and films and documentaries can also be useful sources.
My best advice is to dive in. One source will lead to another source, and another.
Be sure to keep track of all your sources so you can refer to them later. If you’re using a Word document for your research notes, simply use the footnote tool to record your sources. If you’re using a notebook, just jot down the name of the resource alongside each entry. If you’re using software, your options will vary, but there’ll likely be a dedicated option. It’s an extra step that will save you a lot of time later.
Keeping realistic expectations
As a process, research can be unpredictable. You don’t know what you’re going to find and how it’s going to inform your writing. That can sometimes be fun, because you’ll uncover fascinating things you didn’t know before. It can also be incredibly frustrating if you hit a dead end or uncover something that undermines your ideas for the story.Research early in the writing process: what you find may change your story.Click To Tweet
When this happens to you, try not to be stubborn about it. I’ve found the most helpful tools to backing out of a dead end are creativity and flexibility. If you can’t find what you need, ask an expert in the field or a teacher on the subject or a librarian. Ask your friends, colleagues, family members and/or partner if they know anything about this topic. If that doesn’t yield results, try coming at your topic from a different angle or looking at unlikely resources.
If all else fails, don’t be afraid to change your idea. Sometimes your research stumps you because you’re trying to force an idea that’s just not going to work. In that case, no amount of determination will solve the problem. Be flexible. Try alternatives until you find a door opening to you. And, most importantly, try to have fun with the process.
Managing your time
A final word of advice: be conscious of your time. It’s easy to eat up a lot of time on research, especially if you find the process interesting. Set a timer for yourself and stick to it. Don’t let your research time become an excuse to postpone writing. Plan on researching for the long haul. If your research needs are extensive, pace yourself. You don’t want to burn out because you jumped in too deep too fast. Schedule some time daily or weekly to complete your research and stick to the plan.
Research is an amazing tool for writers. It lends credibility to their work, creating a wealth of knowledge from which to draw ideas, characters, and fictional worlds. But research takes work and planning. If you create an organized and flexible system to guide you, and if you’re aware of the time constraints and pitfalls going into it, you’ll be able to make the most of your time.
If you want to look into software that can help your research, check out Scrivener Review: Is It The Best Book Writing Software?, 6 Great Pieces Of Writing Software You Need To Try and Why You Should Use Evernote To Write Your Next Book.
What tools or resources have helped you most with research for your writing? What was something fascinating or surprising you encountered while researching for your book? Share with us in the comments about a time you relied on creativity and flexibility to solve a problem in your research.