Many writers do a fair amount of research for their novels. Whether your genre is mystery, action-adventure, sci-fi, historical, urban fantasy, crime, or horror—writers are forever looking up facts to mix with the fiction.
Authors can spend at least a month researching a time period before beginning a new historical, and just as many weeks researching odd subject matter for other genres.
Lucky me, writing a million ( a small exaggeration ) college essays and a masters thesis taught me how to best catalogue and manage the plethora of research gathered along the way. I teach these same tips—learned the hard way—to my students.
So, courtesy of years spent thinking ‘where the hell did that fact come from?’ here’s a few down and dirty research tips. Be forewarned: The more thorough the prep is in the beginning, the easier your novel writing—the insert fact portion here part—is in the end.
- Make a timeline. A 2-column chart works nicely, one column for the historical events and one for the corresponding scenes in your novel. For one historical novel I have 2 POV’s and so I made a 3-column timeline. One for each POV character and one for general historical events. Warning: This may take days to create. I used 3 different books and it was invaluable for creating a timeline from a mixed bag of random dates. Remember to include year, location, month, date, and hour if possible.
- Keep a binder of printed articles you find on the internet. I’ve printed a doctoral thesis, PDFs of 200-yr-old diary entries, ancient maps, magazine articles, and scholarly journal articles. Highlight and annotate the information you think you will use in your novel.
- Save websites or photos on Pinterest. I make a Pinterest board for every novel. You can even make a secret board. Storing all the websites on Pinterest allows for easy access and findability ( yup, made that word up ) and prevents you from scrolling down that never-ending Favorite list.
- Embed the website’s URL into your manuscript. Doing this allows quick access during the modification process of that 2nd to 1000th rewrite. Delete the URLs ( but save them on a word doc in chronological order of your ms) before sending to a beta reader or agent.
- Embed any physical book or sources with in-text citations. For example, I’m currently using 6 different books for background information, so my in-text citation will look something like this: blah blah plot, blah, fact, blah ( Chinese Myth 49). The fact is from a book on Chinese mythology on page 49.
- If you purchased a book for research highlight and annotate the facts you think you might need. If you can’t bear to mar a book then use little sticky notes.
- Create charts for easy fact access. eg, I currently have a large chart with various aspects of Chinese culture ( food, vessels, gods, holidays, professions, garb, weapons, punishments, etc) Mmmm, can you you guess what my WIP is about? Warning: Making this chart took a looooong time but saved countless hours of ‘where was that info about weaponry?’
- Use the primary source. For example, after reading 3 books that all quoted the same book, I hunted down and purchased the no-longer-in-print book. This primary source was a goldmine, the footnotes alone providing me with more information than all the other research books put together.
- Send URLs to your email. Often I find the perfect site while web surfing, but–yikes—am no where near my home computer.
- Wiki wisdom. Wiki is a great place to start–a spring board for diving down to the bottom of the page where the Reference section provides the sources sure to provide more in-depth information
Do you have any research tips to share?