This month’s “From the Author’s Desk” is a long post about researching for your novel that I wrote for another blog meant to help other writers. I wanted to post it here too, so I could include it in my For Writer’s Tab. I hope you’ll find it an interesting look a the practical side of preparing for a novel.
Research: Love It or Hate It, You Gotta Do It!
Research. You either dread it or love it. Regardless of your sentiment, as a diligent writer, you have to do it and do it right. Whether new at the researching game or old hat, it is my prayer that this post will give you a little bit of guidance, a few resources, and a “whole lotta” inspiration.
I will be tackling this from the historical fiction angle, but anything written here can be applied to any genre’s research needs.
Where do I start researching?
Think of the act of researching as similar to drawing a tornado—you start with wide broad spirals that narrow down to a very focused point the closer you get to the ground, or in this case, your story.
With this in mind, I recommend starting wide and shallow before you ever write the first word of your story. Get a feel for what the politics, economy, culture, major events, fashion, etiquette, industries, technology, and social constructs were like for the setting of your story. These could have potentially content-altering information that can cripple a story if you find out too late.
Honestly, my favorite way to get a broad overview is to find children’s history books on the topics. They often have lots of interesting tidbits while giving you a broad sense of what is going on. It also helps to guide you in to more narrow and deeper research.
Once you have a general understanding of the times, then you can really narrow in on the specifics of your character and situation. Below I’ve listed some topics for consideration and some guiding questions to help you determine what is going to matter most to your character.
Major Topics for Consideration:
Each story is going to have unique needs, so you need to gauge your research based on those needs. If your story isn’t going to have a huge political influence, stop researching politics after you have a general feel for your story’s need. If your story has a rich socialite and a poor man, you are going to need to know the intricacies of upper-class society’s expectations and how they differ from someone who has never experienced it. I think you probably get the idea. 😉
Politics: What major political events were going on during the setting of your story? How might they affect your characters? Most of us don’t live in a bubble, and what is going on in the world filters into our lives and our discussions. Take that into consideration to be sure that there isn’t something that would greatly impact your story’s plot.
For example, if you have your character’s father the owner of a railroad during the railroad strikes, that is going to affect your character in at least some manner. If your heroine lives during the era of growing awareness of women’s rights (a much longer period than you might realize), how will this influence what your character believes, thinks, and says?
Culture: This means looking at the region and locale of your story. What foods, activities, and sayings are common to that area? Are there certain expectations that aren’t included elsewhere? Do they have certain fashions? Are there certain people groups common to that area that would influence the culture of that city?
Cincinnati is heavily German. When I moved here, I experience lots of new-to-me foods, building styles, and a TON of Catholic schools. There were two for the area I’d grown up in. Do your research and you’ll be surprised about what will really add richness to your story.
Economics and Social Status: Different social classes have different expectations and behaviors. How are those going to affect your character? What obstacles will that create? Consider the careers they would be likely to have. What industry do your characters rely on? What is going on in those industries which could affect their lives? The more you know about these things, the stronger your story will be.
When researching my manuscript Counterfeit Love, I discovered there was a “Long Depression” lasting from 1873 to 1896. At the time, they called it the “Great Depression.” What I learned changed and set the baseline for the struggles my heroine faced, even though I never directly connected the two for my reader.
Organizing the Research
As much as I hate to admit it, taking notes which are easy to reference is critical. It is really important to keep a running bibliography so that you can back up your research when questions, and you can reference something if you get confused as you look over your notes.
I use a program called Scrivener, and under the research tab, I create folders. My “big folders” are named by the topic: Setting, Etiquette, Fashion, Gardening, etc. My broad needs are labeled for quick reference.
Inside each folder, I break it down to it’s smaller component topics. My current character is a master gardener, and I am a black thumb, so under my gardening folder I have topics like Master Gardener (which will include examples, requirements, real people, and their gardens which I can reference), Plants Heroine Works With, etc.
Beyond that, each book resource will get its own folder. Each website gets a single text document. I name these text documents and book folders by the name of the resource, and also by the topic if the resource is focused on a single topic. I take my notes in a table format:
Personal Notes/ Observations
Possible Plot Points
It’s the alphabet
A letter goes missing
It is a bit tedious, but I do find that it has been invaluable in brainstorming, reviewing information, and finding a specific fact quickly.
Each person has their own method, this is just mine, so do not feel like you HAVE to do it my way. Do be sure to keep track of your resources though. You never know when you will have to justify something you wrote.
When it comes to conducting research, it is easy to get lost in the mire of possibilities. You can visit museums, websites, historical societies, read history books or primary sources, travel, or even search satellite maps.
Most of my research is done from home and online. To find my resources, I usually start with a search of my local library’s catalog or a Google search to find some reputable resources. Yes, I even go to Wikipedia—but only as a starting point to direct me somewhere else. I get what information I can, and then I look at their bibliographies. This is how I narrow down what I am going to read.
I prefer diaries, books, and newspapers written during the era I’m writing. This can be difficult and expensive if I’m not careful. I highly recommend seeing if your public library has a subscription to Historic Newspapers websites. Mine has several. From home, I can read newspapers and search for topics in those newspapers for free. It is marvelous.
For books, there has been a wonderful movement to digitalize old books and most of them are free to read. Below I’ve given you a list of my favorites. You can search by title, year, subject, or even keywords. It has been a lifesaver, especially during these strange times which makes research extra difficult.
While finding books from eh 1880s can be expensive and difficult, there are a lot of books that have been digitalized and can be searched for free. Below, I’ve given you some of my favorites.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/ – This is my favorite resource. It can take some weeding through, and you’d definitely want a specific title, but I have found countless resources here.
https://books.google.com/ – They list them all, whether you can read them or not, so just make sure they say Free E-book when you click on it.
https://archive.org/ – This one has gotten in trouble lately for pirating current books, so make sure you are only looking at books printed before WWI. Generally, I only go to this website once I have a specific title in mind. There are usually multiple copies of the same book and it does take some weeding through.
Search for the historical society of the area you are researching. Some of them have online resources, some will be thrilled to talk to you and help you out, and some will never answer back. Either way, they are a go-to resource for information you would never have imagined.
How to Avoid Rabbit Trails
Oh, the wonderful things you can find when researching! And oh how much time you can waste. What helps me to not waste hours down a rabbit trail (and I still do often), is to keep the specific thing I am researching in mind.
When I come across something else that strikes my fancy but isn’t what I need at that particular moment, I add a note and the website link to a folder I title “Research This Later.” 90% of the time I don’t go back to it, but having it tucked away for later helps me to release the rabbit trail and stay focused.
It’s a simple trick, but it works well. You could also set a timer for how long you are going to research this topic, but I find I turn those off and just keep going.
While writing your actual manuscript, I recommend you do not go and research something the moment you find you need it. Just make a note in your manuscript like this: [RESEARCH FASHION]. The primary concern with drafting is getting the story down as quickly as you can. Research can cause you to lose that momentum.
How do you decide what to use?
Throw all you want or find interesting in your first draft. This is your place to just see where the story takes you. Once you begin the revision process you can decide what needs cut. To make that decision, ask yourself: “What does my read absolutely need to see and understand the story?” and “Does this slow my story down?”
If it is needed AND slows your story down, see if you can change up the presentation of the information. Can it be communicated briefly through fascinating dialogue?
If it isn’t needed, even if it doesn’t slow your story down, you’ll probably need to cut it. You can always leave it and see what beta readers think. However, what I’ve observed in today’s readers is the more concise you can be, the better.
Cutting that beloved material from your first draft can be hard, but you can still use those materials in blog posts, social media posts, and promotional opportunities later on. You already have the content, and readers may find it interesting.
There is really is so much more that could be said about research, but I have surpassed my word count. If you have questions or want to learn more, feel free to contact me.