At some point when you’re writing your novel, you’ll realize you need to look outside of yourself and your characters for answers. This is true for all genres—historical, sci-fi, contemporary. Even memoir writers don’t completely escape the long arm of research. My last post covered unconventional ways to research your novel or memoir. In part two of this series on research, let’s look at some suggestions to help keep research from taking over your writing time and your story.
Both of my novels are historical fiction, and many of my short stories are set in the past, so I know firsthand how research can be both exciting and distracting. The following has happened to me more times than I care to mention: I’m writing a new scene, and a character does or says something that I’m not sure fits with the time period. I think, I’ll just open my browser to do a quick search. An hour later my writing time is up, I haven’t actually written a word, and most of the “research” I just did was interesting but not useful.
Here are five tips I now use to protect my writing time and make my research productive.
1. Aim for breadth. Release yourself from the pressure of knowing everything, especially if this topic is new to you. At first, zero in on two or three key topics. For example, if your story centers on a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, you’ll want to know more about how coffee beans are harvested and possibly the history of coffee in Costa Rica. Choosing broad topics allows for a very high level search. It keeps the door open for discovery while not getting so specific that you miss the forest for the trees.
Pro Tip: A how-to book or an historical overview would be good ways to get your feet wet in a new subject. An online source like Wikipedia, while not always 100 percent accurate, will give you a broad scope and ideas for further research when it is time for a deeper dive.
2. Writing time is for writing. This one is for those of us who find our curiosity getting the better of us. Curiosity is a good thing. I bet it’s what got you writing in the first place. But don’t let it distract you from getting words on the page. When you get that itch to leave your story to fill a gap in your knowledge, stop. Jot your question in a notebook and put a mark in your manuscript (some writers use XXX) to return to that spot later.
Pro Tip: Set aside dedicated time for research. Maybe it’s at the end of each writing session or a separate day. This will keep your writing session on track.
Pro Tip #2: The single best way I know to stay on task is to allot a certain amount of time to research, and then set a timer.
3. Stop researching. Hear me out. Before you do a swan dive into the deep end of research and fill pages of Interesting Facts about Random Things that end up in the File of Ideas I Had to Edit From My Manuscript, stop for a moment. Remind yourself what your story is about. (Hint: your characters and what happens to them) The details of location, history, and processes are important, but not as important as the characters. Keep them in the forefront of your mind.
Pro Tip: If you’re writing fiction, be more concerned with authenticity than with precise accuracy.
4. Stay focused. Easier said than done, I know! Author Hannah Kohler says it perfectly, “If the library is a novelist’s wonderland, it can also be a rabbit-hole.” Before you spend precious time, say, looking into how chewing gum is made, consider if it is critical that the reader knows this information. Can your story be as rich and interesting without this detail?
Pro Tip: When getting started on research, limit yourself to one source per topic. That source may lead you to others, but getting five books at all at once about chewing gum can just lead to overwhelm.
5. Organize your notes. I input all of my research notes into a separate document. It’s one long, ongoing Word file per project, which makes it easily searchable. Need information on women’s formal wear? A quick look-up will locate it. I also enter general categories such as society, family life, clothing, etc. If I want details about a general topic, I can go to that topic and scroll through.
Pro Tip: Record the source for each entry so you can return to it later if need be.
How do you approach research for your novel or memoir? Please share your suggestions in the comments.
In my next post, we’ll discuss suggestions for stories that require more intensive research.
Reading is to writing as the foundation is to a house. I believe all of our craft rests upon a good foundation of close reading. Honing your craft involves understanding what makes stories tick.
Starting April 9, I’m featuring a new email series to give you some tools to read with intention and inquiry. Each day for seven days, you’ll receive a brief email with questions to ask yourself as you’re reading. Then we’ll be applying those questions to one novel as a sample. If you’re not already on my email list. sign up here.