How are YOUR research skills? Rusty? Disorganized?
Writers can spend a LOT of time researching information for their novels. Be it mystery, action-adventure, sci-fi, historical, urban fantasy, crime, or horror—writers are forever looking up facts to mix with the fiction.
Lucky me, writing a million ( a small exaggeration ) college essays and a masters thesis taught helped me discover the best ways to catalogue and manage the plethora of research. I teach these same tips ( learned the hard way ) to my students.
Here’s a few down and dirty research tips. Be forewarned: The more thorough the prep in the beginning, the easier your novel writing—the insert fact portion here part—is at the end.
1.Make a timeline for historical events. 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 reference 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.
2. Keep a binder of articles you’ve printed from 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.
3. Save websites or photos on Pinterest. It’s a great organizational tool. I make a Pinterest board for every novel. You can even have a secret board. Storing all the websites on Pinterest allows for easy accessability and prevents you from scrolling down that never-ending Favorite list.
4. Embed a website’s URL into your drafts. Doing this allows quick access during revisions. Delete the URLs ( but save them on a word doc in chronological order of your ms) before sending to a beta reader or agent.
5. Use in-text citations in your drafts. 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.
6. 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?’
7. 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.
8. Send URLs to your email. Often I find the perfect site while web surfing, but––yikes—am no where near my home computer.
9. 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 sources sure to provide more in-depth information.
Do you have any research tips ?