Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to Prep for a Book, Step 2: Research

This week is dedicated to preparing your novel before you start it, or “plotting.” The second step: do the research.

Every book needs some research. Even fantasies and sci-fis have facts, except those facts aren’t real. I highly, highly, highly recommend finishing the research before starting to write, if you can. You want your story to mold to the facts, not the facts to mold to the story. That’s how you get inaccuracies.

When I wrote Sacred Fire, a novel about the Vestal Virgins, I made one big document where I kept all my research. Whenever I found a fact, quote, or a paragraph of information, I pasted it in the document along with the source (web page, book title, whatever). Then I made a table of contents so everything would be easy to find.

I made a lot of mistakes while writing my book. The way I did my research is by far my greatest regret. It was so disorganized and incomplete, and it wasted more time than I care to think about.

I’m going to take the advice from Persia Woolley’s book “How to Write Historical Fiction” and try something drastically different for my Nano novel:

1.      Save Everything

While researching Sacred Fire, occasionally I would need to look up one quick little fact. When I didn’t think I would need the fact again, I wouldn’t save the information. I am shocked at how many “little facts” I needed over and over. Since I didn’t save the link, I’d have to search for it all over again.

 I’ve looked at a website about the structure of Roman homes a million times. I never saved the link because I always thought that was the last time I’d need it. Come to think of it, I still haven’t saved that darn information because I don’t think I’ll need it again.

When you open a web page, you can click on File > Save and save the page to a folder. Do it for every single page you ever open. It’s not like it takes up any space, and you never know whether or not you’ll need it. My guess is, you will.

2.     Save Everything in Its Entirety

The biggest problem with my one-document research method was I would only save the specific information I thought I needed. Later, I’d need information that I had already read but didn’t save. I’d have to search all over the internet for it, trying to remember what page it came from.

If I have to look up Livvy’s history of the Second Punic War one more time, I’m going to tear my hair out.

Instead of only saving what you think you’ll need, save it all and highlight what you think you’ll need. This is easy in a word document.

3.     Own All Your Books

My college had an amazing library that owned five books on the Vestal Virgins and several books about Roman religion in general. I read through them and took notes.
Just like the web pages, I often needed to see the books again and I had to go to the library.

Now I live on the other side of the country and don’t have access to those books anymore. I realized how badly I still needed them and bought a few.

Beyond looking up facts, it’s also wonderful to read through those books again to get in “the zone” before you write. My research books refresh me. They help me hear the voice of the Romans, visualize their world, get inside their heads.

Research books are also important for sentimental value. They were so much a part of my novel that reading them brings back memories.

4.     Print it Out

It’s easier to handle material when you have a hard copy. You can flip through to find what you need instead of opening files willy-nilly. Also, I’ve told you to save a ton of information you probably won’t need. If you print out your research, you can use a pen to highlight what’s important. Later you can go back and highlight more.

It might also be helpful to photocopy pages from books.

If you’re writing historical fiction you might need to a dozen 3-ring binders, but trust me, it’s worth it.

5.     Organize Your Folders

This goes without saying. Don’t just put all your papers in a single three-ring binder with no page dividers, don’t save your files in one folder on your desktop. Make folders for everything, even if there’s only one document in it.

6.     Use Your Research for More than Research

When I lose sight of the purpose of the book, or the voice, or it loses its flavor, flipping through my research puts me back on track.


  1. You are right about the SAVE EVERYTHING step. Not only research, but drafts, ideas, scenes you deleted that you didn't think would work. I find myself cannibalizing my deleted scenes time after time for future WIP's.

  2. I agree 100%!!! Save all and save often! Nothing feeds your anxieties like a computer crashing mid paragraph and you haven't saved since writing 1,200 words. That right there, is a BAD DAY my friends!

    Just to mention, not everyone can do what C.S Lewis did by throwing all his drafts of Narnia away. He was one of those author's that committed to the final project and that was IT!

    I don't know of any writer today that does that. And may God Bless you and keep you if you can. *shivers at the thought*

    I'm constantly carrying a journal with me at all times that has post-it tabs in it so I can mark where everything is. :) There is something very joyful of writing it all by hand to me. :)

  3. I completely forgot to mention saving all your drafts and notes. I'm shocked at how many scenes and parts of scenes I've resurrected.

  4. I'm good at saving stuff, but certainly much less good at saving stuff in an organised way. I end up with lots of drafts and cut out sections. Unfortunatly I've named them silly things like 'banana' because I was so focused on the writing part.

  5. One thing I've done that's been helpful is to write up little "setting profiles." Kind of like character profiles, but centralizing all my research about a particular place in one document. I don't do it for every location in the story, just major ones, like the towns the characters live in. They include maps I've found, who lived where and what their homes looked/felt/sounded/smelled like, major rivers/mountains, distances from one point to another, flora and fauna, daily life/customs, etc.

    I feel fortunate in one way about writing historical fiction set in the U.S., since I live in the DC area and it makes it easy for me to find obscure sources at the Library of Congress. Also there are two great recreated colonial farms near DC that really help me get immersed in the atmosphere of my setting.

  6. Matt, that is awesome advice! I'll remember that.

  7. Thanks for posting this series! Right now I am trying to organize all of my research information and this was very helpful. I absolutely hate remembering a piece of information I have previously read and then not being able to physically locate it. I have also learned from the comments as well!

  8. Great post, thank you! Lots of wonderful and useful ideas to put into practice now!

  9. Hi Teralyn! I've taken a look at your blogs and posts on organising research, and ordinarily, I would use these techniques too... that is, until I tried blogging on terraforming, where these research techniques were just taking to long for me, (being a fast-paced techno-savvy person!) I'm creating a web app where a lot of your tips (saving entirely, creating footnotes, even creating timelines) become automated. (no endless copy and pasting =)) I'm not the only writer out there however, and it'll be great to create a web app that all writers can use. Would I be able to talk to you sometime about it?

    1. I'm flattered, but I wrote pretty much everything I know on the subject in this article, so I won't be of much help.

    2. Sure, thanks for considering Teralyn! I really have found your blog posts helpful and I wish you all the best with your writing endeavours!


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