Some writers love it, some writers hate it. But all are in agreement as to the importance of a well-researched novel. The type of research can vary widely depending on the genre, but every book needs at least a jumping off start point.
However, the sheer amount of resources – the Internet is a blessing and a curse – can seem incredibly intimidating. Where do you even start?
Here are eleven tips to create a focused, useful research plan for your next novel.
Tip #1: Start by researching the market.
So this first tip is highly controversial because most people will tell you to write whatever you want regardless of what anyone else says. And this is true… Mostly.
But if you are planning to pursue traditional publishing, it’s good to at least google your general idea. Because if someone else has already written that book (and trust me, it happens), you may want to pick a new one. It will save you a lot of time and heartache.
Tip #2: Research before you start outlining.
If you know absolutely nothing about your chosen topic, setting or world – like me and voodoo – it’s good to get a little research under your belt before you start outlining. Otherwise your plot points might not make any sense considering the world they’ve been placed into.
ADDED BONUS: You’d be surprised how many great ideas your research might inspire. For instance, once I started researching voodoo ceremonies, I realized that would be a great book scene, depending on what my characters need at that moment.
Tip #3: Start with the Internet to get a basic understanding and preliminary list of questions.
The first goal in research is to come up with a list of questions. They can be as general or as specific as you want as long as they serve the overall theme of your novel.
For reference, here was my very first list of questions.
- How does New Orleans’ past influence voodoo?
- What’s the difference between New Orleans voodoo differ from those of Cuba and Haiti?
- Where does Catholicism fit in?
- What is the difference between voodoo and traditional witchcraft?
- What are a few common voodoo practices?
Once you research this first list of questions, you are going to have one million more. And that’s okay. But starting with an original list will keep you focused and prevent getting lost in a wormhole of Internet goodness.
I am just going to say this… It’s okay to start with Wikipedia. It’s a veritable treasure trove of information. But if you find a particular nugget that you want to use, be sure to fact check just in case.
Tip #4: Read AND watch!
The primary tip you will find when it comes to research is to READ as much as you can. And I 100% agree. If you have a local library, go and comb through all the books on your topic – and related topics like medicinal and magical herbs for me. You can also go to your favorite bookstore. A good way to keep from spending too much money is to scan the table of content to be sure it’s actually relevant.
But there’s another important facet to research, and that’s WATCHING. Television, movies, YouTube videos. Some of us are visual learns, and you’d be surprised how much you can learn from a different medium. Reading about a voodoo ceremony and watching one? A totally different experience, trust me. And both are equally useful!
Tip #5: Interview subject matter experts.
Now I know most of us authors are introverts, so the idea of talking to any other living person – let alone asking a total stranger for advice – sounds like torture. Ever hear of the tortured artist? I am pretty sure this is what they are referring to.
But there are so many details that can’t be found on the Internet, in books or on TV. For example, it’s almost impossible to learn how you worship or call upon certain spirits in Voodoo because practitioners are so tight-lipped. But spend a little time with experts, and you can learn some inside information.
Oh, and always ask if you can record the interview!
Tip #6: Travel to your chosen setting if you can.
I was lucky enough to spend a few days in New Orleans last year to research my new project, and I cannot stress how helpful it was. Submerging yourself in not only the location but the culture and lifestyle that your characters will someday exist in? It’s crucial.
But what if you can’t travel to your location? If your limited by time or money, there are lots of other resources out there: travel blogs, TV shows, books, Pinterest. Anything that gives you a sense of the setting will help. My novel isn’t about vampires but reading Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire or watching The Originals will help because they are both set in New Orleans.
If you are using a historical setting that doesn’t exist anymore, check out Archive.org or find a film/book version. Same goes for fantasy. Most fantastical worlds are at least somewhat rooted in reality. Figure out what that is, and research the heck out of it!
Tip #7: Don’t forget about your characters!
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up on researching the more technical details of your novel, but dedicating time to your characters is just as important.
Do they have an interesting profession that needs to be better understood? What about a personality test to better understand their strengths and weaknesses? Backstory, names, even the way they dress can vary greatly on the setting and time period, so make sure you know your characters inside and out.
Kristen Kieffer’s character workbook is a great way to get started and help you make your list of what to research.
Tip #8: Stay organized.
The sheer amount of research and references can get overwhelming fast, so organization is key. I am a paper and pen kind of girl, so I print almost everything and stick in a giant binder with tabs for each aspect. Then I can highlight and take additional notes as I go.
Lots of writers swear by Scrivener as another way to stay organized. Its features allow you to create a virtual binder with the added perk of not throwing out your back from carrying around 18 million pieces of paper.
Others use a big corkboard to pin details, plot points, character quirks and eventually outline their story. I have been wanting to try this method for a while now but simply don’t have the wall space. One day.
Tip #9: Remember to actually start writing.
Research is crucial but it can quickly turn into another form of procrastination. Set yourself a deadline on which you stop researching and actually start writing.
Tip #10: Leave the smaller details for the next draft.
When writing that first draft, you will come across several instances where you feel the need to stop and look something up. DON’T DO THIS. It will lead to hours of misused time as you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Internet.
Unless it is crucial for the actual plot, make a note and come back to it later. Googling the type of neckline used for 18th century ball gowns can wait.
Tip #11: Don’t worry too much if you get something wrong.
Your readers will accept a certain amount of suspended belief. You’re writing a novel, not a documentary. Make sure the big pieces are authentic, and you can play with the smaller details a bit. But piece of advice – especially for historical fiction: make sure the tools in your novel have in fact been invented at that point in time. Nothing ruins a book like a seventeenth century hero using a Zippo lighter…
And there you have it! Feel less intimidated? Now it’s time to make a plan and jump in!