April 17, 2013

Enjoying Research

No matter what sort of book we happen to be writing, sooner or later - preferably sooner - we'll find ourselves needing to buckle down and research.  This is pretty intuitive for those of us writing historical fiction; the era of careful propaganda and make-believe "history" has, alas, gone its way, and now we've actually got to stick to facts.  Ho hum.  For fantasy or science fiction authors it is a little less obvious, but again, at some point you realize that they demand, if anything, even more research than historical novels.  It's just a fact of writing life.

It is not, of course, always a pleasant fact.  Some people really enjoy researching; others find it daunting and unpleasant.  I happen to fall somewhere in the middle: there are times when I love it - especially those moments where a nebulous idea and a concrete fact finally click - and then there are times where I'd rather be doing anything else.  Maybe even scrubbing bathtubs.  And I'm pretty sure that second feeling is more common than the first.

It is difficult to know, especially when you're just getting started, where to start.  There must be books - no self-respecting writer should really on the internet - but what books?  And where do we find them?  And once we've found them, how do we find what we need in them?  Are books our only resources, or are there others?  If there are others, what are they, where are they, and how do we use them?  If you are tackling a particularly big subject, like World War II or the history of medicine, it can seem like there's no resource material; and then it can feel like there's an ocean of material and we're just paddling along on the surface in a little leaky dinghy.  That is what makes research not so fun.

I still get this feeling, whether I'm studying the Age of Sail or astrolabes: I'll confess that right away.  But it is a little less overwhelming when approached with some ideas of organization and method - they keep the holes in the dinghy patched, at the very least.  These are a few of the things I do to make research a little smoother, a little brighter, and a little more enjoyable.

1. make book lists

I like lists.  I like how practical and efficient they are.  When I begin researching seriously, I try to write down all the titles of books that I think might be helpful in different aspects of the novel, big and small.  Often you can find these by merely googling the topic you're looking for, and once you've found one book, you can discover more by following that author's references.  You are pretty sure to find yourself with an extensive list this way.

After that, I'll usually try to track down the book either on Google Books or Amazon and preview it.  If it looks worthwhile, I can sometimes get it from the library; but our library is pretty poor, and at any rate, at some point you've got to give library books back.  They also frown on underlining.  So if at all possible, it is really best to save up and buy the books you need - the ones that look as though they'll be most useful across the board.  It may seem like a dull use of your money, but it really is worth it. 

For those books you can't purchase or that don't look extremely helpful, take note of them and see if they aren't available online.  Many books and original material are.  I was able to use the Naval Documents of the Barbary Wars without paying $500 dollars for it, which was very nice indeed, and I've found numerous other works via Google Books.

2. underline! take notes!

I talked about this in general terms in "More Than Pages Flying By," but it really is a good idea to, at the very least, stick tabs in pages you'll need to reference later.  Don't trust your memory.  It never turns out well.  ("Was it pages 300...?  Or 3...?  I think it was on a lefthand page.  No, no, pretty sure it was right.  Or was it left?")  If you come across a random tidbit of information, or something you want to look into more deeply, jot it down in a handy notebook.  Underline, if you like, and perhaps make notes in the margins: you can do it in light pencil and erase later, if the idea of a pen makes you cringe.  

3. pick out useful bits

You needn't read all the way through every book you get for research.  I think you should read through some, even most, or you will have no cohesive feel for the time period or the topic; but to read from page one to the end in every single work can be both tedious and unhelpful.  Skim through the pages, decide which books will be most helpful, and read those.  Settle yourself in, get a cup of tea, and immerse yourself in those works: they may not be one hundred percent enjoyable, but I think they'll be rewarding.  For the other books, look at the chapter headings (if there are any) and the index and read those sections dealing with your subject. 

4. space research out

Cramming isn't the best method for thoroughly learning anything.  I know some writers like to do all their research before they begin to write, but even with this, I think you should space your reading out over a good long period: don't try to stuff it all into a couple months.  For myself, I rarely know half of what I don't know until I've begun to write, so I spread my research out before, during, and after my first draft.  Whatever works - just don't cram.

5. keep notebooks

I don't do this like I should, but I'm going to be hypocritical and say it's a good habit.  One thing I started doing last year or the year before is keeping a notebook of common British plants, with sketches (flowers are about the only things I can draw, apparently), common names, folklore, and medicinal uses.  It has been helpful on occasion; but immediate helpfulness aside, it provides a pleasant diversion and is something I know I'll be glad to have down the road.  It's good practice, at any rate.  I have another blank notebook ready for common birds, except that birds are significantly harder to sketch than the odd sprig of valerian.

6. don't be narrow-minded

It is easy to hone in on one era or topic to the detriment of others, but that practice is bad for the mind and makes research tiring.  I get bored of focusing on one thing for a long time.  That's part of why I keep my plant notebook: it is something entirely removed from politics and historical events, and that makes it refreshing.  No matter what you are primarily researching, remember to branch out - and to enjoy yourself when you do.  Keep a sketch notebook, if you like; or, if you can't draw, paste photos into a notebook and write your notes by hand, scrapbook-style.  Just the other day I started a Pinterest board for random bits of research and notes that snag my interest and may come in handy: photos or drawings of birds, of plants, of fruit I might eventually need to describe.  I'm not terribly particular about it, but I do have fun with it.

what research methods do you use?


  1. Love this post, Abigail. I do a lot of pinning of historical things on Pinterest. I will have to check out your new folder.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I've pinned very little to that board so far - I'm a conservative pinner - and it's very random, but I enjoy it. In a pinch, they're good things to have on hand.

  2. Thanks so much for this post Abigail! I was just thinking to myself how haphazard and slapdash my research is. Your posts always seem to come right slap at the moment I need them!

    1. Oh, don't think I'm organized just because I make a list! I've got a long way to go. But I do hope some of the ideas strike a chord with you; everyone will have his own method, but it's overwhelming when we go into it without any method at all. I know. I do it on a regular basis.

  3. I must not be a self respecting writer! LoL I do use the internet a lot, but I find the most reliable resources, and look for the same information repeated in more than one place. I also bookmark and keep the links to where I got the information from. So though I do use books when the library, or we have them, (I use about two books PER book I'm writing) I am an online researcher. No, yahoo answers don't count. ;)


  4. This was wonderful! I actually like research, except when I'd rather be writing, but I sometimes pretty overwhelmed when it comes to doing it. Your tips sound very helpful. I'm close to starting research for a new novel so this is timely! I kind of knew what I needed to do, but having methods laid out by someone who's used them is handy. Thank you!
    I tend to use the internet like Rebecca does, but I do prefer finding a book that can answer my questions. The problem comes when I can't find the right book. Some simply don't answer the questions I have. That's when I get frustrated. :/ I'm a perfectionist and would hate to write something and then later proved to be wrong ... oh, for a time machine!

  5. Thank you Abigail, for this insightful blog post,
    I have just began researching for my very first novel and I was beginning to feel a bit over whelmed. I am grateful to learn your tips.
    Keep up the great posts!
    God Bless

  6. Ah, this was one of those really helpful posts, Abigail! Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and tips - you probably already know that with me doing research into the very wide sphere of WW2 for research in my novel, and trying to find the right books amid the sea of resources that I need that have the information I am searching for, and then being able to remember it and record it and really 'translate' it into the book - this post was just so good!

    And this paragraph: 'I think you should space your reading out over a good long period: don't try to stuff it all into a couple months. For myself, I rarely know half of what I don't know until I've begun to write, so I spread my research out before, during, and after my first draft. Whatever works - just don't cram.'

    That was soooo helpful for me to hear because I have this awful feeling as I write like I have got to get all the information and historical research correct from now and am terrified of writing something inaccurate which is sort of crippling to writerly inspiration, as you can imagine.

    I am going to refer to this post in the future, I have a feeling ;).

  7. Thanks for the post, Abigail :) I fall in the middle of liking and not liking research, though I lean strongly towards the latter; I've never been one for in-depth researching. But as you said, we have to buckle down at some point, and I'm discovering more and more as I write just how important it is to at least do a little research before beginning a story. Your tips were helpful and encouraging (I'm exactly like you on notebooks - I have a few notebooks to write ideas and scattered scenes in, but nothing for true research like I should.)
    I too have a crummy library, so I tend to do a lot of my research on the internet, which sometimes provides the material I need but other times is just as unhelpful as my library. However, there are moments when I find the perfect accredited website and am able to bookmark it for easy access, and sticky notes on my Mac laptop are so convenient. I plan on saving up a bit of money and buying actual books for research however.
    My idea that I haven't followed through with yet is to assign several notebooks to each story idea I develop, having some for simply jotting down ideas for the story to in-depth research to character setting observations. Thanks again for the encouragement in researching!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
find me elsewhere
take my button


Follow by Email

published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

Bookmarks In...

Search This Blog