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Researching a Novel the Simple Way

Researching a Novel the Simple Way

How to Write a Novel to the End: Researching a Novel the Simple Way

When it comes to research, writers tend to polarize. Some meticulous souls all but camp in libraries while others grab information from the Internet in quick-and-dirty spurts. With a bent toward library haunting, I fall somewhere in between. Researching well requires commitment, so it’s good to count the cost, but don’t shy away because the task seems daunting.

It wasn’t that long ago that I found researching 13-century Europe for my Tales of Faeraven fantasy trilogy a daunting task. Where should I start? How might I organize my notes? What would prevent me from drowning in a sea of information?

I needed a system.

I asked for help in a research group that included historical author Lena Nelson Dooley. She took pity on me and sent a recording of a talk she’d given on researching a novel, and from that my own system evolved.  By the way, if you write historical fiction, you really should take a look at Lena’s extensive list of research links.

I learned that creating a research master plan provides you a map that helps you navigate a labyrinth of information. To counter my confusion, my research plan needed to be simple. Breaking my studying into manageable chunks also helped me plan my time better and kept me on track, increasing my writing productivity.

Putting together a research master plan is simple.

Researching a Novel the Simple Way via Janalyn Voigt for Live Write Breathe

Researching a Novel the Simple Way

Start by identifying the domains, or subjects, you need to learn more about. Some of these are givens: weather, geography, dialects and customs, for example. Others, like warfare strategies, political trends, and popular attitudes are a little more abstract.  It’s good to study an overview of the time period by location (even if your story is set during modern times). Use this to create a story timeline that tracks major events thad would probably touch your character’s lives. For instance, a story set in New York in the spring of 1912 should probably mention the sinking of the Titanic.

Sort through the domains you brainstormed, determining what to include in your research plan. Once you decide your domains, prioritize them. I suggest assigning letters of the alphabet to your domains. Use A to designate primary domains, B for the next most important, and C for lesser domains. Number your segmented domains (for example: A1, B3, C10, etc.).  When doing this, I usually work inward from broader subjects. For instance, if I were researching a western romance, I would study the overview domain Old West before narrowing my focus to categories like clothing, food and livestock care. Doing this saves time because questions about lesser domains may be answered adequately within the overview. Jotting down the location of important information saves you from hunting-and-pecking later.

It’s a good idea to put together a binder with a separate tab for each domain and to set up digital documents in the same configuration. 

To avoid doing too much research, whittle your selected domains to a narrowed focus. For instance, the writer of a story about miners during the California gold rush might only need an overview of the gold rush in the United States through the story’s time period,  a historical timeline, specifics on mining in California, and details of life as a miner in the mining camp where the story is set.

Name the sources of information you will employ. Which people, books, articles and other resources will you draw from for each domain.  With a cornicopia of information available to you, it can be tough to know where to dig in. Let’s take a closer look.

When you think about it, resources really only fall into three different categories.

  1. Written information like books, articles, newspaper archives and online information.
  2. Audio and/or Visual information, including recordings, videos, pictures and maps.
  3. In-person encounters with eyewitnesses, museum curators, historians and experts.  This category includes your own in-person research trips.

The nature of your project will help you determine how heavily to rely upon any of these resources. For a book that recounts the lore of coastal Indians, as an example, the third category of information might play a greater part in research than the first. When researching 13th-century Europe for my Tales of Faeraven novels, I used the first and second categories of research but with the leeway writing epic fantasy afforded me, I didn’t need the in-depth information meeting with historians in person would have given me.

For domains where you just need an overview, find information that distills the facts for you. Most people over-research. Avoid this by abandoning any notion that you need to read every last thing ever written on your subjects. Let the interests of your story determine how in-depth you’ll go in a given area. For a book that focuses on local concerns in a specific location, you might need just one or two reliable overviews of your time period and location with details pertinent to the lives of your characters. For a sweeping saga with multiple locations, you’ll need to gather wider overviews.

Schedule your research time to cover domains in order of descending importance. In the event you run out of time and have to start writing, you’ll only need to gather less important information on the fly. Also, make sure you spend more research time on relevant domains. One of my future projects begins in 1861. Although my story is set in the American West, the outbreak of Civil War impacts my characters.  I therefore have a domain entitled Civil War Timeline and one called Civil War in the West. I won’t spend too much time on the timeline, just enough to gain an overview of events that run parallel to my story. I’ll focus more on the Civil War in the West domain, since it is more relevant to my story.

Cushion your research plan to allow time to explore the unexpected. You never fully know what you will find when you delve into research. Of course, that’s what we love about it, right? Let your research guide you into areas that hadn’t occurred to you,  but remember not to wander too far from the bounds of relevancy. It’s easy to get carried away while researching.

Feeling you’ll never know enough to start writing your story is normal.  There’s never an end to learning, and as each discovery takes you to another. Research well, but start your story as soon as possible. You probably won’t identify all necessary domains in the beginning, and that’s all right.  The first draft of your story will tell you what you missed.

Final Thoughts

Researching a novel can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before. However, few writers start out knowing what they are doing. Even masters like Liz Curtis Higgs, who described the detailed research process for several of her books in an interview for Focus on Fiction, didn’t start out knowing how to research a novel.

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©2014 by Janalyn Voigt

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Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

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