How to Research for Your Novel

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This is the fourth in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo. To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

Once you’ve got a few ideas for your novel, the next step is to learn as much about the topic and setting as possible. This is to be done in conjunction with plotting your novel because to explore the best form and sequence of events for your novel, you need to understand at least some of the background knowledge. But finding relevant and accurate information is a challenge—not to mention keeping track of it!

Step 1: What do you need to know?

Take some time to identify the specific information that you need to know. Create a list of general topic areas to research and any specific questions you have. Try to have some level of focus so you don’t spend hours endlessly researching instead of writing, but also make sure to include areas that interest you. You never know where your next idea might spring from.

Consider the setting of your novel. Have you lived there before, and if not, how different is it from the places you have lived? What is the time period, the culture, the customs, the food, and the language? What about slang—do the people speak with specific idioms or dialect?

Even if your setting is completely your own creation, consider researching other cultures of the world so that you understand how they work, and to help you create it authentically. Many successful fantasy novels are based on the myths and legends of different cultures.

Examine your characters. Are they from the area, or have they travelled? What were there families like, and are you familiar with those cultures? What are their jobs and hobbies—have you had experience with them before?

Think about your plot points again. Do they make sense, or are they realistic? Are you sure that someone could die in that specific way in chapter 14, or do you need to understand the intricacies of Greek cuisine?

Step 2: How can you keep track of the stuff you’re learning?

Once you’ve identified the areas that you need to research, you need a system to capture the information that you need. Your system should be flexible (so that you can add new areas as they come up), searchable (so you can find your information when you need it) and fun to use. Other things to think about when choosing a system is how long this project will take, where you will need to access your files, whether you would like to share your research with others, and if you’d like to adapt the same system later for other projects.

A popular tool for this kind of research is Evernote. Evernote is a handy grab-it-all reference tool, and you can use ‘stacks’ (similar to folders), reminders, tags and search to easily organise PDFs, photos, documents, lists and almost any other kind of file you can think of. The real magic of Evernote, however, is in the web page clipper. Using the browser extension, you can easily grab a whole webpage exactly as it appears and store it like you would any other file.

A slightly unusual option for this is Tumblr. The search functions here are a little less intuitive than Evernote (though you can still use tags to organise your posts), but there is the advantage of being able to share your research with others (and being able to read other people’s research as well). There is a huge writing community on Tumblr, and this is a great way to make writing friends as well as store your research for your novel—plus you can start building your online author platform well before the book itself is formed.

If your project will involve a lot of scholarly research (especially if it is nonfiction and you may have to cite it later), consider using a reference tool like Endnote. Endnote is a godsend for those of us battling endless uni assignments; you can easily save PDFs and research notes with the citation, and the program will keep it all in one place so you can easily organise your reference list, or know where to go back to if you need further clarification on a point. Endnote  does cost money (though many universities offer it to their students for free), but other options are Mendeley and Zotero.

Another option, especially if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, is Scrivener (free NaNoWriMo trial edition here). This is the writing tool of choice for many, many, many writers (including myself). It has a huge amount of features, but never feels bloated. The advantage of using Scrivener for your research is that it’s in the same file as your novel will be, and you can easily reference to it without connecting to the internet. The downside is that it’s not easily portable (though you can save your file on a USB or in dropbox), and there’s not a native mobile app. Take a look before you dismiss it, though; it’s the kind of product that works for everyone differently.

Once you’ve picked a tool, play around with it for a little bit and figure out how you will use it to organise your information. What folders or tags do you need? Create a masterlist of these so you don’t create new ones every time you forget, and add to it as you get underway. Do enough preparation work so that once you start researching, you’ll be able to add your information quickly and easily, and you won’t get bogged down in your system.

Step 3: How can you actually learn the stuff?

Take another look at the research areas you’ve chosen, and identify the best sources of information that you can access without someone’s direct assistance. Of course, searching the topic via Google, Wikipedia and Reddit are a good first step, but look a little deeper.

Do not forget about your local library! If you’re struggling to find information, ask your librarian; a significant part of their job is to help their patrons find the information they are looking for, meaning that they are professional researchers, and even if they can’t find the exact answers you’re looking for, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

The other bonus to utilising your local library, is that often they pay for their patrons to access online databases and journals. If your topic is history or science-based, these can be an essential source of information. Can you get a free library membership, and access them this way (or borrow a friend’s membership)? If not, take a look at Google Scholar and see if you can find similar resources that way.

Does the topic have a museum or gallery? Even if it is not located near you, it may have a website with accurate information, or people may have left drips of information in the comments on review sites. Take a look at your local universities—do they run a course that is relevant? Their students need to be able to do their homework, so it is likely there will be texts on the subject in its library, or in other libraries near you.

Is there a society or organisation centred around your topic? Often there are arts organisations, historical societies, science clubs and other places for experts or hobbyists to talk about the things that excite them. These organisations often have fact sheets on their websites, and you can always contact them directly with your questions.

If you’re a bit overwhelmed with questions, or you’re unsure where the best information for your purposes is, why not contact your local university and ask a professor or PhD student if you can ask them some questions over a coffee? The worst that can happen is that they will say no, and you could end up finding the answers to your questions. Other people you can contact might be any relevant clubs or societies at universities, local writing organisations, and other local organisations that are relevant to the topic area.

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