Friday, July 7, 2017

How to Get a Handle on Using Your Novel Research

by Linda Rodriguez

Research is vital for all fiction writers to a certain extent, and for those writing novels such as historical or science fiction or techno-thrillers, research can make or break their books. Yet research has its pitfalls and needs to be kept under control.

It’s always a mistake to allow research to consume the story you’re trying to tell. You can’t allow your desire to show off all of your great research to leave your narrative littered with details that slow down your pacing and clog up the narrative drive of your book. It’s often better to have something mentioned in passing and not defined or explained because your characters would know what it was. If you feel that some kind of explanation is needed for the readers, put it in context with a conversation, often joking, about some difficulty with the object or law or situation that uses the barest minimum of detail.

Another major issue—and probably the most important—in dealing with research is organizing it so that you can lay your hands on the item you need as you are writing that passage. There are several possible ways to organize research, and which is best depends on how your mind works and which you prefer to work with.

If you prefer to work with notes you take by hand or have a lot of physical documents to refer to, one or more portable file boxes with folders for each category of information—or period of time or whatever organizing principle you choose to use—will keep everything where you can readily access it. Binders are also a good way to keep track of notes, documents, printouts, and with enclosed pocket pages, smaller pieces of research or items that don’t lend themselves to lying flat or being hole-punched. You may even be a hardcore 3x5 card user, and you can find card files with dividers that allow you to organize these, as well.

If you prefer to do everything on the computer, you can set up in your word processer a master folder for the book full of lesser folders organized the way you would organize the physical files we talked about. You can also use a notes program, such as Evernote or One Note, which can be organized in any way you choose and can store photos, graphics, and videos, as well as allowing you to tag items with sources or cross-references.

Another good choice for technophiles is Scrivener or other similar book-writing programs, such as yWriter. Each of these allows you to add research notes to the actual chapter or scene where they will be used and then move them around, if need be. Scrivener also has a virtual 3x5 card function and a timeline function that can be a real lifesaver for complex books. Scrivener, of course, has many other functions, and a lot of my friends who are bestsellers swear by it. I intend to try it soon, but currently I use One Note for virtual information and a three-ring binder for physical items.

One of the things I always try to do is to keep a simple Word document going to which I add the names of everyone I’ve talked with to research a book. Then, when I need to write my acknowledgements page, I have that information at hand and don’t have to worry about forgetting anyone who helped me.

Chronology and timelines can be a real problem, not only for historical novelists and fantasy saga writers, but for others, such as mystery writers, who have to juggle the timeline of what really happened at the same time they are dealing with the timeline of how the protagonist solved the crime. For a simple timeline, you can keep track of things in your writing software, but for more complex or extensive timelines, you can either turn to Scrivener, which has a useful timeline function, or many of the other programs available online that deal with timelines only, such as Preceden, Aeon, Smartdraw, etc.

Of course, you can also go the old-fashioned way of constructing a comprehensive timeline to tape to your office wall, if you have a nice, long horizontal space available. If not, you can tape it in big chunks to large pieces of poster board and set them up against your wall or on a table or floor when you need to look at the entire timeline and perhaps shift something around on it.

Fortunately, there are many options for organizing research open to writers today. It’s simply a matter of choosing one or a combination of them that fits your mental style of working and using it religiously. That last bit is vital. You can have the best, most up-to-date method of organizing your research, but if you don’t use it consistently, it won’t support the work you’re trying to do. So, if you find yourself intimidated by the technological wonders, you might be better off using an old-fashioned file-folder system or binders you feel comfortable in using, rather than a state-of-the-art system you’re too nervous to use regularly. Research organization is for your benefit alone. You don’t have to impress anyone else, so use what really works for you.

How do you use research, if you're a writer? If you're a reader, have you seen good and bad research use in the novels you've read?


  1. I tend to over-research, learning a large amount of information about a location or process, with very little making it on the page. But having that cushion gives me the confidence to write the story.

  2. Margaret, I think that's the way a lot of writers research.