Friday, August 3, 2018

How to Get a Handle on Using Your Novel Research

by Linda Rodriguez

Right now, I am teaching an online course in research for the novel, so my mind is turned to research, and I thought I would offer a quick and dirty look at research for novelists.

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.

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 acknowledgments page, I have that information at hand and don’t have to worry about forgetting anyone who helped me by answering questions.

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.

Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at

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