Researching Your Novel

Researching a novel is tough. We’ve all been there at some point and we know how mind-melting it can be to sit for hours just to figure out the intricacies of certain ecosystems, the process of cell division and/or the migration periods of geese. Although it’s hard, if you want your story to be convincing, you MUST MUST do the research.

“But Naked, how do I research my novel?” you might ask. And I have the answer.

Begin with your idea.

That’s the best advice I can give you. If you take your entire plot and try to research the whole thing all at once, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. Once you have your idea, then you can begin researching. An idea could mean a timeline, an event, a historical figure, a single scene, or any number of things.

Take it one step at a time.

The age old sage advice still stands on rickety knees. And if you can hear them creaking, don’t panic.

The first step is to pick one aspect of your story that you aren’t sure about, and look it up. Now this is very important. One. Step.

Not the whole book. At least not all at once.

Yes, you may have a genius idea for a novel about an alien life form who crash lands in the Canadian wilderness and spreads a new disease to the most populated places in North America, all during the coldest winter in American/Canadian history–but you can’t figure all that out at once.

Which Canadian forest will the alien land? What disease would cause the amount of damage you’re envisioning? What constitutes the territories of North America? What was the coldest winter in American/Canadian history?

One. Step. At. A. Time. Slowly but surely, you’ll get all the info you need in order to get the wheels of the choo-choo going.

“But Naked, what do I use to research my novel?” Books? Internet? Magazines? Word of mouth? It’s more than likely that the information you need won’t all be in one place. But don’t thee despair. The hunt can be as titillating as the writing itself. Yes, ye of disbelief, I did in fact just use the word titillating.

Use the most convenient and reliable source. 

There are so many options for the truth seekers out there, but which one is the best for your amazing writerly self?

All of them and any of them.

If you’re writing a time travel story about someone who appears in the Middle Ages, and you just happen to have a bookshelf full of Medieval history books (ahem, me) then ye should make adequate usage of them!

But if you’re a normal human being (ahem, not me) with an assortment of novels and the like on your shelves, use whatever is the most convenient source of reliable information available to you. That could mean spending a couple of hours at your local library, looking up the dates of the most devastating fires in Medieval London. Or it could mean scouring the internet for plausible causes of vampirism, werewolfism, mermaidism or the possible fallout of a rapid infection of avian flu on the homeless population of Chicago. All fascinating subjects. And all available at the turn of the page, the click of the mouse, or from a long, scintillating conversation with a mythical creature. It’s all up to you.

Keep track of your research. 

Now that you’re an expert on North America’s weather in the year 1936–Canada’s coldest winter–you might want to consider consolidating your research. Actually, I take that back.

Don’t consider it.

Do it.

It is very important to keep track of the fascinating facts you’ve learned, to prevent you from forgetting all the best bits. It also saves valuable time. You don’t need to be wasting a single moment hunting for something that’s already been found. That’s just…overkill.

Stay organized.

Keeping track isn’t enough. It’s bad form to research all of the important plot points in your novel and then throw those hours of work into a file without any semblance of order.

Disorganized research can slow down the writing process. So, stay organized! Label your research by date, by chapter, by subject–or all of the above–to make sure that you are on top of the facts.

You can bookmark websites, photocopy pages from books, or type up all of the information you’ve gathered and save it on a flashdrive. Saving and organizing your research will keep the information at your fingertips throughout the writing and editing process. It’s so much faster. So just do it, okay?

And don’t forget the three most important rules:

Be confident. Be imaginative. Be a writer.

Map of London circa 1300

A map I found on the internet during my epic dive into the Medieval world.

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Pre-Writing: The “Ah-hah!” Moment

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“Whatever the tools of your trade, make use of them. Don’t let your pen lay idle or your keyboard collect dust. This is a sin for writers. A killer of dreams.” –Anonymous

Ideas are the first step to writing your masterpiece. They are the building blocks that make up the cinematic journey you take before you put a single word onto the page.

Good ideas tend to hit me like a piano falling on my head from the window of a ten story building. Sometimes it hurts like a bee sting–assuming you’re allergic to bees–other times it perpetuates a glorious state of nirvana.

However they hit you, story ideas can be fragile. To keep them budding and alive, there are three things every writer should know.

Embrace the idea.

Writing comes with some amazing pros, and one of the best is the “ah-hah” moment that typically occurs when you encounter a great plot twist in a film or book. This moment also comes when your creative brain begins telling you a story that you know, deep down in your writer’s heart, you must put to paper.

When that happens, don’t just push the idea aside. Embrace it. Write it down. Don’t rely on memory or some other fallible resource like that seven-year-old laptop covered in junk mail on your kitchen counter. You know, the same surface where all the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this stuff goes. Cradle it in the metaphorical arms of a reliable machine. Coddle the idea until it can bloom. Make sure that the idea has a chance to become something amazing and then–only then–can you be a little careless.

Don’t worry about putting it all together.

During this stage of your novel, you don’t need to worry about all the pieces falling into place. What you have to do is let the story flow and become what it will be. A story doesn’t write itself, that’s true. But in the mind’s eye, you aren’t telling the story yet. It’s telling you how it will go. You’ve only just begun listening to its voice and you can’t possible anticipate what it wants to say yet.

Once the idea becomes more tangible, then you can manipulate the raw form into a version that better suits the direction you’ve chosen. It might seem a little backwards, like sculpting clay after it’s baked, but that’s writing. Trust me. Everything always seems backwards until you hold it up to a mirror. Until then, let it be free.

Fantasize.

This one speaks for itself. But I guess I’ll explain it anyway.

Fantasize about the story idea. Play with it–the characters, the plot, the implications of each direction you see–learn what it likes, what it doesn’t like.

What feels right will come naturally.

Anything that doesn’t belong will feel forced in the pre-writing stage as well as in the final draft. Trust your instincts, but don’t let perfectionism crush the story-bud that has only just begun to bloom.

Protect that fragile idea from the crushing blow of self-doubt.

Above all the others, I feel that this is the most important thing for us to remember as we develop our fantastic thoughts into epic tales.

Even the best of us have doubts. Possible because we’re all losers. More likely though, it’s that we haven’t seen what the story looks like in the mirror. And it’s too easy to think “this idea is stupid” and give up before we’ve really even started.

The thought that people are going to hate your idea, that they’ll think it’s ridiculous or impractical, or just plain boring, can be crippling. Because no one wants to read about the life of an orphan when all she does is grow up to be a governess for a rich guy and his French ward.

Nobody cares about a ridiculous family of silly sisters, even if one of them is sweet and the other clever. Darcy is a silly name, isn’t it? Maybe William Hamilton will be better…

And who cares about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard? A wizard school? Really? Been there, read that. How practical is owl post anyway?

Every writer on the planet has had similar doubts, no matter how successful they became. You can’t be human without doubts. You’d have to be an extraterrestrial (or John Green). But no matter what sort of thoughts your inner doubter throws your way, follow the very first piece of advice on this page.

Embrace your idea.

Let it develop into something amazing. Give it a chance. If people laugh, they laugh. That’s what revision is designed to overcome. Right now, all you need to worry about is giving your story idea the chance it deserves. Because you never know how it will turn out until you get to the last page. Chances are, your idea will be better than you ever expected. If not, tomorrow is another day and more stories will come to you. If you’re truly a writer, you won’t be able to stop them. And if you’re lucky, the people who laughed or doubted you will feel as awesome as all the publishers who doubted the success of Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Harry Potter. Who’s laughing now? Not them, that’s for sure. Looks like they couldn’t find that mirror either.

Now, for my three final rules to write by:

Be confident. Be imaginative. Be a writer.