Novel research can be a daunting task if you are not the type who gravitates to research, study or spending hours on minute details. Unfortunately for those types but fortunate for people like myself, research is critical to writing. Whether research for you means learning about specific types of military vehicles or the ranks of nobility in 14th century Europe, you are (probably) going to have to look something up along the way.
As you begin writing the first draft of your novel you may find yourself questioning the minutiae of setting, plot, character, etc. You can start your research here, or may even have already conducted extensive research before writing a single word if you are a good planner. If you’re a pantser, you may find yourself glossing over specific details to avoid the research until the first draft is complete.
While putting off research is okay sometimes, you may want to take the time to ensure the story you’re crafting makes sense. You may create a plot based on an inaccurate detail that completely derails your second draft, basically meaning your novel needs rewriting. Where the particulars contribute substantially to your plot, even if you are not a planner you need to conduct some research to corroborate these details. If you take the time now to insert accurate details, you will save yourself time and frustration later. Researching while writing the first draft can also be an excellent trigger for writer’s block!
So, you want to start researching a detail in your story. Where do you start? Google is the most obvious place for most people to begin searching. My day job is a Reference Librarian and Information Literacy Instructor at a community college academic library. That means I spend all day telling students not to Google their research. Our students have access to expensive research databases which allows them to prioritize their research origins. If you are not a student, or you struggle with research, you have a few other options that aren’t Google.
Yes. I am a librarian advocating for you to visit libraries. Conflict of interest? Maybe. Public libraries are excellent research hubs for the beginning writer AND the seasoned writer. Why pay for books, databases, or magazines when you can get them for free? Many public libraries purchase the same database subscriptions that colleges have. They also accept recommendations for resources so if the library doesn’t have something if you ask they may get it. The public library is filled with people who are there to help you.
Wikipedia is not exactly a reputable site. There is a degree of accountability in the structure of writing and editing. You create a free account and correct inaccuracies. During my Freshman Year Experience class, we experimented by deliberately changing a Wikipedia article to make it inaccurate. We charted how long the false information remained unchanged. My material remained incorrect for weeks. That was a lot of views during this time that fake details were portrayed as trustworthy. However, users cite outside resources at the end of Wikipedia articles. This section is a gold mine of research opportunities. Explore these links and exercise critical thinking in determining if that source is accurate itself.
Check the site type (.com, .gov, .edu., .org, etc.). Look at the date the site was last updated. See if the site has an about page and read about the authors and their intent.
You may think researching to this degree is overkill for fiction but if you encounter a reader who is an actual expert you run the risk of alienating them.
There are a plethora of digital resources available online. Images, ebooks, videos, and audio (radio broadcasts, etc.). The New York Public Library is one example of a collection of publicly available digital items that can be used for research. The Library of Congress is another primary source. One of the big inspirations for my novel was The Hammer of Witches. The full text is available online and provided me with a lot of information about witch hunting practices and how they were persecuted. Many older books can be accessed for free in full online through various reputable sites like Project Gutenberg. Aside from LOC, NYPL, and Project Gutenberg, there are less scholarly, artistic platforms like DeviantArt and Pinterest. Content on these sites is added by online users. These are more useful for inspiration though Pinterest can be helpful for storing your research in an easy to view and access platform.
In addition to these resources, there are online forums. Online forums should always be approached with caution. The community determines the usefulness of the information you can find in forums. Writing sites with forums like NaNoWriMo and Writer’s Digest are helpful. Subreddits for writers can also be useful. You can post for advice on conducting research, search for beta readers who can help you catch inaccuracies, or search for perspectives that are similar to your characters to garner a more honest representation. Your peers can be a valuable resource if they approach your inquiries with the right intentions.
Once you have completed your first draft, you still have some research to do. If you didn’t check the details central to your plot, mark your first draft up noting where more information is needed. Verify details, even small ones. The tiniest inconsistency can propel the reader out of your story.
However, these are my specific research questions. Wherever you explore something you are not sure of, check the detail.
I recommend printing the first draft and either highlighting or using a pen to mark everywhere you need to insert research or check the facts.
With every read through, a second draft, third draft, etc. you will be looking at where you can improve/strengthen your manuscript. You cannot be overconfident. You need to doubt yourself and check, double check, triple check your story.
As Camp NaNo 2018 draws to a close and I wrap up the first draft of my project, I am thinking towards that Second Draft Diagnosis. You know, getting ready for the first read-through of the first draft where you cut every other paragraph. I both hate and love this part of writing. I hate the anxiety of starting the read-through. The read-through is where my low self-esteem shines through. But I like it in that I can begin to polish (more like clear-cutting) the draft and create the novel I intended at the beginning. Something I could visualize in print.
I think like most writers; I am my harshest critic. So, getting through this part of the writing process is make or break for a lot of people. Getting through this part successfully separates the published authors from the unpublished and aspiring.
If you are a plotter, you may not have much in the way of substantial cleanup. I am not a plotter. I have notes, but they are not substantive enough to keep me entirely on track. My first read through will require listing all the characters introduced, their purpose to the plot, whether they should be axed or expanded to have a more significant role (I have one character who will have a more substantial role in the final draft and book two). I will also need to create a way to track any subplots because I had no idea what those were going to be starting out. I only had a general idea of my main plot.
However, that is on top of the need to correct grammatical and other semantic issues like repetitive usage of favorite words, cutting excess adverbs, fixing run-on sentences, comma splices, blah blah blah. This type of editing will carry on into third drafts and beyond but I know while reading through I will be noting the apparent grammar issues and correcting them as well.
What I hope to accomplish above all else is to determine whether or not this is a story on which I feel compelled to work. Is this something worth salvaging and pursuing publishing? For as many exciting writing moments I had throughout the process of writing the first draft, I had as many sluggish, just hit the daily word count moments. Those will need to be axed. If it turns out that is the majority of the story, I may decide the story itself is not compelling enough to finish. In that case, it gets shoved in a drawer, and it’s on to the next project in hopes of creating something I want to share with the world.
My number one concern, focus, and favorite aspect of a novel are the characters in a story. So the questions I need to ask myself the following the questions about each person I introduce in my story:
The setting is almost a character in many ways. An appropriate setting will set the atmosphere of your story, establish the genre of your novel, present challenges to and aid your characters along their journey.
The plot, of course, is kind of important. A plot is the series of events that keep people turning pages. If it doesn’t make sense, if it meanders unintentionally, people will toss the book and tell their friends it stinks. Which it will.
As important, in my opinion, as the main plot, subplots take your story from linear to complex. This could be a romance unless your genre is romance or any other element that is not necessarily vital to the progression of the plot.
As you conduct the first complete reading of your first draft you should pay attention to these elements and notate your manuscript. Using different colored highlighters for Character, Setting, Plot, and Subplot is useful for assessing these individual areas after the initial read-through. You can change the highlight in your word processing software, print your manuscript and do it by hand (my preferred method), or use editing software like Scrivener (linked below).
Best case scenario you are left with a heavily colored, scribbled, notated manuscript and you can begin the second draft. Unlike the first draft, you know what the problems are and with a surgical precision you can remove and suture your story to create something worth saving.
Though if you carry on with that metaphor, the third, fourth, fifth, etc. drafts are recovery and rehab. It takes time, patience, and a lot of hard work and study to create a finished book and I hope to see all of your stories in print.
Cost is $45 to purchase a full, unrestricted version of the software. Scrivener is available for Mac and Windows. Scrivener comes with a very useful template for a novel including sections for characters, setting, notecards. You can split the screens inside the software’s window so you can edit your manuscript while viewing your notes like scene cards or research.
A year’s digital subscription to Writer’s Digest is $9.96 and well worth the investment. Writer’s Digest provides online resources, webinar’s (some are free but some come at an additional cost), contests, forums, and so much more.
Books on Writing (My Read, Currently Reading, and TBR Titles)