Conducting research is a personal thing. One way may work for some but not for others. The thing is to remember there is no right or wrong way of researching your topic. The only trick is – and it is a very important one (no matter what topic you may be writing for, whether for genre or literary fiction, for a non-fiction piece, for essays and assignments) – the trick is to be thorough.
I’m lucky and have acquired research skills from studying History at university, this enables me to focus my mind, skim read the piece and still glean key points from it. But this only comes from practice, like all skills, you have to work at them. But don’t be dismayed if you’re unsure where and how to start. Just use my advice as a guideline.
My particular way of doing things is to start broad to gain a general understanding of your topic or in my case, period of time.
I’ll give you an example to demonstrate my point.
I’ve written about India; more specifically the Mutiny in the year 1857.
So I started general. Luckily, I had a lot of general information under my belt already and had gleaned a lot of broad background information about India, specifically British India from my studies at university. (My final year special subject and dissertation was on the British Raj.)
But still, more research was needed to ‘refresh’ my memory and broaden my general knowledge of the period further.
And so I read. Academic books and articles on the period in general. Works of historical fiction set in India.
When my broad knowledge thirst had been sated, I narrowed the field.
And so I scoured the libraries for books on the topic. Notably, The Indian Mutiny by Julian Spilsbury, and The Indian Mutiny: 1857 by David Saul. A quick on your local library catalogue and on Amazon will bring up relevant results.
And I read. And I made notes.
Then I developed my idea for my novel.
I draw a general plan. Then a more detailed (but flexible) chapter plan. I drew detailed character profiles. I got to know my characters and the plot inside and out.
Then I began to fill in the research gaps.
I listed everything that I may need to know. Fashion, food, lifestyle, speech, weather, common names, hobbies…..and I researched them.
Looking through a detailed chapter plan and character profile can give incredible insights to what you may need to research for you topic – things that you may never have thought you may need, for example was sugar still an expensive commodity? Would the common, average Joe be able to afford meat? Or even bread?
For a historical fiction novel, my tip is keep the general research broad, and you’ll probably find that a lot of the specific information that you may need to research may be in your notes already.
Don’t be dismayed if you’re well in to writing your novel and you come across something which you need to research. It’s quite normal not to envisage everything from the offset.
If you’re on a roll with your writing and don’t want to pause to research then just take an educated guess, keep writing, and research it later. Adding a question mark, or highlighting the text that you’re unsure of will remind you to come back to it later.
I’ve mentioned books, but the internet is also a fantastic source. Although Wikipedia may be the obvious first choice for your research – approach it with some caution because it may be incorrect. If you’re looking for a particular date for an event, it’s best to check several internet sources – this may take a little more time, but a thorough check now of the historical inaccuracies will be better than them lingering in your work.
If you can visit the places you’re writing about that’s fantastic, make notes on the sights, sounds and feelings that you get as you stand there. If the scenery is more real to you, it’ll feel more real to your reader.
Most things require research: even if you may not immediately think so. Imagine your character is talking gossip with a friend in a busy cafe. Is it too loud to easily hear one another? Are you interrupted by busy waiters/waitresses bumping past you every few minutes? You may have to take a trip to a busy cafe and experience what your character(s) would. Listen to all the sounds, smell all the smells, see all the sights. And then translate them onto the page.
My tips for research (tailored for historical novels, but can be adapted into any piece of work that requires research)
- Conduct general research on the topic/period. Get a feel for the time. Read as much as you can from different sources, both secondary and primary source materials, if you can.
- Start doing more specific research (The Indian Mutiny on a whole for example).
- Highlight and list all you can think about that you may need to research – these things may be very specific but equally important as the bigger things in creating an accurate piece. You shouldn’t need to spend as much time over these individual points as the broader knowledge.
- Draw up your character profiles and chapter plans. And add any further research topics to the list.
- You may/probably need to do bits of research throughout your writing. Do it sooner rather than later, but not at the expense of your flow of writing.
- Be cautious of the internet.
- Visit the places if you are able.