Wednesday, March 4, 2015

How Do You Manage Your Writing Research? by Sandra Ardoin

Whether you write contemporary or historical, or even non-fiction, there will be something (okay, “somethings”) you’ll need to research. So how do you go about it?

If you’re a plotter, you might research up front ’til the cows come home. You know your story. You know what your characters will encounter along the way. You know the facts you need to include. So you spend hours before writing that first word of the manuscript lining up all the information you need to whiz right through the book.

If you’re a pantser, you know nothing. Well, almost nothing. You may know your story’s basic premise or story question. You may know your main character’s name and occupation. You may know some or all of the plot points. You wait to see how the events unfold in real time and bar research details from invading your office until the end of the first draft.

If you’re me, you’re more a plantser—an in-betweener who knows the main characters, the main story, the plot points, the setting, and (on occasion) the ending. I do some preliminary research to get to know my physical setting and make sure my basic plot makes sense for the time period. Otherwise, research for details is generally done as I go. I’m not one to include a place marker in my manuscript which lets me know I need to come back to something to find the right word or fact. Nope, if I have a question, I stop and look it up—a good reason why it takes me so long to finish my project. :)

Whatever writing method best describes you and no matter how enjoyable it is, research can be an important time drain. How often have you started out looking up some fact and wandered onto another trail? Before you know it, you take a side tunnel and risk not finding your way back to the original spot for hours.

Here are a few tips that might help you to research better no matter what the method:

  • Set a timer. Knowing you only have a certain number of minutes to find the information you need can keep you focused. Whether a plotter or pantser, you have a specific time dedicated to writing. Research is part of that time. You don’t want to waste it on things that don’t matter. If you find another interesting tidbit, be strong! Make a note and go back later for a more in-depth look.
  • Be specific with search terms. The more specific your search terms, the less time it will take to weed through the results and find the information you need.
  • Take an hour (half hour, fifteen minutes) each day before you begin writing to check or recheck the facts you’ll include in your upcoming scene(s). For pantsers and planters, allow time after your writing session to be sure the details you added to make your story pop are appropriate and factual.
  • Keep some type of research notebook. One of the things I’m trying to do is update a notebook I keep with pertinent and miscellaneous information regarding various times in history, so I have facts at my fingertips when needed. On my computer, I bookmark sites with interesting info I come across that I feel will be useful in the future. They're becoming unwieldy, so I’m trying to transfer some of those sites to a notebook and break it up into sections. (I don’t know, I guess I like to write on paper sometimes.)

Frankly, when I researched time-saving tips like the above, there wasn't much out there, so these are off the top of my head. Maybe you have the secret that will keep us from getting lost in a maze of facts. If so ...

... let’s help each other out. How do you plan/deal with your research? What method works best for you? What keeps it from becoming a drain on your writing time?


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Sandra Ardoin is a multi-published author of short fiction who writes inspirational historical romance, such as her Christmas novella, The Yuletide Angel. She’s the married mother of a young adult and lives in North Carolina.

Visit her here and at www.sandraardoin.com. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, and Pinterest. Sign up for her newsletter to receive historical tidbits, updates on her writing and special offers.

19 comments:

  1. Awesome tips, Sandy! I try to do the bulk of my research before I start the book, but something inevitably comes up during the actual writing. Most times I'll research it right then, but you're right. It's easy to get pulled into the web, so a timer sounds like a great idea. :)

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    1. I wish I could do the bulk of my research beforehand, but I'll admit that I'm a sketchy researcher at the beginning. I need to know my story will work and a few other facts. :)

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  2. I would love to become a power user of Evernote, but I'm not there yet.

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    1. Is Evernote like Scrivener? How do you use it for research? I keep my per-book research in Scrivener in case I'm ever questioned about something, so is that what you're referring to?

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  3. I've written a couple of historicals, one resides beneath my bed, and the other is 20th century historical. I loved the research, but I stopped when I had enough to write factually.

    What was so interesting to me was for the Depression era book. I was going to place it in the town of Buford, GA. But during my research, I discovered that the Bona Allen tannery and shoe factory kept the people employed, so they fared better than most of the county. Go figure! I had to move the story to south rural Georgia.

    Anyway, as soon as I moved it, I had enough research to write.

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  4. Yes, we have to know enough to be certain the story is plausible and make sure we're not assuming. Some of those facts can be difficult to come by, too.

    I create fictional towns, but they're generally based on an area I know. Even then, doing 19th century historicals, I'm always surprised by something. Thanks for sharing, Ane!

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  5. I do some basic research before I start, then write like crazy, then go back and fix everything with more research...

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    1. Do you find you have a lot to change that way, Jennifer?

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    2. To some degree. But my brain seems to work that way...

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  6. Hi Sandra, good one today! I have enough to get started but there is always something to find out during. I just need to keep myself from getting sidetracked. My notes are usually little scrappy things. I know, not very efficient LOL.

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    1. Thanks, Tanya. Sounds like me, but I do keep my research in Scrivener.

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  7. Ah, a topic near and dear to my heart, Sandy! lol Great post!

    I don't have any tips--in fact, like you I very often stop writing to do research because I just can't go on unless I know what I'm writing about. I count it all as writing because it needs to get done either way, but having a word count goal ensures I do get the writing done regardless of the research I need to do.

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    1. I know you do a great deal of research beforehand, Heidi, and you keep me on my toes with mine (a good thing). :)

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  8. I'm not a plotter. So as I find things I need to research, I insert a note in bold red font to go back and look such and such up. That way I don't interrupt my writing, but I've marked areas that need more facts.

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    1. Good for you not stopping, Terri. Knowing that note was there would eat me alive! :)

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  9. I'm a pantser so like you, I've done some research early one, but ALWAYS need more. I research while I write. Normally, that looks like reading through blogs or books on the topic, a little each day while also balancing the writing. If I come to a place that I need more specific information, then I'll focus my writing time on a scene that doesn't need that info time while I catch up on that research. I was writing 2 civil war novels and that's how I tackled it and it worked well for me. Once I had the basic timeline/battle order etched out, I knew which battles to focus on and could easily write the "in between" battle scenes or come back and fill in dates and specifics later. For me, since I was doing a historical novel, it really helped to just keep something open at all times to help me stay in "character." I normally kept a civil war journal open that I read on the side. It was WONDERFUL entertainment, great for keeping my mind on the period, plus I picked up useful facts along the way.

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    1. Anita, it sounds like you have a great system that works for you, not only in research, but inspiration! Write on! :)

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  10. I could get lost in doing research. I love everything about it whether its just reading other books or finding great tidbits at historical societies. My books are about an actual town I grew up near, but I've fictionalized it a little. After researching for the first book the town developed a life of its own--it's as if I'm mayor and town developer.

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    1. I like how you share your knowledge (and the photos) on your website, too, Adrienne! Isn't it fun how we can create places and people and feel like we know them so well once we're done? Basing your town on one that exists, or putting it in an area people can identify, gives you a foot up on marketing--at least to the locals. :)

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