Question: I would like your advice on how to organize research when writing a novel.



Fiction writers are tasked with making their creations as authentic and relatable as possible, while also making them fun and engaging. The stories for fiction books can come from the imagination, but are often based on real life experiences, situations, or events. Whether you’re writing historical fiction, fantasy, or a young adult coming-of-age, research can help bring accuracy and believability to your story, making it a compelling read.

If you’re writing about a certain time period that you didn’t personally experience, for example, you may need to understand what life was like then. Or, if your story takes place in a state or country you’ve never visited, you may need information on the landscape, culture, and weather.

Gathering this information will enhance your writer voice and allow you to write more deeply from all five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch), which will create an emotional connection with your readers.

So, how do you go about collecting and organizing this research? Here are 5 steps to make sure your research efforts are well-documented and worthwhile:

You may have piles of research that needs organized if you've been working on your novel for a while.Step 1: Determine how much research your novel needs

The type of fiction book you’re writing will greatly inform the amount of research needed. Historical fiction and science fiction tend to require the most research since these stories use facts as the foundation. On the other hand, if you’re writing a modern-day, romantic comedy that is based on your own dating saga, you may not need to do as much research because you’ve lived the experience.

A good place to start with any novel is to list out questions that you need answered before you can begin outlining and/or writing your story. If your main character has a certain medical condition or illness, you may need to learn more about it before knowing how your character is impacted physically and mentally.

For fantasy writers, most of the story elements come from the imagination, but research can inspire ideas or boost your creativity. Building a world from scratch can require A LOT of details including customs, magic, language, food, environment, government, religion, geography, and more. You’ll need to be very organized to track this information and maintain consistency throughout your novel.

Step 2. Discover the best sources of information

Not all sources of information are created equal. The internet can be a great place to start, but may not always provide the most complete or accurate answers. If it’s important to your story that you have the facts straight, you may want to consider using other types of sources such as:

•  Libraries
•  Nonfiction books
•  Interviews with experts, firsthand accounts, witnesses
•  Online groups or forums
•  Newspaper or journal archives
•  Films and television shows
•  Museums, zoos, botanical gardens
•  Maps
•  Photos
•  Timelines
•  Travel

You don’t have to leave the comfort of your writing space to vary your research. More libraries and museums are digitizing their archives and collections and you can even find virtual visit opportunities for places online.

A vision board can be a great way to organize your novel researchStep 3. Get organized 

If you’ve been working on your novel for some time, you probably have piles of research that you’ve collected. It’s important to be able to refer to this research quickly when you need answers. The last thing you want is to spend time digging when you could be writing.

How you organize your research really depends on the amount you have, formats, and personal preference. Do you prefer hand written notes and printed documents, or do you prefer to keep everything on your computer? Here are some common ways that authors organize their research:

•  Notebooks
•  Three-ring binders
•  Index cards and file boxes
•  Vision boards
•  Microsoft Word or Excel documents in file folders on a computer
•  Digital platforms like Evernote or Scrivener – recommended when doing vast amounts of research

No matter which method you use, you’ll want to group your research by type, chapter, sub-topic, or even by character. If you have a lot of paper notes or documents, digitize as much as you can so that you have a backup. Also be sure to document your source information like book or article title, URL/website if applicable, author name, and page number. An editor may ask you to provide your sources or you may want to give credit to some of your sources at the end of your book.

You don’t have to go for a gold star when organizing your research. Just do it in a way that works for you and will make all of the information easily accessible.

Step 4: Determine which research is most useful to your story

You will likely end up with way more information and details than your story needs, and that’s okay. Much of the information you collect can serve as inspiration or as a foundation from which to build. Include the facts and details that are pertinent to your character development, plot, or setting.

Some things need to be left to the imagination, so don’t forget your creativity. Fiction readers aren’t looking for a big information dump. Use your writing skills to weave the facts and details into the narrative in an interesting and entertaining way. As mentioned above, you need to put yourself in your characters’ shoes and use all five senses in your writing to make it as real and emotionally engaging as possible.

Step 5: Set a deadline for stopping the research

Research is one of the easiest ways for writers to procrastinate. You start out reviewing one or two websites and before you know it, you’ve gone down a 5-hour rabbit hole of information! Set a hard deadline for all of your upfront research and do only the research that’s necessary to get started with the writing.

If you come across something that requires more research as you are writing, highlight it or put placeholder information in and come back to it later. Don’t interrupt your flow.

Writers often hear “write what you know”, but you should still challenge yourself to learn more about certain topics or places. These bits of information will make your story as real and compelling as possible. A lot goes into writing a great novel, and research is just one element that can enhance your story.

Photo credit: SilviaJansen on Getty Images.