filed under A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, How To Write A Book, Writing Historical Fiction.

Most novels need at least some research. For my first book, What is Left Over, After I had to research photography because my main character was a photographer. In my second book, I had to research organ donation and heart transplantation. Obviously, given my next two books are historical novels, I’ve had to research all kinds of things. But what is the best way to go about researching a novel? Do you research first and write later? Or vice versa? Or something in between? Here’s what I do, and why.

Write the First Draft First

Research is all about facts. First drafts, on the other hand, are all about imagination, about letting your characters loose on the page and seeing what they will do. Research and first drafts don’t really go together – they require different sets of skills and a different mindset. So I try to keep them apart as much as possible.

I do as little research as I can get away with when I’m writing my first draft. For me, a first draft is all about discovering the story I’m telling. If I do too much research, I tend to write to the research, to be limited by what the research tells me is possible, to constrain my story to the known facts. In a first draft, I need the wide openness of creativity, not a voice in my head saying, yes but according to the research that could not have happened.

The other danger with doing too much research too early is that you can become so caught up in the research that you forget to write anything at all. Before you have a first draft, you don’t know what you need to research so you research everything. But if you have a first draft, you have a research blueprint. You now know what you don’t know and what you need to find out. Then you can direct your research to filling the gaps in the draft.

Tips on how to conduct research for your novel and how to incorporate the research material into your storyWhat Kind Of Research Do I Do When Writing a First Draft?

I do the very basic kind of research when I’m wriiting a first draft. A quick Google search to find out if washing machines were in use in 1922, for instance. Or a quick Google search to find out which New York universities were accepting women to their medical schools in 1922.

I also read novels that were written during the time my book is set. My next book begins in New York in 1922 so I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise while I was writing my first draft, and Edna St Vincent Millay’s poetry. And I read non-fiction books about topics pertinent to the research information I need, for instance, books about childbirth practices in early twentieth century America and several books about American life in the 1920s.

But the reading always comes second to the writing. Only when I’ve done my word count for the day will I sit down and read.

What Happens After the First Draft?

Once I have a complete first draft, I know what my story is and who my characters are. I also know where the holes are that I need to fill with research. So I make a list of everything I need to know and I try to strike a balance in this list between being too broad and too specific. So, rather than say: I need to find out more about New York in the 1920s, I would say, I need to know which subway lines and which El lines were running in the 1920s so I can understand how my character got to college, to work etc. 

Then I hit the archives, visit the location, and interview people. There is nothing better than first hand, source material. Books are great for research but they are at a remove from the info you need to bring your book to life.

So, for my next book, I arranged a trip to New York and scheduled in all of the places I needed to visit to answer all of my research questions. This included spending time in the archives of the Columbia Medical School, spending time in the map division of the New York Public Library to track down subway maps, watching old film footage at the Theatre On Film and Tape archive of the NYPL, walking the streets, going to the Met museum costiume division to look at clothes from the 1920s, flicking through hundreds of photographs from the time etc.

Never be afraid to ask people for help. I find that archivists and librarians and museum curators love to assist because they are passionate about their topic. They will go out of their way to help you find what you’re looking for, and also things you didn’t know you were looking for.

A Process To Use When Doing Research For a Novel.

Time For A Second Draft

Once I’ve gathered all of the information I need, then I sit down to redraft. This redraft is usually all about incorporating the research material and not so much about reworking plot and character. That will come in the next draft.

This is also where I have to make everything work. For instance, I often find that I will come up against something in my plot or something that my character does that the research will tell me isn’t possible. But it’s important for my story, so I have to make it happen. I have to find a way to make it possible. And this is where the writer’s ability to problem solve is so important. What can you do to the plot or the character to make this work?

And the solution is usually one of those wonderful moments where you find a whole new direction for the plot. This is why it’s so crucial not to do too much research too early. If you do, then you write to that research. You will never have a problem that needs solving. And you will never have the opportunity to solve it in a creative and wonderful way that brings your story fully to life.

I hope you found that useful. Tell me, how have you gone about researching in the past? Do you do a lot up front or do you wait until you have a draft? Which tips do you plan to use?

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15 Responses to “How I Go About Researching a Novel”

  1. elimy293

    This is great, Natasha! It’s very similar to what I do, but there are some of your techniques that I will be borrowing.

    With historical writing, I find that often I already know a little about the subject and that’s what gets me interested in writing about it. I can go back and fill in the blanks later, like you do.

    I wonder though, what are your rules on writing about people and events that were real? Are there taboos? Or is all fair in love and fiction?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I have yet to find a real person who is interesting enough for me to want to write about them. I always find that while some parts of their life might lend themselves to a story, other parts of their lives are not the way I would want them to be. I have used real places and institutions in my next book, but not real people. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of it being fair or unfair, for me, but of having my imagination restricted by what these people actually did, as opposed to what I might want them to do.

      Reply
  2. Jodie

    Thanks Natasha, this arrived in my inbox as a timely reminder today. I set aside the day as a writing day, and about 300 words in, I needed to find out something. So off I went to Google, and two hours passed, with many tabs opened, a few PDF’s downloaded and two YouTube videos later, my word count still says 305!

    What you have said makes much more sense, and I will be following this advice. You do tend to go off on research tangents when there is no clear list of what you need to know.

    PS: I got to 935 words today, which is slow but I am just getting warmed up. I also learnt the power of clicking X on Facebook early in the day.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I have also found myself doing that in the past, Jodie, going onto Google to look up something quickly and finding an hour has passed! Which is why I try to stick to my rule as much as possible, but there are always a few exceptions where I get lost for a time in the research whirlpool. And 935 words is great! Well done and keep going!

      Reply
  3. Keeran Lafferty

    I found this very interesting. It made me realise I should do more research for my writing. Visiting New York must have beeen rewarding, although I know you visited at a bad time and had to change hotels and everything. I have a problem with writing description which my writing partner has pointed out to me. My strength is in dialogue, but one needs both to write a novel. Anyway, thank you for your insights.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Visiting New York was great and I think it would be a poorer book if I hadn’t done so.

      And re description, I always say to focus on the telling detail, the one thing that is unique and specific to your character, the one thing that really matters. If you describe the telling detail perfectly, that’s the only description that you need, I think.

      Reply
  4. Book Birdy

    Thanks Natasha. Great article, as always. I have a question – why is historical accuracy critical, when you are writing fiction? I guess my point is – is it really important to know which subway lines were running in the ’20s, if none (or almost none) of your readers will know any different? Now, I guess the obvious answer is that, of course it’s better to be right than wrong in these matters – and there are always people out there who will pick up on such errors. However, I have a sense that research works at a more subconscious level. And I’m not quite sure how to articulate this properly – but I think (possibly) that quality research may possibly serve to elevate the story.. What do you think?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Cassie, great question. For me, there are 2 things. Firstly, that I’ve done enough research that the reader feels as if I know my stuff, that they feel as if they are in the world of 1920s New York and that they feel as if everything is accurate. So it’s about creating the illusion of accuracy, the illusion of being immersed in the period.

      Secondly, I think with accuracy, it comes down to what ‘could’ have been. So, when I was researching the subway, it was more about ‘how could my character have gotten around in this time period? Would she have been more likely use the bus? How widespread were the subways? Would she have actually been able to take the subway?’
      I need to create a world that ‘could’ have been, that feels likely. Does that makes sense?

      Reply
  5. Samantha Dekker

    Thanks so much for this! For my first draft I’ve spent way too much time trying to make it authentic and it really is stumping my creativity. Now I know to just knuckle down and get it done. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Pleasure Samantha! Yes, just block out the need to make it authentic because you can definitely do that later, once you’ve got the story down. Good luck with it.

      Reply
  6. Jessica Ferguson

    Hi Natasha, I discovered you on Pinterest yesterday and have enjoyed reading several of your posts. Especially this one! I have a couple of ideas for historicals but I’ve been so intimidated by the amount of research required that I haven’t done anything but make a few notes regarding story. It never occurred to me to write the rough draft first–then research. After reading your method, I feel FREE to write the rough draft. Thank you.

    Years ago I heard a historical author speak and a man in the audience challenged her on something in her book. Seems she mentioned a flower that didn’t grow in the area she used as a setting. That put fear in me about accuracy.

    Again, thanks for some wonderful articles. I look forward to many more and checking out your books.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      The research can be intimidating if you don’t know what you need to research. That’s why I love the first draft blueprint approach because then you know exactly what to research and you don’t waste time.
      And I know some readers can be VERY picky but I always think – that’s not why I want people to read the story, to worry about particular flower species. I want them to be swept away in the story and so if they worry about those kinds of things, they probably aren’t my ideal reader and I’m happy to let them go. Good luck with it!

      Reply

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