Researching for a Novel

After reading The Craft of Research, I realized that I had never really learned how to research.  It certainly was never taught to me in college, even though I was assigned term papers.  The teachers just assumed all the students knew how to do research.   Just pick a topic, look stuff up, record quotes and where it came from, done.  Which is about how I’ve been researching when writing novels.

The book is easy to pass on, because it is for research papers, and a novel isn’t one.  But the section on coming up with a question is very useful, because that does relate back into writing.  If we’re researching a topic for the book, we’re asking a question — just not one that would be for a research paper.  It might be something like, “What is the culture of X like?”  I’m finding it’s important to stop and ask questions like that because it saves on chasing after research that I think I need.  It puts a focus on what information I find.  I’ve heard some people say they will end up researching too much for a novel because they want to know everything about a topic, and identifying a question will probably help that, too.

The second useful section covers how to record the information.  I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes needed something, popped on the internet to get it, and not recorded where I got it.  Later, when I want to recheck it, I don’t have any idea where it came from.  So the first most important part is taking the time to stop and record all the details about the source, including the library call number and the library name.

My setting in Miasma emerged as a character, so I’ve had to stop to do a lot of research just on the place.  I’m using 4×6 notecards for all the notes.  I did start out with paper, but notecards were more flexible.  One topic from one reference per card.  I can’t tell you what a difference just doing that makes because the information can be moved around and rearranged.  That can’t be done if it’s grouped with other subjects from the same book.  It also keeps the amount of information limited to the space on the card.

What I do differently from the research paper is I read the entire section of what I need, then summarize it.  I don’t need quotes because I’m writing fiction, and summarizing helps me understand the information better (also less work than quoting).  Summarizing also helps me think about and how I might be able to use it in the story.  Then, in a different pen color that stands out, I may make some notes of possible uses in the story.

It’s quite different than hastily scribbling notes on a notepad.  I’m thinking about the information, not recording information that I think will go into the story.  I’ve already come up with more ideas than I would have just doing a fast pass over the internet for a quick piece of information.  There’s something said for not being fast.