How to Get a Handle on Using Your Novel Research

by Linda Rodriguez
Right now, I am teaching an online course in research for the novel, so my mind is turned to research, and I thought I would offer a quick and dirty look at research for novelists.

Research
is vital for all fiction writers to a certain extent, and for those
writing novels such as historical or science fiction or
techno-thrillers, research can make or break their books. Yet
research has its pitfalls and needs to be kept under control.


It’s
always a mistake to allow research to consume the story you’re
trying to tell. You can’t allow your desire to show off all of your
great research to leave your narrative littered with details that
slow down your pacing and clog up the narrative drive of your book.
It’s often better to have something mentioned in passing and not
defined or explained because your characters would know what it was.
If you feel that some kind of explanation is needed for the readers,
put it in context with a conversation, often joking, about some
difficulty with the object or law or situation that uses the barest
minimum of detail.

Another
major issue—and probably the most important—in dealing with
research is organizing it so that you can lay your hands on the item
you need as you are writing that passage. There are several possible
ways to organize research, and which is best depends on how your mind
works and which you prefer to work with.

If
you prefer to work with notes you take by hand or have a lot of
physical documents to refer to, one or more portable file boxes with
folders for each category of information—or period of time or
whatever organizing principle you choose to use—will keep
everything where you can readily access it. Binders are also a good
way to keep track of notes, documents, printouts, and with enclosed
pocket pages, smaller pieces of research or items that don’t lend
themselves to lying flat or being hole-punched. You may even be a
hardcore 3×5 card user, and you can find card files with dividers
that allow you to organize these, as well.

If
you prefer to do everything on the computer, you can set up in your
word processer a master folder for the book full of lesser folders
organized the way you would organize the physical files we talked
about. You can also use a notes program, such as Evernote or One
Note, which can be organized in any way you choose and can store
photos, graphics, and videos, as well as allowing you to tag items
with sources or cross-references.


Another
good choice for technophiles is Scrivener or other similar
book-writing programs, such as yWriter. Each of these allows you to
add research notes to the actual chapter or scene where they will be
used and then move them around, if need be. Scrivener also has a
virtual 3×5 card function and a timeline function that can be a real
lifesaver for complex books. Scrivener, of course, has many other
functions.

One
of the things I always try to do is to keep a simple Word document
going to which I add the names of everyone I’ve talked with to
research a book. Then, when I need to write my acknowledgments page,
I have that information at hand and don’t have to worry about
forgetting anyone who helped me by answering questions.

Chronology
and timelines can be a real problem, not only for historical
novelists and fantasy saga writers, but for others, such as mystery
writers, who have to juggle the timeline of what really happened at
the same time they are dealing with the timeline of how the
protagonist solved the crime. For a simple timeline, you can keep
track of things in your writing software, but for more complex or
extensive timelines, you can either turn to Scrivener, which has a
useful timeline function, or many of the other programs available
online that deal with timelines only, such as Preceden, Aeon,
Smartdraw, etc.

Of
course, you can also go the old-fashioned way of constructing a
comprehensive timeline to tape to your office wall, if you have a
nice, long horizontal space available. If not, you can tape it in big
chunks to large pieces of poster board and set them up against your
wall or on a table or floor when you need to look at the entire
timeline and perhaps shift something around on it.

Fortunately,
there are many options for organizing research open to writers today.
It’s simply a matter of choosing one or a combination of them that
fits your mental style of working and using it religiously. That last
bit is vital. You can have the best, most up-to-date method of
organizing your research, but if you don’t use it consistently, it
won’t support the work you’re trying to do. So, if you find
yourself intimidated by the technological wonders, you might be
better off using an old-fashioned file-folder system or binders you
feel comfortable in using, rather than a state-of-the-art system
you’re too nervous to use regularly. Research organization is for
your benefit alone. You don’t have to impress anyone else, so use
what really works for you.
Linda Rodriguez’s Dark Sister: Poems
has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel,
based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native
American Poets Visit the Middle East
, an anthology she co-edited,
were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt,
her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief,
Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will
be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every
Hidden Fear
, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last
Secret—
and her books of
poetry—Skin Hunger
and Heart’s Migration—have
received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin’s
Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International
Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices
& Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and
Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good
Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has
been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP
Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter
of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers
Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International
Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and
Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at
http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com

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