Writing Advice: Research

Welcome back to another month of tips, tricks, and trade insights from an experienced YA bookseller! Today we’re discussing that double-edged sword of the writing process: research.

For some, research is a daunting and difficult task. For others, it’s an easy way to procrastinate. No one has straight answers about how much you should research, or where, or even how to start (or stop!) And how much of your research should make it into the final book, anyway? Let’s dig into some answers.

Best-Laid Plans

Where to begin? Deciding what to research can be a tough, subjective choice, but I like to start with the basics. Write down the core questions of your story: who, what, when, where, and why. These will guide you as you decide what you do and do not need to know to tell your story to the fullest.

Begin with your perspective character. Who sees your world affects how your world is seen. A washerwoman and a king will see the same scene differently, and you can tailor your research to what either character might know about the world around them.

Once you have your basic questions down, it’s time to go find your answers.

To the Library! …Or Not?

We all learned it in grade school: if you want answers, go to the library! I can’t agree with that sentiment more. A library – and the librarians – is an invaluable resource, giving you access to books and other reference materials that just aren’t available elsewhere.

Take advantage of the catalog system. You will find things that are eerily specific to what you need to know, as well as general resources that will give you important context. Did you know there is an entire encyclopedia series just for cataloging common themes in folklore?

However, sometimes a library isn’t the best or only option. Maybe you don’t live nearby one (although you’re probably closer than you think) or maybe you just don’t want to have to leave the house to find out the price of bread in Rome in the time of Julius Caesar. In those instances, Google and Wikipedia are your friends…sometimes.

The dangerous thing about the Internet is that people assume all information on it is correct. But sites that seem reputable, like Wikipedia, are often riddled with errors or outright falsehoods (even the encyclopedia gets trolled now and again.) Check sources!

Put those research paper skills you got in high school or college to good use. The best source you can get is a primary source, which is a document (usually a firsthand account) that describes the thing or event you’re writing about. There are some wild primary sources out there, from court notes at European witch trials to the diaries of court ladies in Japan. Failing that, lean on academic sources as much as you can. They may not be perfect – biases abound in history departments – but they will at least be a little fact-checked.

If you’re going to rely on Google, learn how to make it give you the information you need. Sometimes a question can be too specific and will only lead you to dead ends. In those cases, try using different search terms or being one degree less specific. Instead of googling the price of bread in ancient Rome, for example, maybe try “baking in ancient Rome.”

Breaks (And Brakes)

Research can be just as difficult as actually writing your story, even if it feels like you’re just reading. It’s important to pace yourself. You don’t need to know everything about the French Revolution before you start outlining your historical novel. Take time to step away from the research and visit with your story. Nine times out of ten, you need less information than you think you do.

Sometimes, research isn’t a mountain to climb so much as one to ski down. It’s easy to start on a Wikipedia page about how broken bones heal and wind up on an entirely different website learning about how silkworms were smuggled into Europe. If you find yourself getting lost on research binges instead of writing your book, find ways to limit yourself. Set a timer or install a site blocker if you have to.

Remember: You can always do more research and add more details when you revise!

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