We are still waiting on that baby over here. Meanwhile, I’m scrambling to fit in as much work on my new WIP as I can before she arrives (while taking breaks to catch up on the latest season of Sad Detectives, a.k.a. Endeavour). This project is a YA historical fantasy, which means I get to indulge in both deep research and making things up when I feel like it. Win!
Over the years a lot of people have asked how I do my research. My first book was a straight YA historical, and it took me 1 year to research and about 4 years to complete a first draft. It also taught me a TON about what to do…and what not to do. This time around I’m trying to apply all those lessons to be as efficient as possible (because, you know, baby on the way). Here I’m going to deconstruct the process, if you’re interested. Okay, deep breath and…here we go!
- Systematize. I learned how to take notes for research projects in 9th grade (thanks, Mr. Rourke) and to some extent I still use the same method now. Yes, I was one of those kids who took strict notes all through college. For a long time I stuck to the index card method: make an index card for every book, website, or other source you use, come up with a code for that source, and then every time you take notes from that source, you write the code in the corner. That way you can always refer back to the source if you get confused (or if you’re citing sources in a formal paper). You also write the topic of each card in the other corner, so you can organize your notes by subject. I took notes this way for my last book, but I got frustrated with having to get out a new note card every few sentences. This time around I’m using notepaper – it’s just a bigger version of the notecards, and I’m way happier.*
- Start with a bird’s-eye view. Once I’m armed and ready to take notes, I hover above my topic to get a basic overview. Both times I’ve started with the time period, and it helps that as a history teacher, I already have a good foundation in the eras I’m writing about. Still, I like to refresh my memory. I try to find a scholarly book on the period or something similar; for this project, I watched some lectures from the Great Courses class on WWI, since my dad had lent it to me a while ago.
- Dive deeper. After limiting myself to ONE bird’s-eye view source (this is hard), I get to dive into the uber-specific topics I might cover in my book. The first source usually gives me ideas for those specific topics, and I also have a decent idea of some of the things that will happen. For this project, for instance, I already knew I wanted to research Paris and Berlin c. 1914, as well as female reporters (I’ll save you from the more comprehensive list). But the Great Courses lectures also discussed an arms race between Britain and Germany, so I decided to research that, too. Here’s how I go about focusing on those specific topics:
- Steal from bibliographies. Seriously, this is one of the best ways to get great sources. They’re topical, scholarly, and often a good mix of primary and secondary (primary = from the time, like diaries and letters; secondary = scholarly texts created later).
- Read biographies of people similar to my characters. This is a fantastic way to get in the mindset of someone from the time period, since biographers usually reference letters, diaries, and other sources created by the subject. It’s also how I’ve gotten some of my best unique details, things you’d absolutely never think of on your own. A biography on M. Carey Thomas, for example, talked about how young M. Carey and her siblings reenacted the Trojan War by throwing potatoes at each other. I absolutely had to work that into my last book.
- Use travel guides. I’m sad to say I’ve never been to Paris or Berlin, although I have been to other parts of France. So while I’m relying on travel guides from around 1914 for the bulk of my info, I also want to have visuals and a sense of the atmosphere for when I write. To that end, I’ve borrowed a few Rick Steves DVDs from the library. (This may or may not also be sating my wanderlust, which is frustrated about having to stay close to home thanks to impending baby arrival.)
- Don’t write everything down. This is the last and most important lesson I learned from my last book. That time around, I wrote down everything that might possibly be important, without thinking through what my characters might actually come across in the story. I was frantic to record it “just in case” I needed it later. Guess what? I didn’t. In fact, I needed lots of other details I hadn’t even thought of until I was drafting. So this time I’m trying to write down just enough to get a solid foundation in my time period, characters, and possible dramatic situations, and then I’m going to start drafting. I’ll have to go back later to add more details anyway, so why waste precious writing time researching things that definitely won’t be necessary? This is the hardest thing for me to remember to do, but again, so, so important.
And that’s it! Let me know in the comments if you have questions I didn’t cover here. Next time I’ll talk about how I try to balance story planning with research.
*I also teach my students to take notes for research projects this way. Yep, creature of habit.