research, writing, writing process

How I Balance Planning and Research


In July I wrote about how I research for historical fiction projects, using my latest WIP, a historical fantasy, as an example. One of the biggest things on my mind is efficiency, especially with a new baby. I want my research to double as story planning so I can construct an outline for my book as I work. The last time I planned a book, I did it after I’d worked on research for a year, and as I outlined I realized how much I still needed to look up. So instead of doing one thing at a time and therefore wasting a lot of time, I’m bouncing back and forth between several strands at once. It makes for a slightly chaotic, but hopefully more productive, process.

Here’s how my planning for this project has been working:

  1. Jot down ideas as they come. I keep a green notebook specifically for ideas, whether it’s plot points, character bits, phrases and paragraphs, or world-building details. This is basically my “collecting” notebook (as workshop teachers, or Josh, would call it), and it can get deliciously messy. I started this notebook as soon as I got the idea for this project, and wrote down thoughts until the well was dry. Then I turned to research.
  2. Don’t research all of the things. This is a corollary to point #4 in my research post: only research the events/people/topics that could ostensibly wind up in the book. Of course it’s pure guesswork at this point, but I do have a suspicion that a book about two girls romping around Europe right before WWI will not need to know which of the Kaiser’s advisers and officials knew about Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. However, I will need to know when each country declared war on the others and when civilians found out, to keep the story grounded and to give my characters something to react to.
  3. Repeat step #1 as research develops new ideas.
  4. Gradually build a working outline. I’m a big fan of John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, and I SO wish I’d come across it when writing my last book. I love to outline and plan projects (if you hadn’t guessed already), but the traditional three-act structure doesn’t really work for me. Truby’s 22-step plan was a revelation, as were his concrete examples using well-known, critically-acclaimed movies. To me, the steps lead to plots that feel much more organic, but they still provide a foundation to build from, something I find comforting. So, going back to that chaotic green notebook, I jot down character weaknesses and desires as I develop them, as well as major turning points in the plot (all things Truby guides you through creating). Of course, these might change once I begin drafting, but the outline gives me a map for those first fumbling attempts at a first draft.
  5. Cycle through points 1 – 4 as many times as needed.

So there you have it! A circular, slightly messy way of planning a book that will, ideally, not take me 5 years to write. Fingers crossed…


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