1. NeveroddoreveN

    NeveroddoreveN New Member

    Apr 19, 2020
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    How to prepare for a short story or novel...

    Discussion in 'Research' started by NeveroddoreveN, May 31, 2020.

    Hey everyone! I am interested in hearing about your methods of research when writing a short story or novel. Do you research details for your fiction on a need-to-know basis only, or do you want to completely understand both topic and setting before you start writing? And how do you organize your research methods and materials?
    jannert likes this.
  2. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

    Mar 7, 2013
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    Well, I'm kind of old, and started writing my first novel in 1995, so I started doing my research before there was anything much online. I think it's probably a lot easier (and less expensive) to do basic research now, as so much more is available online.

    I write historical fiction, so I do need to research. However, my novel is laid during a period of American history I was already familiar with before I began—the old west of the mid to late 19th century. As I went along, I was pleased to discover that many of the true facts and events I wanted to include in my story had actually happened—so in the back of my brain I was already aware of them. I still live in fear that I'm going to uncover some detail that creates a plot problem for me ...but so far, nothing I've found has been hard to deal with. (My novel is finished, by the way, and I'm partway into my second one.)

    I bought tons and tons of books. Lots of ordinary 'history' books, and lots of social history as well, involving the way ordinary people lived during the period and the location of my novel setting. It helps that I love to read history from that place and time, so this wasn't a chore, but a pleasure for me. I tried to get as many primary source books as possible. (Primary source books and documents are produced by people who actually lived during these times. Diaries, memoirs, etc. Fantastic first-hand sources of information.)

    I set my story mainly in 1886 Montana. Some backstory was laid in Kansas, with some tidbits of backstory in Texas, New York and Scotland. To make matters easier for myself I created a fictional town, river and mountain range for my close-up setting ...so nobody could point and say 'but my granddaddy lived in that town, and it wasn't like that at all.' I was careful, however, to ensure that any mention of real events, people or locations—even weather conditions—was as factually correct as possible. I'm funny like that.

    I also joined The Montana Historical Society. The society was a huge help to me in many ways ...providing printouts of articles from their magazine archives, answering questions personally, and with their enormous range of historical books available for sale (and shipment to the UK.) I am still a member, and probably will remain so. They are one hell of a great organisation.

    I didn't do all my research beforehand. In fact, I more or less started out blind, with only my prior knowledge of the period and place to guide me and get me started. Most of the research I did while I was also writing the story. I found that, with only a couple of exceptions, the research didn't contradict any aspect of my story. Research enhanced the story and gave me ideas I wouldn't have had on my own.

    These new facts and ideas made the story feel more plausible to me. Research isn't constricting; it's liberating. It gave me details and connections and insight I wouldn't have had otherwise. Like the fact that the so-called 'wild west' of that era was actually quite civilised. They had railways, telegrams, even electricity in some places. Who knew? They were only a few years away from the automobile. Towns and cities had more variety of stores and shops than most of them do now. While a few people moved west to get away from 'civilisation,' most people had every intention of bringing it with them. Reading newspapers from that time and place (on microfilm) was an eye-opener for me.

    I would have loved to actually visit Montana myself, but that didn't happen. I've been close ...through parts of Wyoming, and the Canadian side of the Montana border. But damn. Ach well. (I did visit the place where my second book will be laid, though ...Boston and Nova Scotia. I'd recommend traveling to any real place you're including in a story, even if the times have changed a lot. There is something about physically 'being there' and checking light quality, weather, general scenery, physical distances, etc, that just can't be got from books or online research.)

    As far as organising goes, my method is simple. It's called a bookcase!

    Most of my materials are printed out, and are organised in labeled loose-leaf notebooks which are on the shelves along with actual books. I'm sure I have the largest private library of books on the American West anywhere in Scotland. :) The downside of this approach, aside from expense and physical space, is that I would find it difficult to write someplace other than my home ...because if I need to check a fact while I'm writing, I need to be able to go to those shelves to find it. Folks who have all their research materials stored online can write anywhere they have access to online storage.

    I do have some research items on computer as well, including old period photos snaffled from the internet, and minor bits of information. I just keep them in labeled folders, inside my main writing folder.

    I also created a dated Timeline of the period. As I did research and uncovered interesting tidbits, I added them into the Timeline at the appropriate day/month/year. I didn't use all these bits of information by any means, but if I wanted a character to be doing something on a certain date, I could check the information about that date and what came earlier, to ensure I wasn't creating some anachronism. I would highly recommend creating a Timeline, no matter what kind of story you're writing.

    A Timeline is NOT an outline of your story. It's information about what was happening in the wider world at the time of your story. Information about when certain gadgets were invented, who was president when a riot occurred, when a certain law got passed, what the weather was like, etc. You fit your story around these events. I set up this Timeline as a computer file, and still add to it as more information comes to light. I have printed it out as well, to have handy while I'm writing.

    Incidentally—and I can't emphasize this enough—Back up your work. Not only your writing itself, but your research material as well. Back it up in as many ways and on as many devices as possible. And in several stages, so if one file gets corrupted, you still have an earlier backup of that file. Yes, this takes a bit of time to do and a few devices to store the backups on, but you will be so incredibly sorry if you don't. Losing all your hard work because your laptop died or was stolen, or your file got corrupted—that's soul-destroying. You may never recover.

    Back. Up. Your. Work. And no, don't trust The Cloud to do it for you. That's just one method—and it is great if you write on several different devices—but don't make The Cloud the only backup you use. Just don't.

    Interesting that a former editor of MacFormat, the UK's primary Apple magazine, recommended all sorts of backup devices in an article he wrote several years ago ...but finished up with this advice: print out your important work, so you have a paper copy to fall back on if the electronic copies fail or become obsolete. :)
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2020
  3. Justhew2490

    Justhew2490 New Member

    Jul 9, 2020
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    What a great reply! Some absolutely brilliant tips in your post. I'm at the currently thinking about writing an historical novel stage at the moment and found your advice really helpful. :agreed:

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