Sunday, April 10, 2011

Researching Your Book--How to Do It, When to Stop and Get Writing

A children's book writer sent me the following question:  "I am interested in writing a non fiction book for 11-18 year olds and wanted to know how to go about preparing myself to do the research for the book effeciently?"  This writer had a timeline for her book and wanted to complete it by the beginning of December.

Research is both a blessing and
a bane for the book writer.  It's very easy to research now that the world is at our fingertips via the Internet.

But this wealth of resources also poses a serious sidetracking problem:  How can you really tell when you're researching and when you're just avoiding writing?

I love to research.  I worked as an editor for a small press for 18 years and was constantly being asked to research this or that fact from different authors' books.  I knew how to get online and sail through the mediocre listings into the really meaty facts.  I became good friends (via phone) with several reference librarians at my local library--always a good call to make when stumped by the various options on the Internet.  Librarians (mostly) love research and they are there to help.

But often I found myself cruising from one article to the next, opening more layers of links, and finding it hard to actually come back to the writing I was supposed to be working on.

Since someone was paying me to get the editing done, and I was under a deadline, I always forced myself away from the research eventually.  But when you're writing your book, you may not have this outer-imposed structure.  You may be your only boss, creating your own timeline, as my reader above is.  How do you stay efficient with research and still get your book done?

Researching Your Readership
I have dozens of stories from students in my classes who discovered they were writing to the wrong readership--after they did some bookstore research.  One woman thought her novel was geared toward adults but after she spent an hour browsing the YA bookstore shelves, she realized her language, tone, and subject matter was really meant for younger reader, in their late teens, as she had been when she experienced the specific changes she was writing about.  Another student was preparing to finish his memoir when he did some belated bookstore research and realized he didn't want his story on the memoir shelf--it was way too raw and dangerous emotionally for him to imagine his family members picking up a copy of a "true story" that contained their histories.  So he switched horses in midstream and became a novelist.

This sounds basic, but many writers forget that bookstores (and online bookstores) hold a wealth of information to help us orient our book projects.  So researching your readership is first on the list.

For the reader who wrote me the question for this post, as someone writing a book for a certain age group, you really need to know your audience well.  What language do these readers prefer?  They may be much more sophisticated readers than you were at that age, or they may not be.  What do they learn in school--and is your topic too sophisticated or way to basic for them?

And if you're delivering a certain topic and need scientific, cultural, political, or historical data, you need to translate what you research into wording that kids would understand, crafting your writing to lead them point by point through the material.

Research Information
After you've researched your reader and gone through the steps to explore your book's topic, you may have the urge to spend time on the Internet, in the library, or in your own book collection, making sure your facts are in order.  This is really important, and it used to be the provenance of fact checkers at a publishers.  No more.  It's now up to the writer, and publishing contracts have long clauses to make sure the writer holds all responsibility for errors of fact in their manuscript.

I love to research place, and I do that early on in the research process for my books.  I physically visit the location of my book as many times as I can, read other books set in that location, and take lots of notes--especially sensory details like the way things sound, smell, and look in that setting.  It's important to convey accuracy of place to allow the emotion within the place to touch your reader.  And, believe me, readers who are familiar with the place will let you know if you've made mistakes in reporting the details of their favorite locations.

Historical facts are also important to get right.  Watch out for the Internet on this one.  When I was a professional editor at the small press in the Midwest, we rarely accepted the first or even fifth Internet mention of a fact as truth.  It took lots of browsing and comparing notes from different sites.  If a fact was repeated frequently, then it was more likely true.  But I collected a list of my favorite fact-checking sites that seemed reliable, and they were the ones I visited most often.  University research sites, library databases, and reputable publications online were the ones I leaned on most--and I strictly avoided the chats, blogs, and personal opinion posts that could be just that.

Putting Research in Its Proper Place
Make sure, though, that research doesn't take over your writing time.  It's a great time waster for us creative types, especially with the Internet making the world of research so very accessible.  Hours (days!) can go by while you happily browse, and not one word of your book actually gets written.

When I am deep in research, I set a kitchen timer.  When the timer rings, I stop--no matter how exciting that next link looks.  I go back to the writing, to the blank page, and do what I came here for.  It takes discipline to leave the candy store of research and actually write.  But it's the only way to make a book.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list of topics you'd like to research for your book project.  They could be more information on the setting you're writing about, historical facts, readership research, or anything you are interested in that might enhance your story.

2.  Practice disciplined research:  get a kitchen timer or set your cell phone alarm for 30 minutes.  Begin your research.  See if you can stop when the alarm goes off.  Make sure you make notes or print interesting pages.

3.  Make notes to remind you where you were, so you can return easily.

4.  Look over the research notes you've made.  Take a highlighter and underline sections that might be useful to inform a chapter, character, or focus of your book.


  1. What great reminders, Mary! I visited Portugal last spring for my historical fantasy, and it's so easy to try put in every little interesting detail, but it's always the story that matters. Thanks!

  2. Great tips, Mary. Thanks. I'll fb and tweet this.

  3. Thanks, Janalyn, and thanks for visiting!

  4. Thanks, Deb, glad it was helpful. Thanks for visiting!

  5. Research has been the bane of the non-fiction book I'm writing. A necessary evil but it can so easily become overwhelming! Thanks for the great tips.

  6. Nan, I can relate! Glad the tips were helpful. Thanks for visiting.