Self-Publishing: Research and Note Taking

Since I’m thinking chronologically about this topic, once I have brainstormed an idea, done a bunch of free-writing, learned about my characters, and built an index of chapters, I generally start with the actual writing on the computer. This is typically the point where I start to suspect that my knowledge of the setting falls far short of the character’s knowledge!


At the point where I become humbled about my weak knowledge of the location, the timeframe, significant people in the era, behavioral norms, etc., of my project, I become a dedicated researcher. Here are some thoughts on this:

  1. Capture Lists of Research Needs. As “Research Needs” pop up, I write them in my spiral notebook. This allows me to build a decent workflow of things I need to look into. Then I can set research goals (maybe something like, research two of the topics on my list every day?). Sometimes I will free-write about my research too. If the setting is in the distant past, I might create dialogue between characters in that time about subjects that are unusual. For instance, what might two shepherds five-hundred years ago discuss about a shooting star they just saw? Sometimes really interesting material comes out of this.
  2. Common Research Subjects. When I’m writing about a time or culture that I’m not personally experienced with, I usually spend time researching foods they ate, customs, ceremonies, flora and fauna of the region, etc. These basics seem to show up in descriptive paragraphs a lot. Perhaps readers won’t know, but if I think something in one of my books is inaccurate, it bugs me. Now the above refers primarily to fiction writing. Most of my work has been in novels and collections of short stories, but I imagine that this advice applies to non-fiction too. If you want to communicate a non-fiction topic well enough to convince people of your expertise, you are probably going to need to understand many, many different dimensions of your topic and then connect them all in your book. Mapping these different directions of research out early will also aid your writing (writers block, to me, comes from lack of confidence in what to say).
  3. Organize the Research Free-Writings. I categorize my research “writings” by their label and I try to keep related labels close together in my spiral notebook. This seems like the best method I’ve used… Notecards were hard to organize and typing the notes into a computer (a spreadsheet maybe?) seemed too left-brained. Sometimes when I go through my spiral notebook (it comes with me to sports practices, coffee shops, church, etc.) I have cool ideas that I attribute to being written on paper.
  4. Don’t be afraid to conduct “just in time” research. Very often while I’m writing I find myself unsatisfied with how I’ve explained some technical detail and this drives me back to researching that specific topic. This often arises when trying to fill in some “color” in the story by describing small but very visual events. Often I want to make sure that I’m very accurate on the details of this “visual insert”. You might understand what I’m talking about if you’ve ever seen the “Lord of the Rings” movies. The wizard Gandalf is trapped by his adversary on the top of a tall tower and is in great peril, but suddenly the camera zooms in on a small moth and we see it flying in great, beautiful detail for a few seconds until Gandalf traps it with a quick movement, speaks some instructions to it, and lets it fly away. See here for a YouTube video of this. Peter Jackson uses this moment of seemingly-unrelated beauty to create some mystery, relieve some tension, or just refocus the viewer’s brains momentarily. The Harry Potter movies use this type of visual inserts quite frequently too. I try to do this in my books from time to time too. Therefore, if you use this element in your writing, ensuring that you have mastered the details is important for pulling it off!


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