Trust the Process: Research for a Novel

Much like research for a college paper, research is also involved in writing a novel, book or anything factual outside your own personal experience. It’s how mystery novelists know that their victim has six hours or less to escape from their premature grave based on the cubic volume of air that was trapped in the coffin pre-burial. It’s how authors know that the slightly strangest events written are believed by their readers. With all of the information available at a simple click, it is easy to get lost in the research. Research and outlining are easily my favorite parts of writing a novel. I enjoy learning in general. You never stop learning as a writer. I am constantly watching serial killer documentaries, reading true crime novelizations and criminal psychology texts, and reading about other authors’ writing processes to refine your own. Considering what I write is usually murder mysteries or psychological thrillers, you can imagine what my internet history looks like.

What does novel research actually look like? It is honestly not too far different from that in which a student would perform to write a research paper for English 101. First, the student brainstorms and settles on a subject or idea that they feel comfortable writing on and jot down the first few bullet-point ideas to which they can expand on after further research. These first ideas are the base of the research process. To which research may open and close doors on ideas. My favorite part in the research process is when a tiny piece of new information can spark inspiration for new story plot, plot devices, themes, motivations, characters and roles, or even eliminate the unnecessary. Your research is there to prove or disprove your ideas. It’s how we learn what our readers will and won’t believe.

Where do we find our research for a novel? Regardless of the genre, there are resources everywhere. It could be another book, or story you’ve read. It can be a scholarly journal, website, or anything that sparks inspiration. Just be sure to cite your sources if you’re intending to quote directly. The same, if not elaborated, plagiarism rules apply. I general stick to psychology journals and true crime documentaries. I also read a lot of true crime novelizations like Secrets in the Cellar by John Glatt or American Predator by Maureen Callahan. A lot of this research has helped with my own character and plot development. A lot of other mystery authors like Lisa Gardner have consulted with their local police or experts, which I personally consider invaluable resource.

We did the research, now what? Organize it. Figure out a system that best works for you. Do you write everything down in a notebook or will you invest in a novel writing program like Scriber or Dabble? Or are you a story-boarder? Research can be overwhelming because organizing it in a way that makes most sense to you and your writing process will ultimately shape you as a writer, and it can be trivial. Every writer has a different method of organization. It’s just important that you do it, because your writing will reflect it. In an interview with London Real, bestselling author Robert Greene said, ” Your eyes are a prisoner of your material or a master of your material…a lot of books fail because the writer isn’t really in control of all the research, and it shows up in the book being badly organized and ideas being repeated over and over again. By the time you reach the last twenty-thirty pages, it’s totally petered out because they haven’t organized the material…the only way to master it is to put it in a system that you can control.”

Greene goes on in the interview to describe the system that’s worked for him for years, and he even taught to prolific writer Ryan Holiday: the Index Card System.

It was encouraging to find that my research and organization process was not so different from Greene’s or Holidays, however I do prefer looseleaf paper over index cards. I usually abandon notebooks before I even finish them due to the idea being completely overwhelming to me. I find that looseleaf does not pressure me to do anything but fill that single page at that moment. I like to dive the paper into four equal parts, vertically. I then block out each chapter as if it were a timeline, giving me a foundation to build my story. I add in notations, quotes and themes that will later show up later in the story.

The example above is an old story that is being completely being workshopped right now, ignore the pen scribbles 😅

Like Greene, I like to have access and be able to see the whole story in front of me. This method allows me to easy access when I am writing. I use it as an outline and reference to details that are important to the drive of the plot. I know there are pros and cons to outlining, and not every writer outlines, but as a mystery writer I find it important because I can see plot holes and can fix them easily. I always use pencil in case I have to move something around. However, I am thinking of giving the index-card method a shot.

The Binder of Madness

I also keep a binder where each story I’m working on gets its own section tab where I can compile research, resources, notes, etc in one place. This binder gives me a peace of mind.

Whatever your method of research and organization, do what motivates you most to write. Don’t get focused on the details. Allow the research and outline to do that for you. Enjoy and trust the process.

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