Searching for research

Today I’m doing a request post. Writer pal Alyssa asked the following about my research methods: “Do you read through first, take notes as you go along? Are you looking for specific things before you start (like filling out a questionnaire)? Or is it more like you’re trying to get into a mindset of time and place?”

Such good questions! And without easy answers. The truth is that my research process is ongoing, comprehensive, and extremely idiosyncratic. (As ever, when I talk about process, please keep in mind, this works for me. Doesn’t mean it is right for anyone else, although I’m delighted if there’s anything I share that is useful.)

To break it down, we have to talk about the fact that I do different kinds of research. First, there’s what I would call General Research, broken into three subcategories: Victoriana, Personalities, Mysteries. Anything I read–or view; documentaries are hugely useful–might provide me with something I can use at an indeterminate time in the future. I’ve been researching the Victorian period for about thirty years, but there are always new articles, new books. “Personalities” refers to biographies or profiles of interesting people, not necessarily historical. They are people whose qualities are intriguing enough to make them good source material for characters. “Mysteries” refers to true crime stories or fiction–both are inspirations for future books. I will also collect pictures of faces and settings that I find intriguing. The thing that links all of these together is that I have no idea where or when I’m going to use them. They are simply adding to the simmering brain stew at this point. I will dredge up some snippets I’ve read more than twenty years back because I finally have a proper place to use it.

If I’m reading a general interest book and find a fact of interest or two, I will jot it into my notebook–I always have one on the go. Whole passages or multiple pages of library books will be photocopied instead and annotated, but if I find I want to copy more than 20 pages, I return the book and order my own copy. Books are annotated in pencil with the page number circled and a post-it flag on the page so I know where to find the info again. Articles are printed out, stapled together, and relevant passages highlighted in pink.

The process is exactly the same when I am researching a specific topic for a book–research is collected, read, annotated/highlighted. I’ve researched vampirism, Egyptology, Gypsies, tea plantations, early aviation, Crusades, colonial Africa, poisons, Victorian photography, lepidoptery, and a few dozen other subjects, amassing as large a collection as I can within the limitations of time and budget. (For A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I brought my collection of books on African history up to over 60. One pair of coffee table books I wanted was prohibitively expensive–$800 for the set–so I used an interlibrary loan to acquire them for a month. I was HEAVINGLY grateful to the kindly library who sent them.) If an out-of-print research book proves too expensive in print, I can often find it free in a digital format for my Kindle, but I only do this as a last resort. My memory is very visual, and I can remember information MUCH better if I see it on the page rather than on a screen. This is the reason I always print out relevant articles from the internet and annotate them by hand.

When I first started writing, I made certain I finished every particle of research before I began the book. Writers with a deadline don’t have that luxury. If I needed to know the kind of tree that would be in leaf in Kent in July, I’d read an entire book about the flora and fauna of the Home Counties. Now I am much more efficient. I will write until I get to a passage where I need a fact I don’t have at my fingertips; I open a bracket, insert a specific note about what I need, close brackets, and keep writing. When I go back to the manuscript, I know exactly what fact to chase down, and it takes a matter of minutes as opposed to days.

Organizing the research for a particular book is an ongoing task. Books that have been read and flagged are shelved together, and when the stack of annotated articles gets to be too unwieldy, they are hole-punched and put into a binder. If it goes onto a second binder–rare because I buy the hefty 4-inch monsters–then I will write up a quick index, just noting the subject of each article in order so I can find the info in a hurry.

Once I have finished the rough draft, I like to let it sit for a few weeks. That’s when I go back and reread all my research. It’s much faster than the first time through because I’m only skimming back over everything that has been flagged and annotated. When I find something I know isn’t in the book yet and I want to include it, I make a note in a Word document. When I finish rereading the research, I print out the Word doc and use that as a guide to the items I want to weave in. I will either post the pages  on the wall next to my desk or I will staple it together and keep it at my elbow as I work. Either way, I cross off the items as I insert them. I skim the list every day to keep it fresh in my mind, constantly looking for just the right spot. If there is anything left on the list when I finish the next draft, I see if it can be inserted smoothly. If not, it wasn’t meant for this book, and I let it go.

Since I’m writing a series, I have an ongoing master list of facts I want to use about my main characters, lepidoptery, history, etc. This stays pinned to the wall next to my desk, and I cross a few off with each book. When the book is finished, whatever research was specific only to that effort gets packed up with the various drafts and sent to the attic. Research articles suitable for a future book–and there are usually no more than five–are filed to be pulled when I start the next manuscript. Books that have been flagged have their post-its removed. Titles I will no longer need, and some occasionally do prove less helpful than I’d hoped, are donated to the library. The rest are reshelved to keep. (I remove the post-its because the adhesive will eventually break down the paper. The penciled annotations stay, and I can find them easily because the page numbers are circled.)

This process is good if you have a strong memory and are good at mental juggling. You have to be able to keep LOTS of random information floating in your head at any given time, and it helps immensely if you’re visual because being able to picture where you saw a piece of information will enable you to retrieve it easily. Only once, when I was using over 80 books as sources, did I have to resort to indexing the books as well as the articles. I listed the book, the page number, and the general subject of the passage I had marked. It was A BEAST, but it was the only way to manage that much information and it did give me an extra tool for keeping everything at hand.

Now, Alyssa, aren’t you sorry you asked? 😉