Okay, maybe not YOU, but a writer pal asked in December if I would write a post about my research process, and I said SURE. Here’s the most important thing to remember: I AM ALWAYS RESEARCHING. Everything I read, everything I watch on TV or film, everything I take in is fodder for work. Sometimes something I’ve read years before will rear its head and prove utterly perfect for inclusion in my current project.
But I suspect my writer friend wanted to know the specific, nuts-and-bolts type of process, so here goes:
*First I collect books and articles. It might be a LOT of books and articles. Titles are pulled from my personal collection, from libraries, and are purchased. In the case of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I ended up with something like 80 books, sixty of which I bought. (That was a little excessive, even for me, but it required a thorough knowledge of the country of Kenya, cultures, flora, fauna, history, etc.) My collection of Victoriana grows with each book I write, but I am also constantly purging and eliminating titles which don’t prove worth the shelf space. I prefer hard copies to digital for research because information is encoded differently in the brain depending upon how it is processed. In spite of my preference, I often end up finding out-of-print books free for my Kindle which I can’t pass up–usually because a print version of the same book might be prohibitively expensive.
*Once I’ve collected the material, everything gets a read, and this is an ongoing process since often a book will lead to ANOTHER book. (By the way, people love to mock it, but Wikipedia is a great place to start, especially for timelines. I print out the articles I need and make note of the references at the bottom.) As I read, I flag whatever strikes me as pertinent to the work, marking it with a post-it and a penciled note directly on the text if I own the book. If it’s a library book, I photocopy the page and make the same sort of notes.
*From this point, the process diverges. If it’s a research-heavy novel with lots of technical detail, I will create an index of the material so I know exactly where to find what topics. If there are twenty or fewer books, I will remember where I saw what I wanted and just rely on that when I’m incorporating research into the writing.
*When the first draft is finished, I will skim the highlighted material to see if there’s anything I left out that I wanted to include. (Material that has already been incorporated is de-flagged and shelved.) Again, I will either make a ‘notes’ page of details I want to include and post it on my study wall, or I will rely on my memory. That takes care of draft two, and the book goes off to my editor.
*For the final pass, I will review the annotated material one final time and mark the manuscript with where any last bits should be inserted. Anything that is good but now feels like it just won’t fit this book is put aside for a future project. (Often, I find that if I haven’t worked something in by the last draft, it’s because it didn’t need to be there. If it feels at all forced, it doesn’t go in. Also, if it feels it would be wasted because it’s a really good bit but would get short shrift in this particular book, it gets saved for a book where it can shine.)
*Any good bits I come across when I’m between books will go into a file for future books so I don’t lose it.
In all, my process is haphazard and relies a LOT on the fact that I have a good memory. I have friends who would weep at my system, so I feel obliged to point out that this works for me, but your mileage may vary.