How to do research for your National Novel Writing Month project

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It's almost November, which means it's almost time for one of my favorite events of the year: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I've written about NaNoWriMo preparation before, but I want to go into more detail about actually doing research for your project.

It's not just historical novels that require research; every novel and writing project requires some research. A science fiction book may include research about spaceship design; a fantasy novel may include research on mythical creatures. I've participated in NaNoWriMo about five times (winning twice), and I can tell you firsthand that the month goes by FAST, so the more you can tackle ahead of time, the better. Since it's the first week of October, it's the perfect time to knock out your research before November 1.

Below are my tried-and-true research tips for your novel, regardless of genre or topic.

Start with a thorough outline

Not all writers use outlines for their books, but it makes a huge difference during NaNoWriMo; the two times I "won" were because I had very clear outlines, so every day was just a matter of "filling in" the outline. An outline will also help you identify the parts of your story that require research. 

You can outline digitally, or get out a big piece of paper and just start writing down the main plot points of your story. (Here's a great resource on what your outline should include.)

Prioritize your research points

Your outline should reveal the parts of your story that need research, and you'll want to make a list of what research you want to tackle first. Research is often overwhelming to writers because there's just so much of it to do, so take it piece-by-piece.

Consider the following:

  • What are the "big picture" details in your story? For instance, what's the location or era/time that you need to study? 
  • How will your characters interact with their world? You'll need to research the day-to-day details, such as clothing, food, architecture, music/art, and cultural events. 

Start with the "big picture" details. What is the most important research you need to do before you can actually start writing? Start broad, and you can drill further as you go. 

Create a research schedule

Once you have a sense for the research you'll need to do, come up with a reasonable schedule. It's impossible to knock out all your research in one day, so make a plan to tackle a little bit over the span of a week (or a few weeks). I always recommend going into a research session with a specific goal in mind. Your schedule should include the specific research questions you plan to tackle every day. For instance, researching the clothing worn by a battle nurse in World War II is a specific and attainable goal to meet in one research session.

Spend an afternoon at the library

It's tempting to conduct all of your research online, but I highly recommend committing an afternoon to a library visit. You'll have books and librarians at your disposal, and you can knock out some of the "big picture" details of your research. If your research includes studying places or architecture, scan or take pictures of the images you find in books.

Annotate your outline with your findings

Rather than documenting your findings separately from your outline, add your findings directly to each part of your outline. I love using writing apps such as Scrivener, which makes it really easy to create folders of research and link them to chapters. For the book I'm writing this November, I have folders for each of my main characters and locations in the book. In each folder, I've added the research images and documents that correspond to each. Then, I made folders for each of my planned chapters, and I put the documents into each relevant chapter. 

If you don't want to shell out the $$ for a tool like Scrivener (although I highly recommend it, especially for research-intensive projects), you can use a free service like Google Drive. Create a folder that contains the doc in which you'll write your story, and then create a folder for each chapter/part of your book. These folders will grow over time, but it makes it easy to quickly reference the research you need in that particular chapter. 

I also recommend using Pinterest, especially for your web-based research. As you're doing research on the web, create Pinterest boards for your chapters and characters, and save your findings straight to your board. You'll also have a visual moodboard of your story, which I find really helpful.

I'll be writing more tips and tricks for conquering NaNoWriMo, so stay tuned! Have you announced your novel yet? My username is AshleyWarrenResearch, so be sure to connect with me!

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