Wicked Wednesday: When Do You Do Your Research?

Wickeds, there are all types of research for a book. When do you do most of your research? Before you start, to help you find your way into the story? After you’re done, to add details? Or while you’re writing?

Jessie: I love all the questions you have been posing this month, Julie! I start all my books by poking around researching and seeing what captures my fancy. I follow and learn and make notes for as long as I need until the story starts forming in my mind. I generally end up making notations in my manuscript of things to go back and check or learn more about as the writing gets underway but the bulk of it happens for me in the noodling up stage.

Edith: This month I’m researching a new historical era for a new project. Like Jessie, I do some of it up front, but I’m also eager to start writing, so I make lots of notes to myself as I go, for things I’ll need to check later. I’ll jump out and look something up mid-draft if I think it will change the direction of the story. But a lot of it I do after the first draft is complete.

Barb: I’ve mentioned I like to read narrative non-fiction as a part of my research. If possible, I like to do that before I begin. Often it will spark ideas for plot or character. I don’t interview anyone or send out emails to experts with questions until between the first and second draft. I like to know precisely what I want to ask and not waste their time. The biggest challenge for me is visiting locations and venues. So much of what I write about is seasonal and I often can’t visit exactly when I wish, so it’s a matter of either going early when I may not know what I’m looking for or going later and inserting information in a late draft of the manuscript.

Sherry: Barb, I’m getting ready to start writing the third Chloe Jackson book and I have a lot of non-fiction books about the panhandle of Florida — I think I’ll borrow your method and see what happens. At this point the plot is only one line. I also usually do the research after the first draft. In A Time to Swill , I had questions about the Coast Guard and military wills. I was fortunate to have Bill Randall (author Shari Randall’s husband) answer questions about the Coast Guard. Friend and retired Navy JAG Vida Antolin-Jenkins gave me great information about military wills.

Julie: It’s so interesting that we all research before and after our first draft, but not during. I like the narrative non-fiction idea for reading. I did that a lot when I wrote the Clock Shop series. Does anyone know a narrative non-fiction book about cemeteries? Let me know! While I’m writing I use a bracket method. I make myself notes of things to check or research as notes in brackets, like [check on how long a person can hold their breath while juggling knives], that I check after I’m done with the draft.

Readers, if you’re reading a book that makes you want to learn more, do you explore while reading or after? Writer friends, when do you do your research?

24 Thoughts

  1. Commenting as a writer and a reader. Writing research comes before the first draft (and during if it is pertinent to the story). When I revise the first draft I use Julie’s bracket method and then finish my research after the edit of the first draft.

    As a reader, I’ll put the book down for a google search if something has piqued my interest. That lets me read the remainder of the book with an expanded background into the story. I love it when an author teaches me something!

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  2. If I come across something in a book that makes me want to learn more about it, when I go on the computer to look up information about it kind of depends on just how engrossed in the story I am. If I’m ripping through a book in short order, I’ll probably just wait until I’m done with the story. If I’m at a pause point in the story then I could just look it up then.

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  3. I hadn’t thought about this before, but now that you raise the question, I’d guess that most of my detail-oriented research comes in the revisions work in later drafts of a novel.
    Non-fiction, of course, would have to start with the research.

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  4. Love research! I believe we are never too old to learn. I’ve often read about something in a story and look it up to find out more about it AFTER I finish the book. I love photography especially of God’s vast array of critters. I find that I can photograph them better if I know more about them – what they eat, where they like to hang out, or their habits as example. So I do research on them BEFORE I go to try to photograph them. In other words, research or learning is good at any stage – before, during or after. Just keep the old brain active and continue to learn. 🙂
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

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  5. I love research! Even if my husband mentions something, I’m like, “Ooh, I’ll look that up for you!” My new series is set during WWII, so I’m in seventh heaven. I’m quickly learning how much I don’t know about that era. I do some research before I start writing, then when something comes up as I write, I look it up. I can’t make myself wait until I finish the draft for most things. I’ll do a little more research when the draft is finished and layer in some details to make the book more realistic.

    As a reader, I’ve definitely stopped to look up a fascinating detail or two!

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      1. I hope it gets easier! I have some good sources now thanks to a Twitter friend who is a WWII historian. She’s been a lot of help.

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  6. I do most of my research after I’ve written something into the story, although I will look up things both before and while writing. I try to limit what I do while writing though because it’s too easy to get distracted.

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  7. I do as much research as I can think of before and then look up little details as I go along, sometimes saving the big stuff for between passes on WIP. As a reader, I love the little details especially in historical fiction. James Ziskin is a master at bringing back an era with just a mention of a television show or a brand of cigarettes.

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  8. I know of a few books about cemeteries: Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery by Lois Miner Huey (2015) about bones found during a construction project in Albany, NY; Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery by Tom Cotton (2019) about The Old Guard: and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (2014) a memoir by a mortician. I have read reviews of the first two that looked good, but have not read any of the books. Maybe they could help you, Julie.

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  9. I love seeing the variety of responses here! As a reader, if I come across something that makes me want to chase down more information, I scribble the page number in the back of the book, or (if it’s not my book) I put one of those colored stickies in the margin. (Yes, that sounds really nerdy, I know!) As a writer, all of my books have started because of a non-fiction story that I’ve found that has grabbed at me–what other writers here have called “sparking interest” and “capturing my fancy.” There is something that happens with certain non-fiction accounts that almost feels like a physical spark in my brain. Also, although I’m a pantser (as in, I direct the plot), when I research I try to let the research direct *me* from one topic to another. When I was researching for my last (A Trace of Deceit) I began with French portraits, which led to Francois Boucher and Madame de Pompadour and auctions and art theft in London collections and the Pantechnicon fire in Mayfair. I just kept following casual references until it became a sort of web, if that makes sense. Anyway, thanks for the question and all the shared answers!

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  10. That’s kind of how I would picture doing research. Research before you write and then between drafts when you learn what you need to know more specifically.

    But now, Julie, I want to know how long someone can hold their breath while juggling knives, and how that is going to factor into your next book.

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  11. I love reading about your processes! I do the research for Kerrian when I need to nail down details, or to answer questions about a crazy idea that comes to mind.

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  12. I double check definitions in the OED before sending edits to authors, but there are too many ARCs for me to go off exploring…

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