Something old, something new, something borrowed – how to research your story

 Researching your novel – why, what, how, where

Why research? 

Research covers aspects of almost everything that goes into my story. That is why I must research – to add colour, depth, width, breadth – to breathe life into my story. It must ring true and there’s no short cuts, not that I wanted them. (Well, yes, secretly maybe it would be ‘nice’ if less work was needed but then the journey would be less fun!)

I realise how utterly naive it sounds to assume one can write a story without conducting research. The thing is I didn’t consider a lot of what I’ve already done prior to writing is actually being research. I consider it simply as what one does! I read that some authors have books on the back burner for several years prior to actual writing. That means there’s been a lot of mulling over of ideas, a lot of conscious and subconscious drawing together of information, most likely from a lot of research and then it apparently flows onto the page. I imagine it is still a challenge (a topic for another day), but the key here is that all the research comes together into coherent expression. And while some writers may research prior to their writing, others conduct their research as they write. Either way works.

Where do I go for my research?

Where will I find relevant information? Writing historical fiction means I’m looking for ‘something old, something new, something borrowed … ‘ – something to add depth and veracity to my story. When I open an old suitcase there it is. In a box tucked away beneath old news clippings there’s letters from my childhood and a bunch of old family letters written in the 1800’s. I read them and find a little something of what I’m looking for.

If it were that easy to uncover information on every aspect I need to research, I’d be stoked, however, it’s not. I need a lot more so I search the internet for articles about Manchester and London, two key places in my story. I’m taken down side alleys I’d not considered. Images pop up on social media sites. Walks are kept shorts, some are merely interesting and have little bearing on my story. It’s essential I’m ruthless as time will get away from me. You know the old trick – avoid getting side-tracked.

Something new, something borrowed

I’m very lucky though, I have a guide. I met her recently: she transpired from my story, and I’m so pleased to have my protagonist lead the way. Lara beckons me forward and asks me to sit with her on a park bench in her hometown and as we talk I see life in her time happening around us. A horse and buggy are on the road through the park. Grey skies are punctuated with massive trees. I feel as though I’ve travelled back in time, and I am oddly out of place in my 21st century garb. When she bids me farewell I feel like I’ve met an old friend, and I know we’ll find a lot more in common as we explore her journey. Meeting her was fantastic. It’s wonderful knowing I am totally free to borrow her ideas and add them to my story! But I need more. However, I find pinning down what I actually need to know quite elusive. I need to tease apart fundamental aspects about research before I can proceed.

Are there ordered steps in research? When is it best to conduct research?

How and when do established authors conduct their research and incorporate it into their writing? I’ve checked some out and find there’s NO SINGLE answer or order as to how, what or when one goes about research. Irrespective of this, though, it must be done! While that may be totally obvious to some it isn’t transparent. And it’s teasing apart details I need that sends me off in random spurts of research to fill gaps. However, filling the gaps in my story is only part of why I research. Research is the fundamental base of the whole. Without it, there is, perhaps, no veritable backbone to the story. For example, I draw from who I am and what I’ve done in my life and I draw from others I’ve met throughout my life as well, and they coalesce into characters –  a trait here, a smile there, a habitual mannerism. Thus, I am researching into self and all that I already know and I write these into my story. When these immediate aspects of my soul searching and background knowledge are seemingly exhausted for various aspects (character, setting, plot and so on) I find I still need more. This is where I need to conduct the more traditional type of research. This becomes the ‘what’ of my research.

What do I research?

I research my characters appearance, for example, what they would wear in the time period I’m writing. I check out details of garments and stance in photographs in my suitcases as well as online images. I also do that for settings and scenes – getting a sense of the location. And of course, being historical fiction, I search for incidents and events to tie into the plot. All quite obvious, I suppose.

How do I research?

read old letters; I google places on the internet and walk down streets and travel across cyberspace countryside; I pull down suitcases full of old photos and study characters and places; I take notes in interviews with people who recall events and people and cover a lot of territory, old and new. I borrow books from friends, relatives and libraries and book mark sites under my writing tab on my laptop. I physically travel to places in my story.

How do I store my research?

What is not obvious about doing any of the above is the length of time it takes to read, store my gems in folders on my computer, go back and highlight lines and whole paragraphs or sections I find relevant. Finally, I need to choose what to print out. I cannot bear going back into electronic copies while I write. It becomes unwieldy looking for a document. Much easier to have a paper copy in a folder and although I can flick through either electronic or paper versions, it’s just a personal preference. It’s also easier to mark a print out with ‘done’ once it’s been used.

Going back a mini step, before making a decision to print anything I also choose whether to cut and paste segments into one document or whether to print out everything and create a vast bank of paperwork and then go back and highlight whatever is relevant. I swing between the two approaches – printing out whole documents like maps for instance, but only printing highlighted or paraphrased text complete with acknowledgement of its source. I usually try to put several segments into one document as it saves paper, but I’m not always good at that. Once I’ve used it in my story I put a huge tick across the sentence, paragraph or page, and keep it in my file for the sources to be acknowledged when and as needed.

 In conclusion

So far I’ve written from what I already know and I’ve taken my more formal research to date and written that into my story. However, I find there’s still much more to be done. I think it’s time for a pregnant pause, that is, I need to take time out from actually writing my story and do that bit more – even a lot more research to flesh it out, fill in gaps and make the story cohesive and believable. It’s a somewhat tricky, time consuming, and rather messy business. But I guess that’s my journey.

Interesting links about research

I simply typed in ‘research a novel’ into Google and came up with a brilliant number of links. Amongst many others I found the following useful on how, what, where and why – Natasha Lester ; Thomas Young  and Joanna Penn.




Susan is a writer based in Perth's Darling Range, Western Australia. Her love for writing began as a child and is a life-long passion. Susan is also passionate about reading and attributes much of her learning to the wonderful world of literature. She enjoys photography and art and loves to write the occasional poem. She is often found indulging in a good cup of coffee and gazing over the hills from her backyard.

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