ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Books, Literature, and Writing»
  • How to Write

The Steps to Researching for a Novel

Updated on April 1, 2014
RGraf profile image

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.


Have a Starting Point - An Idea

Before you can even research or start writing your novel, you need to have the idea for the novel plot as well as the general storyline planned in out in your head. If you have a vague idea, let the idea grow in your head before you do anything. Develop it all in your mind before you start putting things on paper. I call it part of the aging process. You get the idea going and then just let it grow.

Okay, you are going to write a story that involves a character who works in a coffee shop. Do you know anything about working in that type of environment? Do you really know anything about coffee? If the answer to these questions is no, then you need to do some research. Talk to someone who has worked in a café. Get books on how to make drinks your character will be making. Look up café terms and how they are used. A great thing to do is go to a local coffee shop and sit down for an hour or two. Watch and listen. You would be amazed at how much research you can get.

Character in coffee shop. Check. Idea formed and preliminary research being done as I get my daily cup of caffeine. Check.

Have You Written a Novel?

Have you written a published novel yet?

See results

Understand What You Know and Don’t Know

There are some things that don’t need researching or at least not much from you. I’m an accountant. If my character is one, I don’t have to research terminology and such. I know it from personal experience. I am from lower Alabama. If my character is from there, I don’t have to do much in the way of research for that. If I’m writing about a pharmacist, I have a ton of research to do as I know nothing about it. I currently have one story where I’m writing about a girl with a disability. I am not too familiar with it so I have to do some research.

Understand what you know and don’t know. That means admitting to yourself that you don’t know everything and could do with some more research. Even if you are very familiar with a subject, look further into it. There is always something new to learn.

Start Small

Don’t think you have to research everything in the novel at once. That could be overwhelming to the point of never finishing the book much less getting started. You need to pick one thing to start with. That usually is the main theme of the book or something in the first scene. Researching someone with Alzheimer’s and the symptoms of a character who doesn’t appear until the last third of the book can wait. If I tried to research both at the same time, I’d go crazy. I need to worry with the main part of the story and the opening scenes I’ll be writing. Keep a notebook of things you think of that you might need to research as you go along. That way, you won’t forget and can jump on it anytime the research bug grabs you.

Filter Research

After you have a ton of data, you can begin to filter your research. Think of it like someone panning for gold. They have gathered all the residue from the bottom of the creek. That is all that research you bookmarked and noted. Why? Because you don’t want to accidently toss away a golden nugget hidden within the dirt and sand. Now you go through your research material and look at the story where you are and where you think you’ll be going with it next. Sift through the information to see what applies at this moment in time. What information will help this scene or this character in this scenario? You might find nuggets that you can’t use this very minute but you know you’ll need real soon. Pull them out and set them aside so you aren’t frantically looking for it all a few hours or days later when you need them.

Gather All Info

When you start to research, don’t be too picky. Gather everything you can find even it if it seems far-fetched. I honestly didn’t think of that until I read where Stephanie Meyer found some notes on vampires having babies. She had no need for it at all in her first couple of books, but she filed the information away. She didn’t toss it aside though she probably never thought she would use it. That little bit of information became the basis for her final book.

Bookmark everything you find. Make notes of things you don’t even think you’ll use. Even if it is not ‘traditional’ or ‘accurate’, you might find you can use it in your story. It could become a subplot, a new main storyline, or something you can play with and get really creative with in the story.

Sources to Consider

If you're researching for a fictional novel, there really are no sources that are bad. Well, almost. It depends on how 'accurate' you want to be. It is fiction which means you can do anything you want with it. Yet there are some things readers will not stand for.

Historical fiction has to be true to the period it is written in. You cannot take liberties there or you will lose a huge fan base. For the items that have to be accurate to keep your readers, verify your sources. That means no Wikipedia though you can use it to lead you to other more accepted sources. Dig and dig into these topics until you know you have the right information you need.

Be Creative

Now you can be creative with the information. With some, you might not want to get too creative depending on what kind of story you are writing. If it is pretty realistic, then you don’t want to mess with certain facts like how a gun functions or laws of science. But you can get really creative if you are writing a paranormal or science fiction story. All the laws don’t apply then.

You can also get creative when it comes to how the information you obtained is used. For example, I recently began a series of novellas based on legends. The information I obtained about these legends I used creatively. In other words, I took the legends as a base and created almost all new legends with them. They were more suggestions for me to use in a way that made my story more interesting.

Keep Researching

Truth be told, you'll almost never stop researching for your novel. You might think you are done with your third and possibly final draft when something inspires you. Off you go researching again as you add in a few more scenes. If nothing else, it inspires you for the sequel.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      This is as very helpful hub. It's true, I love research and oftentimes I get so caught up in it that I forget the trail of the novel. At other times, I get so caught up with imagination and forget that you need to ground your fiction on reality. Maybe my next book will be paranormal or science fiction so it will be easier. But even then, research is needed, as you have pointed out in your article. I also love the idea of filing information you won't use, because it may be useful some other time, or as a subplot for the book that you are writing now. The idea of using legends as a base for novellas is a great idea. Too bad you did it first:). Great hub!

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 3 years ago from Oz

      I've written several novels, and found those I've enjoyed most are those that have required the most research. The reward of discovering things that make your story reflect reality is significant.

      Like you said, though, we can also over-research, and that can stymie the creativity. Personally I contained my research to the thematic threads of the story rather than the off-topic elements. That said, if your story revolves around a narrow set of environments and activities, probably best to bleed the most realism into them as possible. Voted up and interesting/useful

    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 3 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      I'm a historical novelist and it seems as though no matter how much I research, there is always someone who has a different perspective than the one that I present. Sometimes I'll even get information from primary sources, but I'll still have someone argue that what I have written is not true to the period. It is certainly important to be careful not to write from an omnipotent point of view and that is what I try to do. I guess what I am saying is that no matter how much a person researches, you can't please everyone, but as I always say, its all about the story and it is fiction, so in my opinion, a little literary license should be allowed even in historical fiction.