Research, whether for a non-fiction book or a novel, is an important aspect of writing a book. Ideally, research will provide you with the depth and detail a really good book requires, and at the very least, it will help you avoid the kind of howler that undermines your authority or your story.
However, you need to have a plan for researching your book, because otherwise it’s very easy to get lost in the research process and never get to, you know, actually writing the book. Here are some tips for organising your research and getting the most out of it.
The hypothetical books we are researching are:
- Non-fiction – a book for students about massage therapy by Alex, a therapist and teacher with many years’ experience in private practice. It will include a brief history of massage therapy, examination of its growing popularity, applications in the treatment of various conditions and injuries, and the future of the field.
- Fiction – a novel by Billie, set in the world of international art theft, featuring at least one murder, aspects of cross-border police procedure, a court case, and, though she doesn’t know it yet, a pivotal point of law which will provide a sensational reversal in her protagonist’s fortunes.
Alex, our massage therapist, already has extensive notes about the areas he wants to write about, so he mainly wants to fill in a few gaps and provide additional authority to make his work more persuasive. He wants to try to sell the book to a traditional publisher, and so is preparing a proposal for submission to agents. The proposal will need to explain the author’s qualifications for writing the book (his years of experience in practice and teaching new students), its positioning (its message and its place in the market), comparable titles and market analysis, a marketing plan, a chapter outline and a sample chapter.
Billie, our novelist, has a day job in the civil service and a passion for international thrillers and courtroom dramas, but will need to provide depth and realism to the setting, and she is especially keen to use realistic technical and legal details. She needs to complete the book first, before embarking on her route to publication.
Prepare and outline
Both our writers need to create a list of the areas they need to research for their books.
Alex wants to brush up on the history of massage, find authoritative sources for the suitability and successful use of massage as part of a treatment plan for various conditions and injuries, and interview some of his colleagues on their thoughts about the popularity and future of massage therapy. He will need a chapter outline for his book proposal, so he will fill that in as he progresses through his research.
Billie wants to find out more about the painting her protagonist will steal from a museum, the museum itself and the surrounding area, and how one goes about fencing a stolen painting and keeping the proceeds safe from the authorities. She has some vague ideas about setting up a shell company or a charitable trust to launder the money, but will need to figure this out in more detail. She also needs to know how the police will attempt to track the thief, how they cooperate with police forces in other countries, and what strategies a lawyer might use to defend the thief in court.
Organise the research
Alex creates a folder on his computer for each section and chapter of the book, which he will fill with his notes on the history of massage, copies of relevant research papers, diagrams of anatomy, and mp4s and transcripts of the interviews he conducts.
Billie is setting up a system of paper and digital files to file her research on her setting, characters and background information. She will have notes in longhand about the look, smell and atmosphere of the museum and surrounding area, as well as digital images of paintings and a floor plan of the museum. She will also need easily to find her notes on police procedure, setting up a company or a charity, and on case law surrounding the Theft Act 1968.
Read, read, read
Alex consults his own small collection of books on massage, visits the library to take notes on others, and buys some new and some used copies of the top and comparable titles on massage. His areas of enquiry are limited, so he can work through them methodically.
Billie’s areas of enquiry are more wide-ranging, and although she has a basic plot outline for her book, she’s not entirely clear how the details will fit into it, so she needs to read around her subjects until she gets a grounding in them.
She tries to keep her research focused and not procrastinate by reading interesting but irrelevant material. When it comes to the law, she doesn’t want to waste time and money on fat textbooks, so she buys a few of a series of short books called Nutshells, which cover the basics of various areas, including criminal law and trusts and equity law.
She also needs to read widely in her categories, so this is a great opportunity to read even more novels. She focuses especially on books set in the art world, as well as police procedurals, international thrillers featuring the tracking of a character by police, and court dramas.
Alex wants to keep costs down, so he gets hold of the research papers he needs through PubMed or by asking the authors for a copy. He also reads opinion pieces and blogs about the economic and other reasons for the growing popularity of massage and other complementary therapies, as well as think pieces about the future of the sector.
Billie starts with wide search terms (‘art theft’, for instance) on the web, and checks her sources are reliable. She makes use of Wikipedia and follows the links at the bottom of each article. As her knowledge grows, her search terms become more precise (‘charity money laundering case study’).
Alex watches a documentary on the use of massage in traditional healing practices around the world and makes a note to follow up with one expert who provides commentary. He also finds YouTube videos about the history of massage.
Billie listens to a podcast about famous art heists and creates mood boards on Pinterest to help her visualise the art, details of the novel’s setting, and costumes for her characters. She also rewatches Ocean’s 8 and the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.
Alex travels to attend conferences, seminars, and other events as part of his continuing professional development as a massage therapist and teacher, as well as to speak about his areas of particular expertise. While doing this, he is also building up connections with fellow therapists and invitations to speak at future events, which will be useful for the marketing plan portion of his proposal.
Billie plans a short trip to the city which houses the museum she’s writing about, partly to get firsthand experience of the sights, sounds and atmosphere, but also to visualise and walk through part of the thief’s plan to steal the painting and get it out of the country. She also tries to set up an interview with a prisoner convicted of an art theft.
Alex sets up interviews with colleagues and experts to ask his questions about the use of massage in the treatment of certain conditions, and the history and future of massage therapy. As his interviewees are people in his industry, several are people he’s already met, but he can ask colleagues for introductions to those he doesn’t already know.
Billie needs to talk to some lawyers, so she starts by asking one of the civil service lawyers for advice and suggestions, and the lawyer puts Billie in touch with a couple of friends from university. One conversation gives Billie a plan for laundering the money via a charitable trust. Another helps her refine an idea about a defence based on the absence of the intention to deprive permanently (which requires a twist in the story: the painting must find its way back home so that its temporary removal doesn’t constitute theft – or maybe it never really leaves the museum at all). Some of Billie’s notes from these meetings (which she files carefully in her character folder) later help her create a charismatic, heroic defence lawyer.
She also finds a variety of consultants and services for crime writers on the internet, which gives her access to retired police officers willing to answer her questions about procedure in a case like this.
Set a deadline and keep to it
Alex’s goal is to finish with a full outline of his book, so he has a clear endpoint for his research. When he begins, he decides his research will finish after he attends a conference two or three months in the future, as by then he will have done everything or nearly everything on his list, and will also have finished putting together much of his book proposal.
Billie could go on forever – there’s always more to know – but she doesn’t want to infodump, regurgitating everything she’s learned, and nor does she want to send publishers a book that’s 2.5 million words long (like the draft of Kathleen Winsor’s heavily researched blockbuster Forever Amber before her publisher cut most of it). She needs to feel basically grounded in her knowledge of her topics, and then fill in any gaps later. She decides she will give herself four months of research (which she must do around her day job and on holidays). After that, when she is writing she will mark any gaps or remaining questions in her draft with red text or by typing TK, which is a combination of letters that doesn’t appear in any English word, so she can easily use Ctrl+F to find the remaining questions to answer.
Apply the research to the book
Both our writers are ready to write.
Alex, using his notes, can flesh out a sample chapter on the history of massage around the world to use as part of his proposal.
Billie has filled herself up with stories and details surrounding art theft and the machinations required to get away with it, and can begin her draft, feeling that her writing now has a sense of authenticity.
Naturally, both our writers go on to complete fantastic books which, when published, delight their audiences. And they couldn’t have done it without their excellent and organised research.