Research is an inspiring, challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, exhilarating part of the process of writing a book. I know that some writers find it a chore, but for me it’s where ideas grow, and I am very much at home in libraries and archives or in front of my own laptop, exploring, speculating, following threads. The hardest part for me is to stop, as there is always another thread…
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Begin with a plan—all the things you know you want to cover. But that’s only the start: you don’t yet know all the things you will want to know. And the more you know, the richer your work will be. Be flexible; refine your research plan as you go.
2. Keep a record of your sources: full referencing details, page numbers, links, dates of interviews and conversations. It will save you hours later.
3. Follow tangents: they are often where the magic lies.
4. Photograph everything, even when you’re transcribing or taking exhaustive notes. Photographs add another dimension, and can also serve as a backup.
5. Take your own pulse along the way: whatever makes your heart race is gold.
6. The net is a constantly changing beast. Repeating a search six months after your first might reveal new information. (Something I learned, to my joy, in researching Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.)
7. Organise your research materials. It doesn’t matter whether you use manila folders and boxes, digital files or software programs: you just need to be able to easily retrieve information later.
8. Know these truths: the research will always take longer than you think; it will never be enough; and yes, at some point, you will have to draw a line, and stop.
One more thing: I’ve heard it said that allowing yourself to be ‘distracted’ from the main topic you’re researching is self-indulgent and a waste of valuable time. But it was through reading widely while researching The Sinkings that I happened on something that turned out to be one of the inspirations for Elemental. I like to think that, when it comes to research, nothing is wasted.
Good luck with yours!