Friday, October 12, 2012

How to Speed Up Your Research

If I'm going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I'll have to start my rough draft of VOODOO QUEEN after a mere 3 months of research. Granted, that's just about all I've done this summer, but it's simply not enough time.

I'll do a great deal more research once NaNoWriMo is over. Nevertheless, I'm trying to cram in as much as possible. This experience has taught me some excellent time savers.

1. Find the Gold Mines.

Sometimes you'll read a book that's such a wealth of relevant information, you want to highlight every word of it. Keep your eye out for such books. Read them before researching smaller elements of your novel. I recommend reading them multiple times, possibly even review them before each draft.

For SACRED FIRE, those books were The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome by T. Cato Worsfold and Rome's Vestal Virgins by Robin Wildfang. For VOODOO QUEEN, they were A New Orleans Voodoo Priestess by Carolyn Morrow Long and The Mysterious Voodoo Queen by Ina Fandrich. Every time I read them, I find something new I've missed.

2. Use Primary Sources

Historians are lifesavers. They go out in the field, gather the information, arrange it so it's palatable, and explain it in tidy history books for us to read. They do half our job for us! But sometimes instead of reading their interpretations of history, it's faster to go to the source.

When I researched the Second Punic War for my book Sacred Fire, it seemed like everything I read about the war quoted an ancient Roman historian named Livy. Instead of reading a bunch of books that regurgitated Livy, I decided to just read Livy's work and call it good.

3. Write Your Rough Draft

I usually say finish your research before writing; that will prevent you from basing your plot on inaccuracies. At the same time, you reach a point where research serves little purpose because you don't even know what's going to happen in your book.

I read Livy's History of Rome the first time before I started writing Sacred Fire. It was completely pointless. I didn't know enough about my topic to even understand what I was looking at. Several drafts later, I read it again and was bursting with ideas. Now the war plays a much more prominent role in the book.

4. Read Books more than Web Pages.

Don't get me wrong, the internet is an excellent resource for historical research. It's also a time-sucker. It can take forever to find the page you're looking for, and you're likely to run into the same information over and over. Not to mention there's the temptation to waste time doing other things!

Books, on the other hand, offer a comprehensive and in-depth look into your topic. It might be overkill to read a book on certain aspects of your research - in those cases, web pages are better - but I feel it's better to focus on books.

5. Find an Expert in the Field

Researching the voodoo religion for VOODOO QUEEN can be frustrating because it doesn't have structure, scripture, or a code of ethics. There's so much false information, I don't know what's useful and what's trash. Even the "classics" about voodoo are often nonsense.

Luckily, a professor I'm working with referred me to a historian in New Orleans who recommended a few books on the subject. She saved me a ton of time! Now I don't have to search out legitimate information and analyze it for accuracy; I know the books she suggested will be sufficient. When I finish them, I can call her for clarification on anything I didn't understand.

6. Be Organized

Highlight books, take notes in Word Documents, use a table of contents in your notes, make timelines, print web pages, site every source including page numbers in your notes and even the text of the novel. Don't waste a second searching for information you've  already read!

I hope that helps all you historians out there.

Do you have any other useful tips on making your research more speedy and efficient?


  1. These tips are so useful! I've only just begun to learn how to do research effectively, thanks to my journalism and research classes. I think it is easier to find credible books than it is to find credible websites in the Internet sea, but reading books also takes an incredible amount of time! For research, skimming has been my best friend in college so far haha.

    Also, nice tip on finding experts...I would simply add that it's important to find an expert on your specific topic. You wouldn't go to a dentist if you had a knee injury, after all. :)

    Hope you're doing well, Teralyn. I am only just getting back into visiting blogs these days!


    The Red Angel Blog

  2. I like your tip to put your source in your drafts.


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