The key to effective research is to know what it is that you need to know!
The first step is to recognise that there are two types of research: general and specific.
This is all about gathering a wider knowledge of the subject of your novel or book.
- Read general books: Start with outlines and histories of the period (topic) under study. Get a feel for the key events of the time. Read books at all levels. Children’s history books are often a good place to start since they will give you a nice overview.
- Read ‘real’ history books: The next stage is to read some serious history books. Find out who the key historians are in the area of your research and read a couple of their books. Good history books will have loads of references to the books that the historians used in their research. You can use these references to find more history books.
- Beware of the Internet: At this stage you are still probably gathering a deeper knowledge of the subject area. You may find that the Internet is not the most helpful tool at this stage. Wikipedia can be very useful to clarify details but use with caution. [Publetariat Editor’s note: this is because Wikipedia entries are created and edited by members of the general public, and are therefore not always 100% reliable]
- Make notes: This is very important. As you read make notes of the key points and, most importantly, write down questions.
Having gathered a general knowledge you will now be ready for specific research. This is all about answering the questions that will help with your writing. However, the key is to be specific.
Let’s say you are writing a scene set in London in 1867. You have a young couple walking down a street at night.
You could ask:
‘In Victorian Britain what did a London street look like at night?’
This would be fine but it is very hard to answer. Where would you begin? You would be very lucky to find a website or book that would give you the description you needed.
OK – let’s change the question to:
‘In 1867 what did a London street look like at night?’
This is a more specific question and therefore easier to research. You might do a google search on ‘London streets 1867’. This might pull up some useful information. An image search did produce this: