Writing a non-fiction novel can be an exciting yet daunting undertaking. You have the opportunity to delve into a topic you are passionate about in extreme detail. You have the opportunity to share what you find fascinating about the subject. You also have the large responsibility of telling an intriguing tale while still remaining loyal to the source material.
Research is a critical part of making your novel as accurate as it can be. However, if this is your first non-fiction novel, you may struggle with starting the process. Try these tips to effectively organize your research process so you don’t miss a single captivating detail.
Define and Refine Your Topic
If you’ve set out to write a non-fiction novel, chances are that you already have an idea of what you’ll be writing about. No matter your topic, take time early on in your research process to clearly define what you are searching for.
Begin by writing out your subject in a single topic sentence. Write this down somewhere where you can easily access it, be reminded of it, and have the chance to edit it as you begin your research. It may take you a couple of sentences to find the perfect one.
This single sentence is meant to give you a good starting place as you start researching. However, allow this sentence to be flexible. If you start researching your subject and need to tweak the sentence, by all means, tweak away! However, don’t let your sentence elongate into a full paragraph or page.
You can also practice writing a working title to keep your notes and research focused. Find something engaging yet descriptive, and try to find pieces of information that truly support that title.
If you still need to refine your subject, start doing research into other existing works on the subject. If you desire to write about British royalty, begin exploring the numerous biographies, novels, and television shows already in existence. What information do they cover? What information are they missing? How can you use your expertise to write about your subject in a way that is unique and engaging?
It is okay if your topic starts out broad, or if you only have a general idea about the subject of your book. Through thorough research, you’ll be able to narrow down that topic into a clear main plot.
Craft an Outline
Even if your topic sentence is still a work in progress, design an outline to use in your research process. This will keep all your ideas organized, and can help narrow down your ideas.
Start your outline with a brainstorm. Dump any information you already know about your topic even if you aren’t certain of its accuracy. Later on you should fact check, but not during your brainstorm session. It will be easier to outline your novel if you at least have an idea of what things you need to fit into that outline.
If you need some easy ways to categorize information, think about what you need to know.
If you are writing a biography, is the person’s early life relevant? That can be a category for your outline.
If writing a historical piece, you could use various years as your outline. While that might not be the best final format for your book, it can give you an easy way to organize information as you search for engaging tidbits.
If you have an idea of what sort of story you like to tell, you can attempt to outline the events you see happening so you can sort your events and facts into a chronological story. These events could change later based on what you learn in your research, but they are a good place to start.
A table of contents can also be beneficial. If you were to organize your story into topics that appear, how would that look? Are you going to go for a chronological retelling of events, or are you going to jump around to different periods of time? If you are going to jump between time, how can you organize your events so that your reader can easily follow your chain of events?
Early on, it is okay if your outline is vague. Like your topic sentence, you can gradually narrow it down and break sections into subsections to better organize your info.
You can outline in any method that works for you too, depending on what you know. Maybe a word web will work best for you as you throw out terms connecting to the person, or maybe you know enough to outline the chapters you are hoping to write. No matter your level of experience, outline to help yourself stay organized!
Plan Out Research Methods and Sources
Before you start researching, ask yourself how you’re going to obtain research to make your book stand out from the crowd. Where is your info coming from? How is this information going to be presented in a unique way? Is any of this info undiscovered or difficult for the average reader to find?
In this age of information, you want to make sure your book is captivating not just in the way it is written, but in the information it shares. Nowadays, anyone can dig up a few articles on Google, how are you going to go beyond that?
An incredible way to make your retelling of events stand out is to seek out first-person accounts. This will require more footwork than going to the library, but could give your novel an interesting twist.
Are there any people you know or could reach out to that have first-hand accounts of your topic? If you are writing about a recent historical event, is there anyone you could sit down and interview?
If you can’t get in contact with anyone for interviews, or there isn’t a good candidate for an interview on the subject, is there an expert you could speak with? Even if they aren’t a witness to your topic, they may have loads of information you might not have considered.
Before you go through the phone book to find a good expert, evaluate your own level of expertise. Are you an expert on the topic? If not, how would you label your knowledge? What do you know? What do you need to know to write your piece?
Take time in the planning stage to brainstorm sources you want to try. Identify any people you can interview, any first hand accounts you could read, or any artifacts related to your topic.
This would also be an excellent chance to read other literature on your own subject to see what information is readily available out there. If you know what information you need, it can be much easier to organize.
Define an Organization System
Before you start collecting information, plan out how you will organize your findings once you achieve them.
Are you a physical pen and paper kind of person, or do you live in the digital world? Would a mix between the two suit you best?
No matter which system you choose, keep all your findings in one space so you don’t lose a single scrap of information. If you choose a digital system, scan in pictures and handwritten notes so they can easily be searched and catalogued.
If you prefer to keep records by pen and paper, print off any correspondence with sources, typed notes, or digital photos.
The process of compiling and copying notes may start off tedious, but in the end a solid compilation process will keep you from losing a source later on.
Be Cautious of Tangents
A wonderful part of researching is that new and interesting information can appear at any point in the process. You may discover a lost piece of history, or a more fascinating story than the one you set out to tell.
Some information, however, can be so interesting that it leads you on a tangent that takes you far away from your topic sentence. Before you know it, you’ve landed in a different country and time period than the one you set out to write about.
As you discover unique sources, refer back to your topic sentence and ask yourself, “How are these related? If the information I found is engaging, how can I tie it into the main idea without detracting from the central plot?”
If you can’t tie in your interesting tidbit without leading your reader down a maze of information, ditch it.
As heartbreaking as it may be to part with a fascinating piece of history, make plans to come back for it at a different time.
Accept Imperfections in Your Draft
In the end, accept that you cannot pull every scrap of information into one novel. You also cannot ensure you will have all the research you need before you begin writing your first draft.
Accept that your first draft will be imperfect. It may be missing sources, may have holes in the plot where you forgot to research a subject, and it may have a piece or two of incorrect information. In a first draft, this is completely okay.
Think of your first draft as an investigative tool to help you learn what you don’t know and need to learn, no matter how frustrating that may be.
Make a list of anything you feel is missing from your first draft before heading out into the world of research again on a quest to make your second draft even better.
As you plan your venture into the world of non-fiction, don’t forget that research, just like outlining a fiction novel, is a process. It isn’t something you can achieve overnight, and it isn’t something that will be perfect on your first try.
Just remember to keep your topic focused an engaging. With the right topic and a little bit of research, an engaging and informational novel will emerge in the end.