Sometimes new writers can underestimate the importance of doing research. I know that it was something I struggled with myself, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. The problem was I hadn’t come across a research methodology that worked for me as a writer yet. I knew I needed to research and that all genres and stories would require it.
From a Gothic Fantasy story featuring a lesbian relationship and set on a world that resembles 18th century New England/England, based on the poem Anabel Leed by Edgar Allan Poe. To world hidden within our own, or one that doesn’t resemble ours at all culturally but uses swords. Even a coming of age story set in the year 2000 or a modern Horror story/Thriller featuring a serial killer. (Badly research serial killer stories are, surprisingly, a lot worse to read than most people would think. And so, for that matter, are badly research SciFi & Fantasy stories of any sub-genre.)
Then I found Anthony Brundage’s Going to the Sources (Amazon link.), and though I found his aversion to computer sources weirdly amusing, things started clicking into place for me. The most important being something I had already known but didn’t quite understand, the difference between primary and secondary sources.
Primary sources are things like letters, news footage, diaries, artifacts, and other items that actually come from the era a writer is researching. Think of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (Amazon link.), an Ancient Egyptian tomb and its contents, an item of clothing from the 1940’s, and newspapers from 1820’s London.
What a primary source does is provide facts while putting you in the mind of people or a specific person living in a place during a certain era in time.
Secondary sources are by contrast, though all great ones are supported heavily by primary sources, distanced from the event by virtue of being written after it took place. Generally by someone who didn’t experience the time in question or were not even born when considering modern scholarship of things from more than a century ago. Books like Between Women by Sharon Marcus (Amazon link.) or Whirlwind by John Ferling ( Amazon link.) for example. The upside of this type of source, however, is that we have the chance to evaluate the writer’s logic by comparing them to the Primary sources and judging the quality that way. A book with a logical theory and approach to proving it for example often lists a lot of Primary sources in the bibliography.
The upside of this type of source, however, is that we have the chance to evaluate the writer’s logic by comparing them to the primary sources and judging the quality that way. A book with a logical theory and approach to proving it for example often lists a lot of primary sources in the bibliography.
Now, to get to the part of the post you’ve been waiting for. The tips themselves. I’ve created a handy infographic with them, which you can find below and to the right:
The tips are simple in and of themselves, but I’ve found that implementing them is the main component of a successful research strategy for me. And in order to do that, I’ve found that I have to be flexible in my approach to them.
Let’s use notetaking as our example. I use the Bullet Journal® system for my research related to writing. (You can find my post about how I use it for writing here and here, though I will be doing a more comprehensive post about the way I use it for projects like novels in the future.) I also format my notes differently depending on the type of source I’m working with. When working with primary sources, I put the reference information at the top of the page right under the title. On the left side below that, I put the text of the source. On the right, I have my notes and impressions of the source. Sometimes I like to print the sources out if they’re from a reputable site like Yale Avalon and too long to easily write out. In which case, I copy, paste and make sure to put the link in the upper right-hand corner.
For secondary source related notes, the procedure is similar. Reference info and the title of the article and all that jazz, though I don’t print info from this type of source since I prefer to own the actual text in this case. The notes themselves are done in a bullet point style, differing from my typical dash for daily log notes. I keep them fairly uniform in nature so the focus is on the notes. Here’s a graphic of how I tend to do my secondary source notes since it is sort of difficult for me to explain.
As you can see, my personal impressions are signified by a gold bullet point instead of my standard black bullet point that I use for other secondary notes. And quotes pulled directly from the text have the page number located on the right-hand side just below the quote itself.
But you’re probably wondering this has to do with being flexible. Simple. I’m not married to this exact style of taking notes for secondary sources. In fact, I sometimes have a thin column on the left where I store more information. Things like the chapter and/or the subheadings. But I’m trying to streamline things and turn that info into a sort of mini reference under my direct quotes.
I’m always looking for ways to make my notes more efficient and easier for me to use in the future. Which, when I actually think about, is what makes a good writer. You adapt things about your system that aren’t working for you until you have a method that works and a story that shines like a diamond. Notetaking and research are just one of the areas we can polish our systems until they shine.
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