How to Organise Your WIP Research
If you’re working on a historical fiction WIP, then you know better than anyone how convoluted your WIP research can be. There are so many parts that make up a whole, and the less organised you are the more confusing it gets.
I’ve been there and finally, I’ve found a system of organisation that works for me. Before, I looked up what each author was doing to organise their research, and to be honest with you, a lot of their tips were either too vague or didn’t work for me in practice. This way of organising your notes will leave you satisfied that everything is in the right place for you to come back to at anytime, without being confused.
This form of organisation works best for when you’re starting your WIP. As you move through your drafts, of course the way in which you organise and brainstorm your work will change. For the beginning however, this is the best way I can think of.
Get a notebook
Get one notebook per WIP, and label it accordingly. If you’re working on a trilogy or series, then have one notebook per book. Be really strict with yourself here if you’re working across multiple books — you need to make sure you are writing the correct notes in the corresponding book.
Pen your notes
Keep all of your notes in your notebook. Not on your phone, or saved on a word doc, in the notebook. Penning your notes will stop you from a) information overload and b) it will keep everything in the one place. There’s nothing worse than having notes across multiple platforms and trying to remember where a specific note is. If it’s in the notebook, it’s easy to find.
Use a header
At the top of each page in your notebook, use the header to label each page and topic. For example if you’re researching Victorian England, then you might label one page ‘Victorian clothing’ and another ‘Victorian Homes'. In my notebook, I have one page called ‘Etymological Definition of Britain’ and one named ‘Documentary: The Age of Ice’ to help me keep track of what information is where.
Categorising your notes like this with a definite header at the start will help you to find the information later on. This will also force you to keep one page per area of research, so you don’t start jumbling things up. Even dating it will help you to find your notes further down the track.
Now that you’ve got the basic structure, you need to know what to include.
Here are some ideas for where you should begin your WIP research, so you don’t waste time researching every detail under the sun.
At the beginning of your research, you might find it helpful to do a character bio for each of your characters. I found it really helpful to pin point my characters and what made them, them!
Here’s a basic structure:
Clothing style / colour:
You can also include what they’re going to learn during the book — what are their struggles? what are their triumphs? what are they going to overcome? This also helps with pin pointing character motivations and how they will react to events in your story.
Historical fiction can be bewildering at times, so make sure you have a specific date in mind for your WIP. Not 1800s or 1300s, be specifc. The more specific you are, the easier your research will be. To give you an example, 1801 is a very different world to 1870. You want to make sure all your historical details are correct so this means choosing a specific date. If you’re not sure, find a major event that has happened in the time period you want to write. You’ll be able to find lots of historical detail on the time period and have a climatic point for your characters to react to.
Be specific about your location too. Another example of difference is the Renaissance. The Renaissance in Italy began in the 1300s, but the German Renaissance began 100 years later in the 1400s. Choose a location that resonates with you, and be sure to always come back to it. I find it helpful to even pick a specific town — that way I can easily find physical places like churches, gardens or mountains, and describe these places in more detail.
Clothing, Houses, Food
Again, specific is best. When you have your time period and location, you’ll be able to discover what your characters wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Did they ride horses, or donkeys? Did they wear tunics or pants? These will all be determined by the time period and the location. It’s very easy to find these specific details when you know what you’re looking for!
Research only what your characters know
This will help you so much when you go to write your WIP. The truth is with historical fiction, you only need to know what your characters know, that’s it. You don’t need to know everything, and it’s worse if you try to because you end up with lots of information that you’ll never include.
Only research what is relevant to your story and your characters. Every time you feel yourself falling down a funnel of research, come back to this.
I hope this helps your WIP research and helps get you started on delving more into your time period. Historical fiction is such a joy to write, even though it requires more effort than other genres. You can really understand more about other cultures, and the world around you, by noticing the finer details.