Research Tips and Resources - My Novel Writing Process
Here is what I did during my research period that helped me speed things up
Ananya Vahal, MFA
If you have been keeping up with the blogs about my novel writing process, you know that I had to readjust my timeline for this novel because I found myself farther along in the writing process than I originally thought and I have been able to crank out chapters much faster than I anticipated.
One of the reasons for this is because of the COVID-19 quarantine. It gave me a break from work and more time to write. However, the main reason I have been getting through this writing process faster than I expected is because of the tremendous amount of time and effort I spent on researching and outlining.
The majority of the time I have spent on this novel so far has been on research. Because I did so much work on research and outlining, when it came time to write, I was able to crank out the chapters quickly.
Here is what I did during my research period that helped me speed things up:
1) I read a lot.
Before I begin any writing project, I read up on as many resources as I can to get inspired and to get ideas. For example, when I was working on my memoir/MFA thesis, I spent years reading as many memoirs as I could.
I made sure I had a diverse range of authors and writing styles. I read serious, sad, depressing memoirs. I read honest, funny, uplifting memoirs. Most of the memoirs I read were written by women of color and/or immigrants because those voices are not common in the publishing industry and are the most relatable to me.
During the writing process of this novel, I pulled out some of my favorite novels for inspiration and read several new novels with similar voices and stories to the one I am writing. I am writing a realistic modern day novel with a hint of mysticism and a lot of exploration of the cultures I grew up in.
Here are some (there are many more) of the novels that inspired me:
Soledad by Angie Cruz
Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Most of these novels are based on real life experiences of these authors so they are very realistic, but they all have a slightly mystical other-worldly element to them, especially Soledad. Obviously, the Harry Potter series is fantasy and all about the magical, mystical world.
Since I am also exploring my culture, these are some memoirs that inspired that aspect of my novel:
One Day We’ll All be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar
Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
There was another book that helped me establish the outline and structure of my book as well as some of the character development. I was very clear from the beginning of researching my novel that I envisioned this story on the big screen as a movie.
After taking a screen writing workshop with Tamil Hall sponsored by the Atlanta Writers Club that gave me many helpful ideas for my novel, I decided to use a screen writing book as a template to write the outline of my novel in a way that it could also be easily converted to a screenplay in the future.
The book I used for this (recommended by Tamlin Hall) is The Screenwriter’s Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story by Neil Landau. This book focuses on story structure and character development in many ways that helped my writing process. Although it focuses on screenwriting, it is generally a helpful book for storytelling in any genre.
2) I used index cards to help me organize my research/outline.
By the time I was finished with my research process, a year later, I had a solid outline for my novel and the main characters mostly developed. Here is how I used the cards:
- One card for each section of the outline. Fill in the cards with details of what happens during each of those beats. I decided to use a screenwriting format and divided my story into three acts.
- One card for each character. I began with making index cards for the main characters first and filled in each card with the characteristics and brief background of each character. Also, notes on how the character will evolve.
- One card for each chapter. I filled in each card with the highlights of each chapter. This helped me so much when I sat down to write the chapters. The blank screen in front of me didn’t scare me because I knew where to start and it helped me stay focused on the main events in each chapter so I didn’t get lost or side-tracked.
- One card for each theme that I am exploring in the book. I wrote my story around certain themes and these index cards help remind me to keep exploring and developing these themes throughout the story.
- Finally, one card with ideas of what I should discuss in this blog about my process. The challenges I faced and things that helped make the process smoother are listed on this card.
Needless to say, I had to invest in a few stacks of index cards. I use the white lined cards as well as the ones with different colors to help me categorize. It also helps to organize the cards on a wall or bulletin board so you can visualize your novel.
3) I paid more attention than ever before to my family and friends.
I began taking notes on our encounters and exploring these encounters in my journal. Since I am exploring my culture in my novel, it is important I explore it in the most authentic and detailed way possible. I also paid attention to and explored the cultural programming I was raised with.
4) I used Pinterest for character development.
It has really helped me to make mood boards for each of my characters on Pinterest so I can visualize what they look like in my head while writing and become more familiar with their lifestyle and personality. I fill the boards with clothes they wear, what their home looks like, what kind of profession they have, what kind of town they live in, what their hobbies are, etc. It’s a really fun way to get to know your characters!
5) I continue to read more books.
Now that I am well into the writing process, I have to keep reading or re-reading books to help me stay inspired and focused on my novel. You can never read enough books or find enough inspiration.
The most important thing to remember about this crucial part of the process is to know when to stop digging. It is very tempting to spend months and years researching and use research as an excuse to procrastinate on actually writing the book. I spent about a year researching my novel.
During that time I did a little bit of writing, but it was more for me to establish the tone and explore my character's personalities. But, eventually, I made the decision to step out of research mode and get into writing mode.
This blog is a lot longer and more detailed than my previous blogs, but that’s because a lot goes into this part of the process.
In my upcoming blogs, I will share more of my process with you and, soon, I will introduce you all to my characters! I would also love to hear about your experiences and suggestions that could make this journey more fun and interesting for me. Feel free to leave comments below or contact me personally through this website.
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Stay tuned for more #browngirlwrites blogs. Next blog: “Set the Tone”
Happy Writing! :)
Ananya Vahal, MFA
I am a writer. My genres include creative nonfiction, digital content, and comic books. Check out my work at www.ananyavahal.com