Puzzling My Way Through Research

Research is an essential component of all the writing I do. Both my fiction (historical) and nonfiction (science policy) require a lot of upfront research as well as what seems like continuous research during writing and editing. Luckily, I enjoy research. But sometimes it can seem endless. There’s always more to research.

I hand-write my research notes. I find I retain the information better, but I also end up with a lot of random notes. At a certain point, it begins to feel overwhelming and I know it’s time to organize.

Dump out all the puzzle pieces

I hit a critical point a couple of weeks ago when the myriad notes for my upcoming project became overwhelming. I have more preparatory research to do, but I needed to organize my notes so I could begin to more clearly see the story in my head.

I went to Montessori school through the sixth grade. I don’t know whether I’m wired this way or Montessori molded me—probably a bit of both—but I am a tactile learner. I’m also a detail person, which is why the sheer volume of notes was setting me on edge. I approach organizing my research as a puzzle to solve. Just like building a puzzle, you’ve got to dump out all the pieces first to see what you’re working with.

Put the puzzle together

My family went camping for the weekend, so I had the house to myself. I spread all my papers out on the floor and began to group them in themes, which is similar to how I start work on a puzzle. I didn’t realize I did this until I was teaching my daughter how to deal with frustration in solving a puzzle when she was about four. We were doing a dinosaur puzzle and she became overwhelmed, pushing the pieces away in frustration. I talked her through it, saying we would focus on one dinosaur at a time. Let’s only build the stegosaurus, find all those pieces first. We did that one and then moved onto the next one, one section at a time. At eight years old, she has internalized this. When we get a new puzzle, she announces which section she will do first and which one she has delegated to me.

It’s the same way with my notes. I organized my research one section at a time. I made a sheet for each character and each location. Then I figured out the timeline—it’s historical fiction, so I needed to pinpoint the date where I wanted to start and write down the real historical facts that happened in that time frame. As I built each section, the story began to crystallize in my head.

With a rough storyboard in my head, I started to jot down scene ideas. With previous projects, I was able to come up with a timeline with relatively little stress. But with COVID brain, things felt muddled and squishy. Now that this process of building my puzzle was bringing clarity to my story, I needed to connect some dots. One scene here, another here—what would it take to get from one to the next? Where was that piece that connected two sections? I was solving the puzzle. The pieces were all there, I just needed to take them one section at a time.

Once writing begins, it’s hard to resist the urge to do research deep dives. As I mentioned in my NaNo prep newsletter, writing and editing are different processes. For me, I want to get the first draft down. So, I’ll mark a section with “TK” (to come), make a note in the notes section in Scrivener, and keep going. Research in the editing phase can be more targeted—you’re in the engineer mode rather than the artist mode of creating.

Organizing my research works well for other parts of my life as well. We’ve been in quarantine for over eight months with no end in sight on top of a looming election, climate change, and everything else. Some things we have no control over, but some things we do. When things feel overwhelming, break them down into smaller sections. Build the puzzle one dinosaur at a time.

NaNoWriMo in the Time of COVID

National Novel Writing Month is almost here!

But this year feels different… because it is different.

Preptober—getting ready for November

In NaNo terms, you’re either a planner or a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants with no plan). I’m definitely a planner. In 2018 and 2019, I not only spent time developing detailed outlines for my books, I had them plugged into Scrivener (my preferred writing software) and ready to go on November 1st. Since I write historical fiction, I have to do a fair amount of research in just developing the outline. That’s where I am now.

But nothing is the same this year. I have struggled to focus on my research and my outline stalls out periodically. I’ll have bursts of inspiration, only to be thwarted by a black hole of creativity.

I was recently talking to a friend about “COVID brain”—that feeling like you’re operating at about 60 percent capacity—and it occurred to me that it was time to cut myself some slack and shift my perspective. I may have to become—shudder—a plantser for this NaNo, a hybrid between a planner and pantser. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but what isn’t this year?

I will continue to research to the best of my ability, while juggling family, work, and the constant low-level anxiety of COVID, the election, climate change, and everything else. And I will give myself a break. I am still very much looking forward to NaNo because writing is not only a creative outlet, it is also self-care. I plan to use the same tools that have led me to NaNo victory the past two years and remind myself that if things go off the rails, that’s ok.

NaNo is writing together

Writing is typically a solo sport and in quarantine, it’s easy to be isolated. The fun thing about NaNo is that even though the act of writing is done alone, you’re doing it with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. I have at least one writing buddy who I check in with every day—for words of encouragement, to update each other on our word count, and just general support. There is something very special about the writing community and when we’re all in the same boat at the same time, even more so.

Five tips for a NaNo win

There are a gazillion lists of how to succeed at Nano. Here’s what’s worked for my two out of two “wins”:

  1. Write every day. Even if it’s just 100 words, write something. If you’re struggling to get your word count on one day, don’t beat yourself up. Make it up another day. Some people like to schedule a time to write. I have an eight-year old. I write whenever I can, usually after she goes goes to bed. But also any other moment I can. I talk to my family in October about it because I need support and space to be creative.
  2. Don’t edit anything. Writing and editing are two very different processes. When you shift into editing, you’re shifting into engineer mode. You need to stay in artist mode. Your first draft will be terrible. Writer Julia Crouch calls it Draft Zero. You can always fix it in edits when the draft is done. Sometimes I need to take a detour to fill in an historical fact, but typically I just mark it to work on later. I start each day reading only the last sentence (possibly paragraph) I wrote to remind myself where I left off then it’s onward!
  3. Silence your inner critic. We’ve all got one. That voice that tells you everything you’re writing is rubbish. Ignore it. I write because I need to—for my own self-care and because I’ve got to get these stories out somehow. Remember, you can edit later. In November, focus on the fact that you are exercising your creative muscles and doing so in a community of other people doing the same thing. No judgment, no criticism. Just writing.
  4. Take advantage of the NaNo (and writing) community. Through the NaNo website, you can choose buddies, set your home region and find groups. In normal times, your city may have in-person write-ins (I did a couple at my local public library in years past). This year there will be virtual write-ins. Check the website for those. There’s a bigger world out there too. NaNo is very active on Twitter, with news and word sprints to help people move their story along. They are also active on Facebook (and have a private Facebook group you can request to join) and Instagram. Beyond the official stuff, it’s worth checking hashtags on Twitter like #NaNoWriMo and #writingcommunity, both of which are typically positive spaces to be in—something that’s not often the case on social media.
  5. Set up as much as you can before November 1st. I recognize not everyone is a planner, or even wants to be. If you work better without an outline, great! Do whatever works best for you. But figure out how and where you’re going to write. Do you have a space you can dedicate to writing? Set it up with what you need to feel inspired and supported. Before the end of days, we could write in a coffee shop if we didn’t have the space at home. That’s not an option this year, so figure out where the best space is for you to work. Also, it’s important to know how you’ll be writing. Do you want to use a writing software? Use Google docs or something else? Scrivener offers a 30-day free NaNo trial for their software. If you participate, you get 20% off the license and if you win, you get 50% off (it’s not that pricey to begin with). If you plan to use Scrivener or one of the other writing apps or software out there, get familiar with it before November. The last thing you want to do is have to fiddle with tutorials when you should be writing.

Above all, remember that “winning” NaNo just means hitting the 50,000-word goal by the end of the month. But winning is more fundamental than that. It is participating in the writing community, setting up a daily writing practice, and being proud of yourself for taking care of your creative needs. This year we need it more than ever.

Writing in the Time of No Time

It’s August. Five months and counting since quarantine began. Weeks upon weeks of being inside with a husband, an eight-year old, and two cats.

And now the heat. Open the door and it feels like an oven blast.

Stress. Distance learning, teleworking, global health crisis, injustice, political news that seems to spiral down every day.

But through all this, I have kept writing.

It has been a safe harbor for my mind. Self-care, something for me alone. It’s like meditation. It takes me out of my overthinking and lets me enter another world, focus in. Creativity can be stifled in stress, so I shifted: let it be an outlet.


At the beginning of quarantine, I was in a pretty good spot. My work in progress (WIP, as we say) was out to beta readers and as the comments came in, I focused on addressing those. Then I got a few that threw me. They were consistent and were on an area of my WIP that I knew needed work.

By the time I got those comments, we were a few weeks into quarantine. Stress levels were high. I was trying to juggle work and distance learning and too much togetherness. I felt defensive about the comments. But as I sat with it, I knew I needed to rework a major plot point, which affected the entire rest of the WIP. Back in the trenches.

I did it. I reworked it and reworked it, sent it out to more readers, got more comments (fewer each time, thankfully).

Now we’re five months in and the honeymoon period of quarantine is over. We’ve entered quarantine fatigue. I’m outlining and plotting my next WIP while I wait for my final beta readers (who were also my first beta readers—wanting to get a full-circle impression from them). Most days I am so tired.

Continuing to press on contributes to my sanity while we remain in quarantine. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. But it is worth it.

Some Days are Stone

Quarantine feels a little like grad school. When you’re not doing something, you feel guilty because there is always something you should be doing. There’s constant low-level stress and anxiety.

Writing can feel like that too. Binging something on Netflix all the while thinking, I should be writing. But just like in grad school, just like with the rest of quarantine, and just like with writing, giving myself permission for downtime is essential for recharging. Berating myself only makes it worse.

Since starting to work on research for my next work, I’ve found a new kind of challenge. My fiction is historical, which requires a lot of research. Focusing on reading and retaining information has been harder the longer we are in quarantine. I’m frustrated as I continually get stuck on plot points in my outline.

But Some Days are Diamonds

I’ve come up with a few things that have worked for me.


Writing is a solitary endeavor. During this pandemic, as we are more socially isolated, writing can make that worse. We must reach out to our friends. The pandemic has, weirdly, made that easier. Happy hours are easier to schedule when you don’t have to work around commutes and intense schedules. I’ve had virtual chats with friends across the US and in other countries.

I found a local writing group that now meets virtually and includes people from across the country. I have been part of that community every week since March. We start every meeting with chats, ranging from personal updates to topics related to writing. Then we turn off our microphones and write. I joined a virtual critique group that meets twice a month, reading each others’ works and having my own critiqued (it’s a good motivator to get something done!)

Last summer, I started meeting a friend in a coffee shop once a week to write. We have continued to meet once a week—now on FaceTime—and we are still both very productive while on FaceTime with each other.

These communities are important under normal circumstances—for improving your craft, but also because of the solitary nature of writing. I’ve been able to talk through some sticking points and offer advice to others.


I set up a self-care calendar. As a working mom, self-care tends to slide down the priority list in normal times. I make a list of things with a goal of times per week and put a check mark for each day I do it. Exercise at least 30 minutes 5 times a week, write or research 5 times a week, at-home facial once a week, talk to friends (text or video) every day, and writing group 1 to 3 times each week. They’re goals I can meet—maybe exceed.

Some days are harder than others. I’ve been really stuck on a plot point for my outline. So, I set it aside. I took a walk and listened to music, just let my mind wander. I read for pleasure. I went back to my first WIP that I hadn’t looked at in months and edited a couple of chapters. Then one morning, I woke up with a start. I had dreamed the solution to that plot point. I made a quick note on my phone so I wouldn’t forget. I even worked out how I wanted to write it. I flew to my laptop and pounded out a couple of paragraphs – in a work I hadn’t even started to write yet. When we give ourselves time to relax, our creativity will resurface.

It’s easy to go down an anxiety rabbit hole right now. I have significantly stepped back from the news. Some days I may only do a quick dip in the news pool to check headlines and then step back out again. Constant news vigilance only made me feel worse.

I’ve also shifted how I’m engaging on social media, particularly on Twitter. I have used Twitter mostly for my non-fiction writing. Since quarantine began, I started engaging more in the writing community on Twitter, following other writers and industry professionals who tweet about writing. It feels more like a community than Twitter did before.

I have done the same on Facebook, joining writing groups there. One person in a group posted a question about the 1960s, when my next project is based. I scanned the comments and one person replied with a comment that closely aligned with what I’d been researching. I reached out to him and he provided me with a wealth of resources on a slice of life from the time that I didn’t know existed. It sparked an entire minor subplot for me.

Make Time to Write

The most critical thing I have done is to ask for what I need. My husband asked me one time why I write. I answered, because I love it. For me, it is self-care and community. He meditates, I write. I ask him and our daughter for the space and time to write. I need it to be more present for the other times.

Some days I may get nothing done. Some days I may break a creative dam and the words flow. I give myself permission to have good days and bad days. And I write.

Taking the Story from Idea to Draft

I’ve got an idea. Now what?

In 2019, I did a full work up of my family history. Due diligence is necessary when researching. There is a lot of garbage online about genealogy. But there is also a lot of great stuff. It’s just a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Cross-referencing and double-checking sources are critical.

As I read these families histories, many of which that are just nuggets of stories, I started making a list of potential seeds of something. I also wrote down names that intrigued me. A couple of stories, from different branches of my family and different time periods, came together in my mind to form the basis of my novel.

When deciding on what to write for my second novel (more on the first one later, which is at an earlier stage than my second one), I first chose a time period. I love Jane Austen’s novels and the late Georgian and Regency periods. I had already read a lot on the time period, so I had a starting point.

The first seed was a story of my fourth great-grandfather on my father’s maternal side, who was put on a boat in 1801 with his brother by their parents in Wales and sent to America. I found the Wales angle to be intriguing. I have seen a lot about England during the Regency period, but virtually nothing about Wales. That could be something new and interesting, and opened a wider world of research for me.

The second seed was a story about my ninth-great grandmother on my mother’s paternal side, who was the daughter of one of the founders of Charles Town, now Charleston. Out of interest and necessity, she became one of the first woman botanists in colonial America. Though her story takes place centuries before the one in my novel, there were elements of her life that I wanted to include.

Research, research, research

First up: character names. Researching historical names can be a fun exercise. I started with my fourth great-grandparents, using their real names. Then I mined my genealogy for others from around the same time period and poked around the internet for other common contemporary first and family names. If you’re looking for accurate contemporary names, plenty of resources exist. Depending on the time period, you can look at census records. Historical documents, such as marriage and birth records, are also helpful, as are novels written at the time.

I needed to do some upfront research for the outline. But with historical fiction, sometimes you don’t know what you need until you need it, and it can send you down rabbit holes. I spent an hour searching for inns in Margate in 1802. Another hour on medical treatment for cancer in the early 1800s (spoiler: it was not great). But where I could, I tried to keep the creative flow going by highlighting things I needed to research further, and just plugged along with writing.

On a side note, I used a dedicated writing software: Scrivener. There are others out there, but I used this one with a free trial during my first NaNoWriMo, and I liked it. There’s a learning curve, but you can find countless tutorials online. It allows you to organize your writing and easily access research notes. The research folder is helpful for storing all the bits of information in one place and you can link it back to your text.

When I finished my first draft and started editing, I did a deeper research dive. I had a better idea of what I was looking for, and could target my research better. Even after starting revisions, there were more spots that arose that needed additional research.

In addition to a lot of daily life details from the Regency period (my book takes place from 1801-1810, which is technically pre-Regency, but the Prince Regent was very active and Jane Austen was writing before and during this period – she died in 1817 at the age of 41), I needed to do extensive research on Wales in this time period – Swansea, in particular – and on the European Enlightenment, and the field of botany.

The fun and frustrating thing about writing historical fiction is how much research you need to do for so many tiny details. Gustave Flaubert famously said that writing history is like drinking an ocean and peeing a cupful (some paraphrasing there – he was a bit more colorful). Every detail matters, and a lot goes into every detail.

In future posts, I’ll delve more into specific research angles and stories. I’d love to hear what periods of history you find fascinating and want to know more about.

The Evolution of a Writer, Historical Fiction Edition

I wrote a book. Two, actually. Both historical fiction. Hopefully with more to come.

Research is the key to historical fiction

I consider research to be my superpower. We all have a superpower. It’s usually something you are good at, but also something you like to do. Did I love to research first or did my interest in investigation prod my research abilities into being? I don’t know. All I know is that I love to do research, and I am weirdly good at it.

When I was a kid, there was no internet. In my Montessori school we had a complete set of encyclopedias, which I loved. I was drawn to history, geography, and languages. I clearly remember taking the Austria puzzle piece from the world map, tracing it on graph paper, and then drawing graph lines on a poster board to create a scale drawing. Then I read everything I could and wrote a report on the country. Why Austria? Why not? I was ten and knew nothing about it. I think I liked its shape.

I majored in history at university because I could spend all of my time drinking up historical research like it was life’s water. Two graduate degrees, in political science and international relations, put me on a career path of politics and policy work. I believe a foundation in history and research is more essential than ever in our current political environment. History teaches us critical thinking and gives us a perspective. Research lets us investigate claims of politicians and news outlets, and that critical thinking helps us discern which sources are reliable sources.

Real life rears its ugly head

I did a lot of creative writing when I was younger, but university and work afterwards ended that. I wrote. A lot. But not creative writing. I did research and wrote white papers, policy analyses, legislative testimony, blog posts, all factual, sometimes persuasive, occasionally with a creative spin, but never fully engaging that part of my brain.

I wanted to write a book. I thought, because of my work, I would write a non-fiction book. I started the research, but it didn’t hold my interest. History and historical fiction are my go-to for reading. If I was going to devote my energy and passion to writing something, I wanted it to be something I wanted to read, and I wanted to create.

In 2018, I set a five-year goal to write a book. I started jotting down ideas. Then in September, a friend said she was participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I had never heard of it, having been neck-deep in the non-fiction world for so long. For the month of November, participants pledge to write 50,000 words of a novel (or play or series of short stories, or whatever you want). You “win” if you meet that goal. The stakes are low, the only pressure is what you place on yourself.

I agreed to it on the spot. Once committed, I meant it. I took one of those scribbled ideas and outlined it. I got some writing software, plugged in my outline, and come November 1st, I started.

From outline to first draft

I hit my 50,000 word mark by Thanksgiving and kept going. I wrote every day until the second of February. Even Christmas Day (only about 200 words). So, in three months, I had a first draft. A massive and messy first draft. It clocked in at 182,000 words. For context, most novels are in the 80-120,000-word range. After a first run at edits, I cut 20,000 words, but it was still huge. I spent the next year researching (it’s historical fiction, so there is a lot of research involved) and trimming and honing.

Then November 2019 rolled around and I had another idea. I finished the first draft on the 14th. I was into it. Now, it’s almost March, and it’s gone through six rounds of edits, two beta readers, and I’m waiting to hear from four more beta readers. Once you relight the creative spark, it’s harder to put it out. I would love to hear what you’ve done to light your creative spark. Please leave a comment below!