I enjoy doing research for projects but sometimes it gets you into a rabbit hole as you struggle to find information on particular details like period clothing or systems of government. With a historical setting, it is a necessity, with a fantasy setting you have more leeway, but with a fantasy analog or even just a fantasy setting inspired by a specific place and time, it is important to research before you write. One side effect of this is it greatly reduces productivity. One can do pages and pages of research and find it amounts to very little text. It varies of course, depending on how fruitful your search is and how much of an understanding you develop of the topic you are writing about. But just to give an example, I did some writing today based on three hours of research and this produced an entry of a little over 150 words, basically the size of this paragraph.
If you are going to engage in research, there are some things you can do to maximize the product of your efforts. Here are some basic lessons I’ve learned over the years.
Always have a pen or pencil and always take notes. Don’t be afraid to underline or write in the margins of your books but if you can’t bring yourself to do this, consider using sticky notes to mark important sections (personally I have no problem scribbling on book pages if it enhances my understanding). If you don’t take notes, you are going entirely on memory and unless yours is exceptional you risk forgetting crucial details.
Be cautious in your note taking. One of the main ways plagiarism occurs is people take notes directly from their source material and forget to put quotes around it. Later when they start writing from their notes, they risk including sections of text that belong to someone else. So if your notes are the same words or at all similar to the source, place quotes around the text. Better yet, take notes completely in your own words. While this is a legal concern, it is also a time concern, because if you are unsure at any step about this, you will need to review and check your text. If there is a question, just write everything from scratch.
Use index cards. A yellow tablet is fine, but one problem is sifting through your notes afterwards. If you put everything in 3x5 note cards, that makes it much easier to sort through then gather in a manner that can be turned into a section. They even sell spiral bound index cards with perforations for separating so they are easy to keep together while you take notes on a project.
Gather reliable source material that won’t lead you astray. Sometimes all sources look the same. If you just punch in a google search or go onto amazon, you might find sources that seem useful but either fail to address what you need to know or do so in a manner that misinforms. Be sure to vet your sources before investing time in them. Check out reviews, read historiography bibliographies on the subject you are learning about, ask people who are knowledgeable in the field and be sure to know what field the source comes from. This means you should be wary of sources like Wikipedia or other online resources. Especially be on the alert if you see the same exact text repeated with no attribution on multiple platforms. This is sometimes a sign that something inaccurate has gained some currency through repetition. Repairing text informed by bad research down the road is a lot more time consuming than preventing it in the first place. Also you just work faster if you have good sources with relevant information from the start.
Learn to identify good information. Things that are relevant to gaming can actually be easy to miss. The sorts of details you are likely looking for when prepping for a game or writing material for a setting is often idiosyncratic and rather specific. If you stumble on a section in a book that lists off large numbers of details that could be useful, be sure to mark that section down. Chances are if you find a chapter that gets deep into something like commerce or education, you won’t be able to absorb it fully in the first sitting, but when we go to write your entry, and know what it is you need to address, then going back to that section can be useful.
Understand how much room you have to invent. If it is a fantasy analog or a historically inspired fantasy setting, you should decide how much you want to cleave to history. If the setting is 16th Century England with the numbers filed off, then you better take good notes and squeeze what you can from them. If you are going for something less rigidly tied to the original time and place, then you have more room to invent, which an be helpful when you encounter gaps in your knowledge. For example if you just can’t find any details on who wore ruffs and why, you can make stuff up that will probably contribute to the feel of the setting in an interesting way. Invention is a time saver.
Work with the notes you have. Try to build your sections around the research you’ve done and the information you have acquired. Nothing is worse than writing a section on wine making, when never managed to find any information on brewing in the period you are using. Some details are harder to find than others. So try to craft your outline and section headers around your notes.
Don’t agonize too long on one section. Brevity is fine if the information is helpful and accurate. Sometimes you just can’t find the information you want or you can’t find enough to write paragraph after paragraph on a subject. That’s okay. It would be great if you could find more but don’t let the rest of your project suffer as you spend hours or days seeking one piece of info. Just move on to another section and be on the look out for what you need in the mean time. If you never find it, maybe a single paragraph is adequate.