Being that I’m currently in the throws of researching a new passion project, it’s fitting that I should be tackling this subject this week. And as I continue to pull together pages of scribbled notes on character concepts, imagery, and more, I could maybe stand to take a little of my own advice. So here we are together, both wondering how much of this research is really necessary and when it’s time to finally start writing.
To Research or Not to Research
Research is NOT a bad thing. Your setting, characters, and plot all matter to one another (or at least they should). Therefore, it helps to have a little planning under your belt before you dig into a narrative.
Of course, the exact nature of this planning depends on the specifics of your project. Maybe your book has an historic setting, and you want to have a grasp of that setting before you write. Maybe your main character lost a sibling to suicide, and you want to understand the grieving process. Whatever your story, there’s something out there you can learn to make it better.
Research also yields inspiration. Unless you take the time to learn, you won’t find the interesting stories or subtle details that can make a good narrative great. And if that inspiration doesn’t have a place in your current novel, then you can always tuck it away for future use.
When does research become a problem? When it stops being research and becomes a diversion tactic you use to delay the writing process.
When Research is Really Procrastination
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re procrastinating or simply a diligent researcher. After all, every writer is different, and some of us really like to cross the figurative T’s and dot the figurative I’s before we start on the literal ones. But there are signs you can look for that might alert you to the fact that your research has become nothing but a cozy and deceptively productive trap.
1. You spend as much time worrying about having neatly organized notes as you do actually researching the piece. Don’t get me wrong, organization is helpful if you want to keep track of what you’ve learned. But there’s a limit to how much time you should be obsessing over rewriting notes, formatting character charts, and agonizing over the neatness of your handwriting.
2. You’ve become an information hoarder. To be honest, there’s only so much you really need to know before you start drafting. If you find yourself glomping on to every detail in the event it might conceivably be useful during the writing process, then you’ve gone overboard.
3. You’ve become an information ignorer. Let’s say your main character fancies himself a wilderness explorer, and you want to capture the sites, smells, and sounds of a mountain hike. By all means, go on that hike. But don’t forget to take notes during or after the experience. Many writers go on outings to supplement their research, but if that research yields nothing tangible, then it’s possibly just a way to duck the computer.
4. Your research keeps taking you down the rabbit hole. You start with a plan to research clothing from the American frontier, and before you know it, you’re looking at bloopers from A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Have you noticed yourself doing any of the above? Don’t give up on the research just yet. A handful of simple strategies can help keep your research on track and get you writing sooner.
Research Strategies to Keep You Focused
The following strategies may or may not work for your research style. However, they’re worth a shot if you notice yourself getting off track and you’re serious about writing that novel.
1. Set research goals. This will help you avoid the rabbit hole problem and information hoarding. Go in knowing that you want to learn about medieval jousting formalities and focus on that. If you come across something interesting along the way that isn’t relevant to your goals, earmark it for further investigation.
2. Outline as you research. If have a story in mind, start fleshing it out as you research. Plug in information about the setting, characters, and plot points as you go. This will help keep your research focused on information that you need to build the story. In this way, you’ll more quickly arrive at the point where you feel comfortable drafting.
3. Limit your online access. This advice is mostly for online wanderers. Set up filters that only allow access to certain websites or save and read content in offline mode.
4. Set a writing date and stick to it. To be perfectly honest, you’re never “finished” researching. You could spend years learning everything under the sun about the professions, time period, or science you explore in your writing. Sure, you want a foundation (see point 2), but eventually you need to just start writing.
5. Research as you write. Get the big stuff out of the way first and leave the minutia for later. After all, you’ll never know if you need a florid description of a Victorian hat until the moment arises. As you draft, look up things you need or, if you don’t like interrupting your narrative flow, then put in a placeholder with a note to research later.
As I’m writing this I’m reminded of an episode of New Girl in which Nick decides he’s going to become Ernest Hemingway. In an effort to gain the experience necessary to write his zombie novel, he ends up drunk at a zoo. To his credit, he does write the novel eventually but not before he learns an important lesson. No amount of research and planning and making promises to yourself will make you a writer. The only thing that can do that is the act of writing.