We’ve been talking the last couple of months about writing basics; walking through individual craft elements in conjunction with the new book I’m working on. Last week we put together the Character, Conflict, Setting, and Outline, and shifted focus to actually writing the story.
Once you finally start writing, it is quite likely that at some point, you’re going to need to do some research. Maybe you have a quick question that needs an answer like “what’s the lifespan of a bumblebee?” or maybe you need to know something a little more in depth like “what was the political climate like in London during 1816?”
At close to 40,000 words on my new story, I’ve had a few questions that I needed answers to. I’ve also had to decide what information I should include in my story and what does not need to be there.
That’s why this week my focus in on: Research
You don’t need to know everything
Doing research can be what is technically known as “a time suck.” You go off looking for one little fact and then hours (or days or weeks) later you come back with not only the fact you needed, but also a ton of other (possibly) related information that “seemed interesting” or “might be useful later.” Research can be fun, like going on a treasure hunt, but unless you’re actually a paid researcher you probably want to keep it to a minimum so you have the time you need for your writing. I have found setting a timer to be a useful tool when entering research-mode.
Along the same lines, although it can be tempting to try to learn as much as possible about whatever subject you are researching, your story doesn’t necessarily need all that detail. You don’t need to research the history of bees, for example, if all you are doing is making a brief reference in your story. Research can also be a delaying tactic to keep from actually writing. If you find yourself stuck in the research phase, you may want to take a step back and ask yourself “why?”
Your reader doesn’t need to know everything
In depth research can lead to the tendency to want to share all that wonderful information with your reader. Try not to do that. Your reader wants to focus on your characters and your story, not get bogged down in passages and passages of facts and extraneous details. I read a book by a popular New York Times bestseller earlier this year that was crammed full of all the information she had researched. I found myself mentally editing the majority of it out as I read because it bogged the story down. At some points, I was skipping pages and pages. Unless you are writing a reference book, a good rule of thumb is, “if it helps move the story along put it in otherwise leave it out.” If you’ve done some great research that you really want to share, then post it on your website as an extra feature or include it at the back of the book in an afterward.
There are many sources for information
Years ago, when you wanted to research a topic, you very likely went to the local library and pulled out the appropriate volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or the Periodical Index, or asked the helpful librarian to point you in the right direction. If you needed information from old newspapers or the library’s archives, you might have found yourself scanning through reels of film on a microfiche/ microfilm reader. Things have changed a bit since then.
According to their website, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia gets 374 million unique visitors each month. It is often the first stop for someone wanting to do some quick research. Many newspapers have user searchable archives online and many libraries have portions of their collections online as well. For a writer doing historical research, something like Google Books can be a great resource. It allows you to find books written and published in the time period of interest so you can not only get information but also get a feel for the language, speech patterns, and the like that were in use then. There are also a number of authors that share the information they’ve researched on their own websites. This seems to be particularly common for Regency writers who love their Regency details.
That said . . .
Choose your information sources wisely
Where you choose to get your information is important. I know it may come as a shock to some, but not all of the information posted on the internet is completely true (gasp!). It’s important to verify your information from more than one source. If you’ve used Wikipedia or some other information aggregator as your starting point, scroll down to the footnotes and follow the sources. Also remember that, just because you read a “fact” in someones story doesn’t mean it is true.
Think outside the library
Sometimes you may just need a quick piece of information for your story, rather than some full blown research. Social media, friends, writing blogs – all of these can be great sources for you. This past week, for example, I’ve reached out on social media for help on random things from “drink names for a theme bar” in my story to “what flavor ice cream would you think of as a guy-flavor?” A couple different writers I follow have posted recently asking for readers to help brainstorm character names or other story details. Sure you could Google “popular baby names for the year xxx”, but including others in your research process can bring interesting alternatives to light and can also be a fun way to engage with your readers.
So what are your thoughts on research? Do you have an example an author who handled the inclusion of “facts” well (or a bad example of one who missed the mark)? What’s the most interesting thing you’ve researched lately?