Regardless of what genre you write, you probably do a good deal of research when working on a novel. Research helps the writer get the details right and gives her a starting point from which to spring. After all, even if you’re “making it all up” you have to know the rules before you break them or you blunder blindly and lose credibility. It’s amazing how much research can go into details that are very briefly touched on in a novel. Sometimes it’s tedious, but usually research is a lot of fun and sparks new ideas–which is great but also dangerous as research can become a major time-suck that gets in the way of actually writing the novel. (As evidenced by all of us who have ever stopped writing to look up some small fact on Wikipedia and fifty clicks later we are out of writing time but know a ton about pirate radio and spark-gap transmitters.) Since a new research book came in today and I was glancing over it before I started this post, I thought I’d share a bit on my research practices.
Before beginning a novel:
Long before I start a novel, research tends plays into my initial brainstorming. I usually have a couple research books on hand that I flip through during my down time. These books are on topics that interest me and/or are information I think I might one day find useful. Usually at least one is on folklore and one is about some aspect of criminology (forensics, psychology, firearms, poisons–pretty much anything I can get my hands on that holds my interest). I’m not looking for anything in particular in these books, I’m just building a knowledge base and letting ideas percolate. This is the time when I let myself follow tangents because this research doesn’t conflict with my writing time.
When it comes time to actually start plotting and preparing to start a new novel, my research becomes much more focused. I tend to do a lot of research in my world building stage and I try to foresee what research I’ll need for my plot. I spend several weeks researching and plotting and then it’s time to stop and actually start writing.
During the first draft:
I severely limit my research while I’m writing a first draft. I still read research books during downtime (as previously mentioned) but while I’m in front of my computer and actively writing, my policy is to turn off the ‘net and stay out of my library. If I run into a fact that is likely to be a major game changer so I simply can’t continue without knowing exact details, then I stop and do the research. Typically that isn’t the case though. Usually the research that I find I need during writing involves details that create depth to the story. They are necessary for a polished draft, but for a first draft they can be glossed over so I leave myself a big bold note and move on.
Which leads to research after the first draft:
This is where I go back and look up all those details I was missing while writing. You may think “well, if you’re going to look it up anyway, why not while writing?” Easy answer–research breaks my stream of thought. Stopping and stepping away from the story, even if I behave and only look up exactly what I need and it’s a quick search, pulls me out of the narrative. In my opinion, it’s better to get it all down and then go back after the book is a book. Also, once the story is on the page I am more likely to know what kind of information I really, honestly need from my research so I don’t end up spending twelve hours researching what turns into a breezy two sentence description.
Of course, this is all just my process. Writing is definitely NOT a one-size fits all kind of gig.
How do you tackle your research?