Research: Before, During, and After the first draft


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?


16 comments to Research: Before, During, and After the first draft

  • Hi Kalayana. In your last post I mentioned that I work at a library, so I am surrounded by research. And it can be quite distracting. I’ve had to stop myself from reading on my lunch breaks as that has become my main writing time. But I still read on the bus, in transit. And before bed.

    With non-fiction, I’m usually looking through several books at once. With fiction, I try to read one at a time. With so many decisions of what to read, and so many interests (as a writer I find it necessary and rewarding to delve into or at least skim all manner of subjects) it is often difficult to make a choice, so I just follow my momentary whimisical inclinations. These do tend to cycle around a number of core interests: pirate radio also being one of my own!

    Serendipity and synchronicity often play a role in what I read: finding the right book, at the right time, for just what I need. These are gifts from the Library Angel.

  • I was just bemoaning this to Faith the other day. It’s so easy to get caught up in research, and I have trouble knowing when it’s a game-changer detail or when it’s just enhancement (’cause I’m compulsive that way.) She suggested I mark the spaces that require research with all caps or a different color or something, so I can keep on writing and come back later.

    So far it seems to be working. 😀

  • Kalayna, thanks again for accepting our invitaion to join MW and taking over this month for Misty — who is deeply into rewrites. (GO MISTY!)

    When I’m pre-pre-writing, meaning when I am coming up with a new MC (main character) and world for a new series, I do a lot of dreaming. This part is about characters, world building, central series plot line, central external conflict and MC internal conflict and how they can challenge the character. It’s all mentally free-floating and utterly cretive. I spend a lot of time on the couch with my eyes closed, thinking, half-dreaming, letting things percolate. Not napping. No way. Really. Working. 🙂

    In between napp-uh, thinking, though, like you, I spend a lot of time reading books that might impact a character’s trajectory over time. For the Jane Yellowrock series, I read a lot about the history of the Cherokee, purchased language books, surfed the net for sites that I keep in my favorites. I also talked to gun experts, and a few edged weapons experts. I talked to Kim and Misty and anyone who would listen and let their questions and comments guide my deeper mind. And I dreamed.

    After that special napp–thinking time, our methods merge. Once I start plotting the outline, I do research on the fly, make a lot of notes, and work through (research through) potential problems. Write! Write a lot. Research after, unless I get hung up on a plot point.

  • Misty, for compusive people (like you and me) that color coding is enough for our minds to let it go and move ahead. We’ve convinced our brains, by that special color, that we are not abandoning the problem. In fact, out brains will accept the problem as addresed and corrected and will relax totally. Strange brains.

  • Research is one of the many reasons why I prefer to… no strike that… why I NEED to do my first drafts longhand. Just me and a pen and a composition notebook. I get sucked into ‘research’ so easily that I have to isolate myself from other books and computers when I’m composing first drafts. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not, so that’s my was of dealing with it.

  • I do a ton of research as I go, and though I will occasionally get sucked in to the procrastination vortex, usually I manage to keep things moving along. But like Kalayna and others, the research really never ends I do a lot beforehand (especially for the Thieftaker books) a lot during the writing phase, and a good deal after and in rewrites to check my facts one last time. And then I get going on the next project and all the research it entails.

  • I never tire of hearing how other writers approach research. One thing I’ve found is a constant — no matter how in-depth or brief a writer’s research period, all writers can easily get sucked in and lose track of the actual purpose. Something about research and learning knew things must parallel the deep roots of why we choose to be writers. Thanks, Kalayna, for letting us peek into your research process.

  • Unicorn

    You said, … 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.
    That is sooo me. 🙂
    Thanks for a very timely post, Kalayna; I’ve just been looking up musical instruments for the minstrel in my WIP. Hmm. I think I need to get a book about them and read it during down time. I could probably have written a lot more in the time that I used to research. Thank you!

  • I’ve been cheating. I’ve been using a lot of stuff that I already know… My world is Seattle, someplace I’ve lived since birth, mumble-mumble years. And coffee plays into my WIP. I’ve spent enough on coffee to buy a nice luxury car. I am saving time as far as research, and this is freeing me up to focus on character development, dialog and other good stuff. Maybe later in my career, I’ll be able to step outside my comfort zone, but I’m not ready for that yet.

    I did do a bit o’ research in Mesopotamian mythology as that’s the historical basis for my supernatural stuff, but I’m finding most of my research is validating the sources. There are a lot of, uh, interesting folk who readily publish interesting data. Based on visions while simultaneously taking peyote, LSD, mushrooms and yard waste.

    Funny about pirate radio in this thread. I did a bit of that in my college years.

  • Oooo – the research suck! A writers preeminent drug of choice.
    I tend to ‘think’ like Faith until I get a rough outline and characters sketched in. Then I research a bit, just to find the corners, then I write like a fury.
    I colour code as I go along too. Red for rewrite, green for research, and blue for ‘what the bloody hell am I trying to say here!’

  • I have a really bad habit of researching things during the first draft, when I need to focus my energy on the writing. But quite often they *are* game-changing, or at least plot-enhancing, details, so I’m not quite sure how to get myself to stop. Unless I count all of that as “before” research.

  • Razziecat

    Widdershins, I live your color coding!:) I’ve started to something similar; it reminds me about details that need attention while not slowing me down too much.

    I can relate to the dangers of getting caught up in research. I went online once to dig up some info on knife fighting. Three hours later, I resurfaced…So yeah, that’s something to watch out for. Initially, for me, it’s all daydreaming and brief scenes or bits of dialog scribbled out. This where I get the flowery, purple prose out of the way…it’s not for anyone else to see, just my own notes on the characters, their world & their problems. Then it gets reshaped as I get into writing the story itself.

  • I’m going to ditto the comments on Widdershins’ color coding. Sounds like something that actually might work for me.
    I tend to do tons of, uhm, let’s call it esoteric knowlege mining, between projects. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to shiny new bits of information I didn’t know before. And all these shiny bits percolate and blend until a tiny pearl of an idea emerges. It might be a magic system, a scene, a half-baked plot core…
    I’m hesitant to call what comes next “outlining” – it’s more like Faith’s napp-thinking, but on paper with my eyes open. That’s when I start doing targeted research. And yes, I can start with names/colors of precious and semiprecious stones and end up on nuclear fission theory with no real memory of how I got there but a lot of new shinies swirling in my idea kettle.
    When I start writing, I really hate to go researching, because, at that point all those new shinies I will inevitably find will get added to the mix and generate a new idea-pearl which can take me back to napp-think-scribble-outline-ideamashing…..

  • Research? I skip the research and just use common tropes and cliches.

    Kidding, well about the research anyway. I’m working on those other two.

    For SONG OF FURY, I wanted to write a Bronze Age story instead of ye olde medieval fantasy. It was tough coming up with solid Bronze Age references that are both current and properly researched. It seems the library has lots of older texts and online has lots of crap. Still, I found a few books and websites that helped.

    I’m definitely thinking I need to up the body count from infections and disease before the healing magic is rediscovered.

    Great post, Kalayna.


  • Justin, I imagine working at a library would be a terrible temptation to over research.

    Oh, Misty, I feel you. Sounds like Faith gave you great advice.

    Faith, love the nap-thinking! Maybe I’ll have to try that one. LOL

    Ed, if that’s what works for you, that’s what works. It’s always good to know what makes your own process work.

    Stuart, you might be on to something. Writers do tend to love digging out interesting facts (and then exploiting them as much as we can for entertainment purposes. ^_^)

  • Unicorn, glad I’m not alone in the wiki research vortex. That site can be so dangerous.

    Roxanne, using stuff you know mostly just means you already did the research (even if that research was living it or drinking lots of coffee) right? Funny thing about coffee and food in my novels–I don’t drink coffee and I’m a terribly picky eater, so I actually have to research food on occasion. And by research, I mean ask people who like it to describe their experience, as it would be vastly different from mine.

    LOL, Widdershins. I might have to put “Research: a writer’s drug of choice” on a button. Oh, and I love your color coding. That’s brilliant.

    Laura, that is a tough call. If you are still finishing your first drafts, I think you just have to count it as your process. If you aren’t finishing your first drafts, well then, you might need to reexamine. ^_^

    Razziecat, I have totally been there with the resurfacing hours later.

    Lyn, love your magpie description. I can relate.

    LoL, NGDave. Interesting information on the Bronze Age. Not a subject I’ve researched heavily, but for me, subjects that take a lot of digging are always the most fun. Good luck in your search for good reference material!