Trust Your Research

August 14, 2011 at 9:00 am (Writing) (, , , )

I’ve talked about research before, but this won’t be the last time I’ll mention it either. No matter what you’re writing- whether it’s fantasy or mystery or historical or contemporary- you’re going to be doing research. I guarantee it. Maybe it’s just fact-checking a few things you’re already fairly comfortable with, maybe it’s learning about a sport your character plays, maybe you’re studying the basic structures of military naval tactics of the 18th Century. No matter how close the subject is to your own experience, you will be doing some basic research.

I’m still in the first research phase for my new project. (Yes, first, I’ll get to that in a bit.) I always do a fair amount of research for my stuff, but usually it stays on the surface of a broad range of subjects. Bits and pieces here and there. Average lifespan of a certain breed of horse here, best choice for a quickly metabolizing and completely incapacitating chemical agent there, number of layers of clothing for a woman of a certain time period over here…you get the picture.

I wrote a novel for my thesis (which will never, ever be seen), a fantasy that was built off a Lego block world. (A Lego block world is one that’s built upon distinct cultures in our world but altered slightly or embellished, and given different names that may or many be all that different. A prime example of this is Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline cycle, built upon the borders, cultures, and languages of our own world.) I had countries based on Imperial Rome, Tudor England, Medieval France, and Victorian England, so I needed to be able to talk about clothing, food, music, political structure, social hierarchies, etc without sounding like a complete idiot. That being said, I had to get the gist, not the exact details. Broad range of subjects, but not too deep, even when I added in horses, architecture, weapons, and sailing. Research just didn’t take that long because I could skim along the surface of the topics.

Then there’s the current project. I realized when I was jotting down notes for the idea that this was going to involve a LOT more research. I’ve never tried to write a true historical before.

I’m starting to understand why.

No joke, I love research. As tedious as it can be (and trust me, no matter how interesting the overall subject, there will be some damnably tedious sources) I really just love the craft of research. I love seeing the information, taking it in and processing it in my own way, even seeing how the phrasing of my notes reflects what I took from the original data. I love looking back over stacks of notes and rather than just seeing raw information, seeing instead how it’s going to be shaping the world of my book. The thing is, as much as I love it, it can get very overwhelming. That’s the point I call information overload.

When you reach that point, it can be terrifying, can cause absolute panic that swamps over you, because you already have so much information and there’s so much more information yet to retrieve and process and you want to get it right but you don’t want to overwhelm your readers with details but at the same time you want the atmosphere and the facts to be right and you’re starting to need notes for your notes because there are just so many and…STOP. Deep breath. Let it go…and now another deep breath. Keep going until it becomes a habit again.

Then, close your source, put down the pen, and take a moment.

Information overload is a very scary place, but it isn’t the end of the world, nor is it the end of your project. This is why heavy duty research is best done in stages. (See? I said I’d get back to the whole first phase thing) It isn’t just the overload- doing a ton of research all at once can burn you out, too, make you sick of your subject long before you’ve got the finish line in sight. The ability to pace yourself is definitely one to cultivate. Prioritize your research list. That sounds ridiculously anal retentive, but bear with me for a moment.

There are some things you absolutely have to know before you start your writing. List those out. That’s what you start with. That’s what’s going to give your world its framework, and it also shows you where your research needs to take you next. Take breaks between books. Switch up the mediums- if there are documentaries available, take notes from there. It makes for a nice change of pace from books and maps, and with good narrators, they can actually be pretty compelling. If you’re planning a series, figure out what you need for the first book and start with that. Then, after you’ve finished writing that, you can do another phase of research for the things you’ll need for the second book. This accomplishes a couple of things- first, you don’t burn out; second, you keep the information fresh for when you need it; and third, (yes, I said a couple, maybe I actually meant a couple-three) it keeps your mind churning on the project between books. Revision is good. Revision is necessary. But it’s definitely not hard to obsess over it, in which case it’s good to keep moving forward- but at the same time, you don’t want to push forward so fast that you overwhelm yourself.

There’s one more thing that can make your job as a researcher so much easier: a sounding board.

My sister (Hi, Llama!) is invaluable in many, many ways, but I am profoundly grateful that she doesn’t seem to mind operating as my sounding board for stuff like this. I’m still within the fairly general starting research but I’ve already started fringing on that overload panic attack. There is just SO MUCH MATERIAL, and I have so much more yet to approach. And then my sister swoops in and saves my skin, or at least my sanity. We talk about the fun stuff of what I’ve been learning, but more importantly, we talk about how it relates directly to the story and the characters.

That’s the saving grace.

By talking it through, by her asking questions that force me to put the information in precise context, I can process the research material. I’m finding the things that are relevant, the things that should probably be included but don’t have to be highlighted or supremely important, and- HUGELY important- the things that I don’t need to include at all. Details are important, especially when you’re doing a historical, but you don’t want to bog things down by giving us so much detail we feel like we’re reading a textbook rather than a novel. Atmosphere is a big thing, you need to be able to make us feel like we’re there, but it’s easy to do too much. Really, really easy. So. Finding the places you can discard information that doesn’t directly impact your story or the atmosphere you want to create will help not just your story, but your sanity.

Just make sure you thank your sounding board, with hugs, booze, sweets, or other applicable expressions of gratitude.

What are your thoughts on research? Have any tips? Methods? Share with us below!

Until next time~

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