How Much Is Too Much?

February 19, 2012 at 10:00 am (Writing) (, , , )

(With help from our friendly neighborhood lolcats)

I’ve been doing some research lately.

A lot of research.


As in, I started doing this research back at the end of June. I have five hundred something pages of notes, without even counting the printed off pictures and the marked up maps. That’s straight research, not even planning or character notes or anything (those are in a separate notebook).

And at some point I started wondering: am I procrastinating?

You probably know the feeling. That vague itching in the back of your skull that whispers that you’re finding more to research just to put off having to actually start. It’s avoidance. It’s fear. It’s laziness.

At first it was easy to tell the voice to stfu. After all, my topics for this project require a ton of research. There are a lot of details that have to be right, questions of timing and politics and did this exist and such not. In a well written historical, you don’t notice all the details that make the time period come alive. Get one of those details wrong? You notice. And it’s important to tackle a subject from more than one source, because sometimes new data is unearthed or an author’s bias skews the information past use, and some offer interesting pieces that others don’t.

But as the stack of notes got taller and taller and the list of finished books got longer and longer, not to mention the list of books yet to attack, the voice got a little more persistent. A little harder to ignore. Every time I found a new piece of information, something that would actually make a difference in the story, I told myself I was on the right track. After all, I’d know if I were actually finished, right? If I had enough information to write the story, I’d be writing it.

Passing the seven month mark made me sit back and try to look at it a bit more objectively. Less defensively.

It surprised me how quiet the voice was.

Do I have more information than I need? Absolutely. Even when I started skimming sections that don’t directly affect my storyline, and stopped writing down things I already had from five different sources, I still have more pertinent information than I can ever hope to filter in. It can be a benefit though; the more times I write a thing down, the easier it is to remember it without reference. These are the things I can weave through naturally because the knowledge feels as much a part of me as the story does. It’s that much less to doublecheck as I write. I’m also finding the things I don’t need.

For example, I annotated an entire biography before I realized that my character wasn’t going to have nearly as much contact with that person as I’d originally thought. Frustrating…but wait! How many people is my character going to be talking to who DO have constant contact with that person? It’s still useful information. Not as useful as I’d hoped, but still useful.

The past couple of weeks, the whole argument felt different, like suddenly that little voice was on shaky ground and I was winning.

And then? I got proof.

The library has always been a dear friend to me, but it’s become especially useful these past months. I bought a few of the books that I thought I’d use frequently but it seemed silly (and out of my means) to buy books I’d be taking such thorough notes on if it was just for one project. I’ve gone to the library again and again, finding different books or having books sent from other branches. Plus, I had the good fortune to hit upon a topic near and dear to my father’s heart, so he sent me a handful of books he thought I’d find useful. (I did) Last weekend, on the way to my mother’s for family dinner, I stopped by one of the other branches to browse through their selection.

And I came away empty-handed.

Oh, there were books that seemed interesting, books I’ll want to scan through some other time for my personal edification, but nothing I felt was necessary or particularly relevant to what I need.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel!

Just a couple more books, and then I can actually throw myself headlong into planning and then, just a very short time later, into *gasp* actual writing.

So in a way, I was right when I kept telling that little voice to shut up. I would know when I was ready to stop doing research. It just took a little longer than I expected it to.

So my question is: how do you know when it’s time to start writing?

And how do you deal with the doubt that comes with the question?

Until next time~

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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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Juicy Juice!

July 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm (General, Writing) (, , )

No, not the drink box, though now that I’m thinking about it… *craving*

I actually got back from vacation a little over a week ago but immediately went into a straight week and a half of work without any days off. Eep! There was much exhaustion and brain-deadness.

But the vacation was amazing, and exactly what I needed. Funny, really, given that I accomplished far, far less than I expected to while I was up there. But exactly what was needed.

Books read: Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma; Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter; Nightspell by Leah Cypess; Trial By Fire by Jennifer Lynn Barnes; and several old stories/manuscripts of my own (there was a healthy dose of nostalgia there, I admit).

Books I meant to read while I was up there: Shadowcry by Jenna Burtenshaw; Hereafter by Tara Hudson; Hourglass by Myra McEntire; Angel Burn by L.A. Weatherly; Blood Red Road by Moira Young; The Revenant by Sonia Gensler; The Dark City and The Lost Heiress by Catherine Fisher; A Need So Beautiful by Suzanne Young; and Graveminder by Melissa Marr. Whoops.

Writing done: none, but that’s okay, I wasn’t actually planning on doing any. I finished a solid round of edits at the end of May and needed to let that project sit before I went back through it, and hadn’t decided what project I was going to tackle next. Had some ideas bouncing around but they weren’t settling firmly enough that I could actually start writing anything.

Research done: TONS, and for two separate projects. I went up there with books about animals and a whole list of critters I needed to study. In addition to the books, my sister and I hit up the zoo one day. A ZOO! I’d forgotten how much fun zoos can be. There was a peacock wandering around the grounds. Just…wandering around, strolling, picking up any food the kiddos dropped, and then running like hell away from said kiddos if they showed an interest in tugging his tail. No peahens around, so he wasn’t attacking anyone, but he very obviously considered the park his turf. Were all of the animals ones I needed to know about? Not at all. In fact, most of them weren’t. But those that were I got to see up close and personal. Like seeing the bobcat sprawl out on a branch like a housecat, licking its paws and looking like an only slightly larger version of my enormously fat cat at home. Like the lynx that could barely be seen because it hid beside a tangle of logs, shy and silent. And the otters! Ridiculously cute! Came back with lots of notes on animals, lots of pictures, and lots of jokes.

On that project, what also proved invaluable was just beaing able to sit down with my sister and toss ideas back and forth. That particular project is a rewrite of a trilogy I wrote a few years ago and I’m having some trouble figuring out the ways some things need to change. So my sister and I spun them out. She sees things differently than I do, so when I toss out a possibility, she sees the consequences and ripples differently than I do. By spinning them out, we can dissect whether or not the impact is actually going to fall in line with what I want. There’s still more to do; I know a fair amount of the changes that need to be made, but there are others that are still more nebulous. Until I figure out some of those very basic pieces, I can’t really start writing.

But then…oh, but then, there was Gettysburg.

Which probably requires some explanation.

My dad is a history buff, and he’s always been particularly attracted to the Civil War. I grew up so bored of Civil War talk and I absolutely hated it when he dragged us to battlefields or museums or such not. It got a little better when I got into high school and fell in love with history, got even better when I hit a major Civil War phase near the end of college and started doing independant research for a project that never really got off the ground. I think I just needed to come to it on my own to become equally fascinated by it.

Gettysburg is about two hours from my sister and we have a friend that had semi-recently made a trip there and was telling us about it, so we decided to go. We ended up going twice.

There’s something about Gettysburg that terrifies and fascinates in equal parts. The scope is huge. The battlefield sprawls for miles, literally through the town itself, and as you’re doing the auto tour, you’re passing monuments that are actually in people’s front yards. There are monuments everywhere- EVERYWHERE- which helps give an idea of just how many individual units were involved in this struggle. Many of the officers on both sides of the Civil War served together in the Mexican War, which was the beginning of a turning point in how warfare was conducted. At that point, casualties were still measured in hundreds.

In the Civil War, they were measured in thousands. At Gettsyburg alone, sixty-some-odd thousand over a three day span and its aftermath.

Years ago, that vague project never really left the ground, and I was okay with that. The idea never finished forming. But, as we were going through the auto tour, through town, through the museum and the cyclorama and even the gift shop, that idea was niggling at the back of my mind. We went to dinner at the Old Dobbin House Tavern, we went on a ghost tour, we heard stories from the fringes of the battleground and the terrible, horrific aftermath, and the idea started forming some more. I wrote out some notes, sketched some character ideas, and then it just started running.

So now I’m neck deep in Civil War research and absolutely loving it, looking so forward to being able to start the actual writing. I’ve got a LOT of research to do first. I’ve never given a serious attempt to writing historical fiction; there are reasons for that. But I love this story already and I think it’ll be worth it.

For that alone, it wouldn’t matter if I’d ended up doing NOTHING else productive on my vacation.

The trip wasn’t all about reading and writing, of course. We did SO MUCH, the perfect balance between running around like crazy doing things and sitting on the couch staring mindlessly at the TV. I have a newfound appreciation for Disney Channel shows (LOVE Phineas and Ferb!), as well as Say Yes to the Dress, and Big Fat Gypsy Wedding outright terrifies me. We hit up a theme park, toured some graveyards, the Old Jail at Jim Thorpe where they hung the Molly Maguires (okay, so maybe my historical interests take on a somewhat morbid bent, it’s all still gorgeous), we hung out with friends at a coffeehouse for truly horrible open mic nights, and we spent an entire weekend at an amazing music festival.

It was truly a break from the routine, and now that I’m back, I feel completely recharged. Coming back to work is a bit of a readjustment but I left Florida feeling rather lost as far as where I needed to go next. I had vague ideas, even some solid ideas, on projects but none of them were enough to actually go off of. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a project without knowing what I was tackling next after a break for reading.

And now I’m all juiced up again! I have a to-do list and a stack of books and a nearly as impressive stack of notes already and despite the daunting nature of the tasks ahead of me, I am ridiculously eager.

Vacations can be rough to manage, they can be expensive (oh my GOD THEY CAN BE EXPENSIVE), but they absolutely are absolutely worth it.

And now, being all juiced up again, the blog recommences! Welcome back!

Until next time~

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More Fun After High School

May 26, 2011 at 9:00 am (Writing) (, )

When I was in school, I hated doing research. Absolutely loathed it.

I have a couple of theories about why. I think a fair amount of that detestation had to do with being told what to research, and very rarely having an interest in that topic. Didn’t really matter what the topic was; if it was for school, chances are I was blatantly uninterested. Then there was also the research process: for school, we had to keep careful notes of where we found the information, what book and what page, and even had to be careful about how we wrote our notes so we didn’t accidentally write something down word for word without putting it in quotes. Irritating, and makes it rather hard to focus on the research. I think the biggest problem I had with it was that research was inevitably followed by a research paper.

I suck at research papers. Always have. Give me a creative writing assignment and I’m peachy. Give me a technical writing assignment and I’m sunk.

So I loathed doing research while I was in school.

Since then, however, I have discovered an absolute love of it. It started in my costume history classes. We didn’t have to turn any of it in, didn’t have to do more than show we’d done it, and the point of it was only to make our designs as historically accurate as possible. I got to bury myself in books of paintings and history, take notes however I wanted, and in the process learned some very cool stuff.

I know some writers who approach their research with deep and heavy dread. They recognize the necessity but it’s not a pleasure.

But seriously? It is so much frickin’ fun! The things you can learn, the way it develops into your writing and into your story, it’s not something to skip, and if you really begrudge what you have to do to get the info, that will also show. The research is such a necessary part though, as much a piece of the brainstorming and plotting as staring off into space and thinking about your characters. Knowing how long and how far a horse can go over different terrains, at different speeds, and carrying different weights will determine the timing of your characters’ journey. Knowing that a staggering variety of household products contain poisons can greatly affect your murder mystery. There’s just as much research to go into a fantasy as into an historical epic, too. You can’t simply put everything at the foot of magic. It doesn’t matter what kind of magic it is if you think claymores are one-handed weapons.

Learn to love your research, people.

So, in the interest of adoration, what is your favorite thing you’ve ever learned during research? The weirdest or coolest or just something that really stuck in your mind.

Inquiring minds want to know!

Until next time~

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