We sit in near darkness pouring over dust-covered, leather-bound tomes. We scour the internet until the wee small hours. We track through the Amazon, machete in hand, in search of the last of the lost tribes. And, why do we do this?
For the story.
Research is a necessary evil when it comes to writing. It is the author’s greatest asset and their worst enemy. Without research, we wouldn’t have ideas, couldn’t build believability (especially of the unbelievable), and we certainly couldn’t speak with the authority of our characters.
With this post, I hope to provide a few tips on how to navigate the minefields of research.
Types of Research
Research can be roughly split into one of four main categories.
This is the research that springs to the minds of most writers over the age of 25. To me, it invokes images of a desk in a quiet corner of a library (is there such a thing as a noisy corner of the library?) or bookstore, covered in piles upon piles of open books; the writer feverishly scribbling notes into their notebooks. This method has its limitations: research material on some topics may be unavailable, research can only be conducted during opening hours, all information gleaned will have already been filtered by the material’s author. Despite these minor issues, this is still one of the best ways of conducting research, not to mention a great way to spend an afternoon.
These are the days of the digital revolution. We have information literally at our fingertips (and our names on federal watch-lists). Every conceivable topic has its place on the web alongside armies of “experts” all happy to share with you the benefits of their experience. With a click of the mouse and the clatter of keys, you’ll find data and facts on military might. A quick email will return reams and reams of folklore and legends. You can even make contact with a practicing druid (no, you really can) who will provide you with the patterns of the universe — maybe.
This wealth of material is dualistic in nature. On the one hand, it’s there and readily accessible but, on the other, the sheer volume can soon overwhelm us and leave us unable to separate the good from the bad.
This includes any form of interaction with others and can be key to developing believable characters, character quirks, and dialogue. It involves anything from people watching to conducting personal history interviews. It is the research we undertake whenever we enter a social setting, sometimes without realising we’re doing it.
Although this shares aspects with the above category, it’s worth thinking of this as scouting for settings. In much the same way that a TV location scout scours the globe for ideal settings, we writers must do the same. Real life settings give depth and tone to our scenes and allow our characters a forum in which to develop and nothing beats experiencing out potential settings for ourselves.
Make a Plan
Research can be a real time sink. Each discovered piece of information can lead to many more avenues of inquiry and sometimes make it difficult to know when to stop. It becomes far too easy to lose yourself in the research and find you have limited time left to write.
The easiest way to avoid this is it to make a plan. Identify what topics/points require research, break them down into workable chunks and allocate time to each. In addition to budgeting our time, working from a plan allows us to determine the best methods of collecting the information we need. Do you need ideas for a setting? Organise a field trip. Is your dialogue sounding a little unnatural? Conduct some social research (eavesdrop) at your local coffee shop.
Set Time Limits and Deadlines
I’d bet we’ve all lost count of the number of hours lost to research that was unnecessary to our current projects. How many times have we just checked one more link? How many hours have we wasted through distraction? How many times have we watched that video of the baby panda sneezing (you know the one)?
Use your plan and set yourself a time limit or deadline for each key piece of research. Try and stick to it as closely as you can.
Use the Best Tool for the Job
Research is useless without having some way of capturing it. Likewise, the way we capture needs to be relevant to the information and research method. Unless you’re an excellent sketch artist, a camera may be best used for recording that manor house frontage you’re considering for the setting of your horror story. Even an expert in shorthand finds tape recorders invaluable for conducting interviews (although be sure to take notes as recordings aren’t 100% reliable).
Organise Your Research
Research requires organisation. Just as unrecorded research is useless, so too are research notes you can’t find. What good is that great piece of dialogue if it’s scribbled on a post-it note and lost forever between the pages of a randomly selected book?
Highlight or underline important notes in your notebooks for easier reference, or group like notes together in their own folders, sections or notebooks e.g. keep a dialogue file and record all potential dialogue in it. Allocate time in your research plan to organising and processing the research and use it.
What to Keep and What to Lose?
Not everything you research will be relevant to or make it into your latest project. It may not even fit your style of writing. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be loath to throw any notes away. Still, you’ll need to filter the good notes from the bad, the relevant from the irrelevant.
You need to decide what information you need for your story and refile the rest for later viewing/projects. Each piece of research needs to be interrogated for added benefit to the project you’re working on. If it has none, file it away and move on but don’t forget to revisit these notes later, especially when brainstorming your next project.
Write Your Story
Research is a means to an end and that end is the story. There comes a time when the research has to stop and the writing needs to start (otherwise you’re just a grad student and not a writer). The biggest difficulty for some of us will be resisting the urge to research during the time we’ve allocated for writing. We always feel the need to just double check that fact. The problem with that is that a break in your train of thought can create difficulties in getting back into the flow.
While writing, make a side note of any items you wish to check or research and add them to your plan at the end of your writing session. A journalist once taught me a trick for dealing with names or facts that you can’t recall easily while writing. He said to mark the place in the text where the fact/name will go with a “TK”. “TK” rarely occurs together in English and it is easily spotted during editing. If I come across a “TK” during edits – that’s the time for research.
I hope these tips have been useful and I would like to hear from you with any tips you’ve found during your own research processes. Likewise, I’d love to hear of any unexpected ideas and tangents research has taken you on. As always, please share in the comments below.
I appreciated the strategies you presented, those that I use and those that I haven’t yet. Depending, of course, on the kind of writing, I can see real benefit in them. One method that I consider research but I don’t think fits in any of your categories is more internal: reflection or remembering. This can take the form of simply thinking back and recalling experiences or places, or it can involve an external product like a journal or a series of written vignettes. I’ve found that when I do this myself, I often discover gaps or contradictions that become fertile ground for either more research (like those mentioned above) or as a central tension to the writing. In other words, I’ve found interrogating my own mind (or for that matter my body, like engaging in a certain activity and seeing how my body responds in order to understand something I’m thinking of writing about) can yield information and insights I can’t get any other way.
Oh, and about the “grad student and not a writer” line, ouch! In the grad programs I was in, being a grad student actually *consisted* of being a writer. 🙂 In fact, writing itself can be a kind of research or inquiry (or used to enhance research), as opposed to a separate step that takes place after the research is done. Anthropology is an obvious place where you see this, but its value is being recognized in the sciences as well.
I love doing research. I love learning interesting things. My problem is that I get so wrapped up in researching that I tend to go off on tangents. Especially when it comes to the domestics of a time period. That, to me, is far more interesting than wars and leaders. Nice post!