Ah, research, both the bonus and the bane of a writer’s life.
Sometimes, a story rises out of our own, immediate experiences. Everything needed is already in your head, ready at your fingertips. The other 99.9% of the time, getting a story right requires research. Occasionally you need the big stuff: “what would my character encounter during the summer of 1977 in NYC?” (answer: Son of Sam panic, a massive blackout & related looting). Sometimes it’s more specific: “what sort of shoe would a 15th century adult male farmer in western Europe wear on an average, non-festival day?” Some writers adore the process. Others avoid it as much as possible. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
You have options. You can get your facts and get out. Or, in the interests of worldbuilding (and some natural curiosity) you can dig deeper, piling on the notecards and databases until you know your subject well enough to really recreate the scene (or, conversely, write a PhD thesis on it).
Often – as many of us know all too well – you can start with one book on a topic, and resurface a week later with a bad case of research bends and a dawning realization of how much there is to learn, to get the scene/place/time/character right. This is especially true for those of us who write outside of our immediate comfort zone (a different time period, a location or culture not our own, that Other People [readers] know better than we do).
That’s when the panic hits: how do you know when you have enough information to do a story justice? When is enough research, enough?
Unfortunately, it’s not like cooking a turkey: no little button will pop out and tell you you’re done. In fact, you could research for a year or more, for a full-length novel (*coughs, looks guiltily at the research library I built up for The Vineart War trilogy*). But it’s important to recognize that unless you have a very tolerant – and well-paying – publisher, or are just noodling along as a hobby, there’s not an infinite amount of time to devote to research: eventually you have to settle down and write the story.
[using research as a way to avoid writing is another topic – and essay – entirely]
But how will I know, you wail, looking at the piles of research tomes, the countless tabs open on your browser, aware of the many essential bits of information you’ve overlooked, or not yet found. What if I screw something up, because I didn’t know A or B or Z?
Take a deep breath. Close the tabs. Put the research books back on the shelf (or return them to the library already, someone else needs to use them!). Close your notebooks and stack your notecards, and let the information settle into your brain. Because information doesn’t exist in a vacuum, not when you’re a writer. It binds itself to what’s already in your head, the story taking shape, and it will tell you when you’re ready.
The advice I follow, and I gave to my writers for years was to treat it the way you would a meal. When you’re reaching the point of being comfortably full, when your body says “we’re done,” then put down your fork and stop eating.
[true research junkies, like chronic overeaters, may have trouble with this. For you, I recommend an intervention, where all your reference tomes are removed from your writing space until you’ve finished the rough draft].
Storytelling is not research. Fiction is not 100% accurate. Often we worry so much about getting the facts right, we forget that we’re also making it all up as we go along.
Listen to what you’re writing. When you add one detail to a character, do two more evolve naturally out of what’s already there? When you describe a scene, do new details attach themselves, not out of your notes, but an organic sense of what is needed, what ‘fits?” Does the landscape begin to move and breathe on its own?
Once that starts to happen, stop worrying about your research: you’re done.
Coming up in Week 11: “Oh my God the cover is AWFUL! The copy is ALL WRONG! ” How to handle – and not handle – packaging disasters.
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.