Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 10

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.

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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.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 10 — 11 Comments

  1. I generally stop research when my sources start citing each other. The same names, books, articles pop up over and over, and I can cross-reference from memory. This is when I know that I’ve reached the limits of the main body of work, which is generally all I’d need to feel satisfied. Exceptions may occur. At this point, I start writing/outlining.

    The real test: can you fluently discuss it with someone who also knows about it?

  2. When I get a sense that I feel comfortable moving through the world of the story/book, that usually means I’ve done enough–for now, anyway. There will be spot-research (I’m writing along, suddenly realize I have no idea what the tanning process was in medieval Italy is, put an XX in the text for “fill this in later,” and keep writing), but I know my own tendency to fall into the research rabbit hole and never climb out again.

    How much of the research you use is also a vexed topic. I don’t want to write one of those books where the reader begins to feel bludgeoned by the accumulated weight of the research. I want things to feel real, not feel “improved.” But, as with so many things, that’s just me.

  3. Mad – the usage-of-research leads to what I call the Iceberg rule: YOU should know for a fact that the iceberg goes all the way down, but all the passengers/readers need to see is the part that hits their ship.

  4. Author ElizaBeth Gilligan (no that is not a typo, that’s how she spells her name) tells the tale that when she was researching her first book “Silken Shroud” which involves Romany, she watched a shock talk show with two opposing Romany “kings” as guests. When the conversation de-evolved into yelling and chair throwing the guests reverted to their native language. She understood most of what they were saying.

    That was the time to stop researching and start writing.

    My problem is always that the one definitive book I need for research is published 2 years after the book came out. In the case of the Magna Carta book I still got most of it right.

  5. Then there is the reverse kind of story: the kind that you should not write, because you will -never- be able to research it sufficiently to past muster. If you want to write about online gaming, but have no computer, for instance, or if you want to write about 21-st century teenagers but do not know anyone under the age of 40. In cases like that, the writer should consider recasting the story so as to play to his strengths, rather than trying to fill in weaknesses.

  6. Brenda – I’m not sure I actually agree with that, simply because someone who doesn’t know anyone under 21 can actively solicit new friends (in a non-creepy way), etc. There are limits to how much we can learn, certainly, but I don’t think that should kill a solid story idea, just adapt it.

    Also, saying “I can’t learn enough to…” is perilously close to “You’re Not X and Therefore You Cannot Write X,” for X being anything from gender to race to religion to height. I am wary of such statements, since only writing ourselves should not, I think, be the primary goal of a modern storyteller.

  7. I recommend reading a lot of historical stuff just because, without a specific story in mind. For one thing, it gives you a feel for how society work in general and helps alert you to thinking that something needs to be researched rather than assumed to be as modern.

    Then I write fantasy in imaginary lands and do not generally research after I get a story idea.

  8. I second what Mary said above. Reading a lot of historical fiction and particularly works written during the period your story is set (so you won’t end up copying other people’s research errors) and if possible watching films made during the time your story is set goes a long way towards giving you familiarity with the period and answering those little questions that history books usually ignore.

  9. Mary and Cora – I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t
    “glean” information from everything they read, even if they aren’t actively working on the topic. However I would caution against using flms as anything other than “color commentary” and even then be hesitant – secondary research is difficult enough, but tertiary research (seen through the filter of Hollywood) can send you in utterly the wrong direction.

    In other words, don’t use fiction to inform your fiction until you already know the facts.

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