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As I write my 29th(!) story in the Great Challenge, I’m finding that I need to rely more and more on researching details. The collection of five stories I’m writing is science fiction, which requires a whole new level of detail above what I’ve ever done before, or even thought of (and I’m probably still not doing enough). Little things like the difference between meteor and meteorite, or what color can a moon be.
So I was inspired to start posting my future book, Research for Fiction Writers. Still need a subtitle there. 🙂
What do you think of when someone talks about research?
Probably school. You would have researched a term paper or another type of academic paper. It would have involved finding at least three sources, quoting them, and making a bibliography. Then the teacher grades you.
Then comes fiction writing.
It’s not a term paper. But when you ask about researching a novel, everyone defaults back to their days in school. It’s so confusing that some writers ask if they should add footnotes of their sources to a novel.
But there’s a fundamental difference between what you did in school and what you do for fiction writing.
Research in school teaches you critical thinking and problem-solving skills as you learn the topic. You might be trying to learn a new skill for a career, get a degree, or just get a good grade.
Research for fiction is to make the story feel right to the reader.
The writers who love research more than writing tell you to assemble a fat binder and expect to take a year (or more) doing the research. They inform you that you have to know every possible detail before you even start the story, even if you don’t need it.
Others say to research every possible detail out of fear that the reader will give them a bad grade. Is it any wonder some writers think of research as homework?
It’s enough to drive you away from research entirely!
Linda’s Hot Mess of Research
After breaking up with a co-author, I launched into the “get back on the horse” novel. I took an existing idea I’d had for a long time and turned it into a contemporary fantasy in an alternate world based on Hawaii.
I had some experience with Hawaii. I’d been on vacation there in the 1980s. But it was clear after taking just one advanced writing course that I needed to pay a lot more attention to the setting. I didn’t know enough about the location to build my setting, so I needed to do research.
But I wrestled with the idea of it. I’m not detail-oriented. Thinking about how to do “telling details” overwhelmed me. How did I research when I couldn’t even figure out what details I needed?
Then came the second problem: I don’t use outlines when I write, called a pantser. I just jump into the story and figure out what’s next when I write. How do you know what to research when you don’t know what you need? The only advice I found was to outline. Since outlines didn’t work for me, I was ready to pull my hair out.
But I wanted to finish a novel, and that meant this was a skill I had to work on.
The only books available on research were for academic and non-fiction. So I asked questions on message boards and looked up research tips on websites. The answers I found were enough to make my eyes glaze over!
There seemed to be such an extreme of everyone either treating it like they were in college out of fear they were going to fail writing or those who preferred research to writing and would happily do it forever. The fiction writers I did find were writing in the historical genre where the requirements were specific. I didn’t find anything to help a writer like me who didn’t fit in any of those categories. I just wanted to make the story feel like a tropical island without spending a year to do it (though a trip to Hawaii for on-site research wouldn’t have been off the table. I don’t loathe research that much!).
Where was the middle ground?
I didn’t know, but I had a story to research. So I dove into the deep end of the pool and started researching Hawaii.
- Drive to the library for tour books.
- Drive to library sales for more books on Hawaii.
- Drive to the bookstore for more books that I purchased.
- Drive to the University of Maryland for books on the culture
- Spent hours digging out the research portal on my library’s site for anything I could mine.
Every fact I recorded, I verified in two other sources. Every book I touched, I put on a bibliography.
More driving to office supply stores for yellow notepads. I scratched out incoherent notes on them (my printing is so bad I can’t always read it). When it came time to drive to the library, I couldn’t find the notepad I was using, so I grabbed another. Notes were scattered everywhere.
Then I’d forgot to write down one of my sources, so I’d have to drive back to the library to get it because everyone who said anything about research said “Track your sources.”
Somewhere along the way, I decided there was going to be an auction for a painting in the story—you guessed it! Time to research auctions. I grabbed one book from the library, but it didn’t feel like enough. I lucked out scoring auction catalogs at a library sale. Considered attending a local auction to get the experience and was probably lucky I couldn’t work it into my schedule. After that, I thought I would need to know about paintings, so I read up on art and art forgery.
I hadn’t even started writing the book and I’d already invested a tremendous amount of time and money on research for it.
Finally, I made first contact with the story and started writing.
How much of the research did I use?
I did on-the-spot research during the writing, all details I hadn’t thought of needing because I hadn’t started the story.
At least maybe I could save the work I’d done for a later project… But the notes were discordant, scattered—and how would I organize them so I could use them?
I had a vision of a system that where I could plug all this information in and find it when I needed it. I didn’t want to return to the well each time I needed to know the same fact. I wanted a place to do a brain dump of information that interested me like an encyclopedia just made for Linda Maye Adams. Evernote seemed to be a good option.
Organizing it was a nightmare.
The default recommendation is to assign keywords to the notes. I’m keyword stupid. I’d put in a bunch of keywords. Next time I’d put a note in, I’d forget about those keywords, create new ones that were similar but a little different. Sometimes I spelled them wrong. Then I’d repeat the same process on the next note.
My future self felt like it had to remember the keywords. Of course, over time, everything got pushed out of my brain.
One day I looked at what I had and I hadn’t used any of the research. It felt like the junk drawer in your kitchen. The notes I took were difficult to find and how I’d done the notes made them unusable. They didn’t connect to anything else. They just formed clutter in Evernote. I finally deleted them.
There had to be a better way to do this.
Tune in next week, same Write-Time, same Write-Channel for why you should do research even though your story is fiction.. But first, what are your complaints about research when it comes to your novel? What frustrates you the most? Let me know in the comments. It might influence some of the later chapters!