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Mar 26, 2009

Research


Research -- and its counterpart, worldbuilding -- used to be my greatest joy in writing. Recently, I often feel so pressured to add beans to the wordcount, I don't feel I can afford to luxuriate in research as I used to.

The project I'm working on now is research-intensive. I thought I'd done most of the research already, working on a non-fiction piece.

However, as I've  started working on a detailed outline, I've realized the needs of non-fiction and fiction diverge greatly. For non-fiction, I mostly needed to know when, where and who. With those facts, I can speculate on why. For fiction I need to answer much more about how. How did it smell? How did it look? How did it taste? Only then can I speculate on how it felt.

My outline/draft so far is peppered with notes to myself: [NEED: description of a fishing ship] All of these notes are promises to myself to do research. 

Characters require research too. Names must fit the culture and period. Every character, even minor ones, needs a rough biography, and the major characters need a study with all their likes, dislikes, habits, childhood friends, mannerisms and so on. These character quirks cannot be simply drawn from my own circle of friends or my own imagination. Neither my personal experience nor my imagination is adequate to the task. I need to read real biographies, and draw inspiration from those. More research.

My husband points out I could research forever and never be satisfied. He may be right. But I've also found research to be the best antedote to writer's block. Sometimes, after deep reading of some fascinating culture, historical event or real person, I find myself so inspired I have to write down my own response, transformed into fiction.

How much research do you do in order to write your stories?

18 comments:

The Things We Carried said...

I have written so little fiction and typically do memoir style writing, but even then I HAVE to research!

Windsong said...

Depends. I tend to research in consistent, small bites. At least for the first draft. Subsequent drafts require more to make sure the details are correct. Have you looked at Patricia C. Wrede's worldbuilding questionnaire? Very daunting, but very comprehensive.

Alex Moore said...

interesting questions. i love how you use research to combat writer's block. very true -- insightful, really. timely advice, too :P

Archetype said...

Hm...I like researching, but then I'm not writing. I sometimes research a little scientific fact very intensively (since I write sf/f and sometimes a little scientific fact is very important), but I often try to wiggle around doing lots of research. Not because I'm lazy, I don't think -- just because it is too much of a distraction from the actual writing!

Tara Maya said...

It's true, even memoir requires some research.

I haven't heard of Patricia Wrede, but I will look into her questionaire.

slhastings said...

Aggh! Too much research. My last MS was heavy on the research side and the concept I have for the next one is even worse. Why can't I keep things simple???? Why?

Although, I do enjoy it...

Solvang Sherrie said...

I love doing research. Sometimes I get so caught up in the details I forget to write, but the story is so much richer. Even if most bits don't end up in the story. Research always gets my creativity flowing because it opens up so many possibilities.

sraasch said...

For my YA fantasy, I took a class on geology then borrowed my friend's geo book for little look-ups. For the book I'm semi-working on now, I've been watching "The Tudors" and plan on borrowing my aunt's book on the wives of Henry VIII. Then there's always Google, which is a great, fast way to answer little questions in the meantime.

Research is a great way to combat writer's block -- especially when that research involves watching Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Mmmm

Tara Maya said...

Yes, research is yummier than other.

scott g.f. bailey said...

I did piles of research for my current book, reading thousands of pages of text and making copious notes. Some of it was pure historical research, some of it geographical, some of it was sociological, but the most important stuff was about character. I read books written in the 16th century to see how those people thought about life, to find how their basic ideas about the world were different from ours (or the same). I wanted to know about fabric for clothes so I knew how people moved in those clothes, and I wanted to know a lot about the food they ate, too. My protagonist turns out to be obsessed with food. Who knew?

Even though I'm still revising that novel, I've already begun gathering research materials for my next two books. For one of them, there's a source I really want to read, but it's an out-of-print university press text that I can buy for something like $250. I'm sore tempted despite the price, because it looks like a goldmine and I can't find a copy of it in any library.

Lady Glamis said...

Tara, I did a post on research awhile ago. I LOVE research. I think it's one of the funnest things about writing!

And you are right. Research can really be a great tool for fighting writer's block.

You can read my post here: Experience That Novel!

Tara Maya said...

Scott,

It sounds like you and I research in much the same way. For this book, I have read about 80 nonfiction books and several notebooks worth of newspaper articles, eyewitness testimonies, even Congressional hearings.

How long did you research before you felt confident enough to write? Or did you start writing first and research as you went along?

My advice is to buy the rare book. Speaking as a complete and unrepentant book addict, these rare books are often a trove of priceless information. I have a few. If you can't really afford it, buy the book, scan / photocopy it (very carefully, if it is old) and then sell it again. You should recoup much of the cost. Or find the book in a library and scan / photocopy it.

If it's old, you might also look to see if it's available through Project Gutenburg.

http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

Lady Glamis,

MMMmmm. For this kind of research do you look up the recipe while you are in the midst of writing the scene, or do you collect recipes and other useful tidbits first and then work them into your novel only after the fact if you need them?

ban said...

when i first started writing i was surprised to discover how much research was needed to write fantasy (it's your own world with your own rules after all ... who knew :) but i was also overjoyed - i love doing research and i guess i'm not alone, seems a few of you get so caught up you forget to write too. it is definately my writer's block remedy ! i've got files upon files on my computor labeled 'research' with facts, pictures, interviews etc. now, if i put as much time into putting them to use as i did finding them ...

scott g.f. bailey said...

I started writing and then came to a dead stop when I realized I needed to know a lot of stuff before going on. The first couple of scenes I wrote never even made it into the first draft!

I think I did about a year of research, though research and writing overlapped for about six months, and after the first draft was done, I read a couple of books and incorporated my notes from them into the second draft.

I'm lucky that I work at a university so I have access to a lot of diverse sources. J-Stor is the best, if you know it. I was able to read through hundreds of articles from the back issues of literary and historical journals, all for free and all from my desk at home.

The rare book is only about 20 years old, and the truth is, I'll probably just buy it and keep it. For my current book, I bought a couple of out-of-print books from a shop in Germany and had them shipped to me. One of the books I bought for my next novel's research came in the post today. I can't wait to start work on that novel.

Windsong said...

You can read the questionnaire here:
http://www.sfwa.org/writing/worldbuilding1.htm

It's a great resource for things I'd never thought of before, but can add great detail to the story.

Tara Maya said...

Scott,

JSTOR is the best. I love it because I always know I'll get the full text of whatever article they offer. Too many other online libraries, even when offered through the university library system, will only give an summery or charge an outrageous fee to view the full article.

Windsong, thanks for the link!

Windsong said...

You're welcome. :D

Lady Glamis said...

Tara:
I research as I go. :)