Sucked into the research vortex

time-and-space-vortexIf you are a writer, you must do research. That is sort of a given. One of the staples of the writing life. Even if you write fiction, and purport to make it all up, there will come a time when you will want to know the definition of a given word, or the infinitesimal difference between one word and the next. Then you must consult something, whether it’s a quick internet search or a large tome on a stand. It’s surprising, actually, how much research you will find yourself doing.

But if you are writing historical fiction or any nonfiction, or really, even most fiction, you will need to know more. You can make up a whole world but you will still need to know how people do certain things given certain parameters.

And in my world, with my story set oh so many years ago, there are many parameters.

I had always written essays and poetry. I had tried writing a novel a couple of times, but it just fell flat. Then I got an idea, and I realized it was an idea that could actually work. It was something I was interested in and that I wanted to know more about, and there was a story there. However, it required me to find out an awful lot about a time and place that I knew little about. Lucky for me, I was obsessed.

Because when you start to pull that world together, and the words flow onto the page, it’s like magic. When you have created a scene where something happened, where before there was nothing – that’s a kind of magic, isn’t it? Probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing magic. Conversations that never existed, until now. And if you’re a pantser like me, each day brings these new surprises. New delights, but at the same time, the whole thing is playing like a movie in my head.

Until, of course, it’s not. When a time comes that the character must do something concrete, like take off a shoe. And I have to figure out what that shoe looked like. Laces? No laces? Leather or fur? Or the boat they ride in, or the dishes they eat off of. It’s all so fascinating to me, I can’t help but describe it.

After I spend hours looking it up. Oops. Sucked into the research vortex, I made the oft-repeated mistake of falling in love with my research. I pitched the book at a conference and couldn’t help myself from telling the agent all about the archeology it was based on. I caught myself, but it was close.

I have seen cases where the author’s research was showing. Where the corset of the character was described in too much detail. Where we know they spent time researching something, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet here they are describing it. It doesn’t add anything.

This is something to be wary of, my friends. What your story is about, and the backstory research that you have to do to make that world come alive, should not intersect. That backstory, though, is so very necessary. You must fully flesh out the world yourself, before you can fully bring it to life. And it shows, but not in ways that are obvious. That is known as depth.

So be careful out there. Do a lot of research, but not so much that you don’t write the story. And write the story, but don’t show so much research that the story takes a backseat. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips or guidelines for realizing you are in too deep and pulling yourself out, or where that fine line is when the research overtakes the story. I am just starting out here, and I hope that I can tell the difference. I already know that the time has come to stop doing the research for a little while. We’ll see how that plays out on the page.

How many of you have been sucked into the research vortex? How did you haul yourself out of it?

Why we write at times like this

Men_reading_the_Koran_in_Umayyad_Mosque,_Damascus,_Syria
How can anyone, after watching the horrific events of this past week, this past month, this past year, think that putting imaginary worlds down on a blank page could have any meaning?

I will tell you.

It is precisely in times like this, precisely in times when all fabric of humanity seems to be unraveling, when we are struggling to make sense of actions that seem senseless, when we are determined to overcome fear and uncertainty, that we need to write.

Because it is precisely at these times that we need to read.

Because it is stories that most concisely encapsulate our human condition. It is stories that show us that there is good in the ogre; there is beauty in the ugly duckling; and that there is no place like home. It is stories that show us that no matter how awful or black the world may seem, there is some light in it. There is good behind the scenes, there are those attempting to right wrongs, there are those who will fight for the underdog, the downtrodden, the ones left behind.

It is times like this that story becomes even more important.

It is times like this, when the television becomes a weapon, delivering a slew of hate and violence until we just can’t take it any more, that we must unplug, turn it off, drop out and open a book. Who hasn’t lost themselves in a good book when life got just way too overwhelming? Who hasn’t sought solace in a favorite story, the one almost memorized, the go-to imaginary world of prose or poetry that softens the blows, that reminds us that yes, everything will be all right.

It may seem frivolous to pull out the laptop. It may seem even silly to again enter that world you are creating, to create more myths, more monsters, more heroes. But it is those monsters that we can slay. It is those heroes that we can root for. And reading these stories will help us to enter into our own narrative with a fresh perspective, give our mind a little space to process all that it has seen, all the unanswerable questions and perplexing nastiness.

So go. Write your stories. Write your poems. Work on the ideas that are playing in your head. Don’t try to imagine how things in this world can get worse or get better. Control the world you are creating. And when you come out of that world, this world might seem a little more manageable. You may have some answers, some solutions that you hadn’t thought of before. It’s a slim hope, but we need that.

We need to hope that the dragon will be vanquished. That traffic stops won’t be a death sentence. That scuffles won’t turn into vigils. That people will not be blown up as they pray. That some sense will prevail, as we write the most far-fetched story we can think of, the one in which color doesn’t matter.