If 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?