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Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 5: How to Escape the Blackhole of Endless Research

With these tips you can avoid dying buried In books and focus on writing.

Sarah Hoyt


April 9, 2013 - 2:00 pm
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I sold my first novel, Ill Met by Moonlight, fifteen  years ago at a workshop on the Oregon Coast run by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.

The proposal was created at the workshop as an exercise. This being the dark ages, and the workshop house lacking internet connection, I wrote about something I knew really well: Ill Met by Moonlight (and the three books that followed, now available as an Omnibus) attempts a magical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s biography.

The problem: my confidence in my knowledge lasted until I sold the proposal. Then I panicked and bought thirty more books on Shakespeare, to keep company with the forty I already owned.

This is because a writer’s need for research isn’t exactly sane or logical.

Part of it is, of course, a search for information. My books always need research, and often more research than is immediately obvious.

Of course when writing science fiction, I buy the latest books on whatever will be in the novel — terraforming, or space flight, or genetic engineering. However, plotting details also often require research. Say there is a battle in the novel – I will read accounts of historical battles for the strategy and the feel. Or say that my character survived some horrible personal event – it helps to ground the novel if I read the biographies of people with similar experiences, or even clinical articles about similar cases.

For the book currently in the works (“Through Fire,” book two of the Earth Revolution), I find myself reading a lot of books about or set in the French Revolution.

The problem when you start doing that kind of research is that there is a nearly infinite number of resources, and you can get lost in them. By definition you research things you’re interested in, so of course you want to keep reading about it. Also, as long as you’re researching, you can claim to be working really hard, and you can delay having to face the blank page (or screen).

Twenty years ago, I knew people who had spent fifteen years researching a foreign country, had traveled to that country, and owned enough books on it to stock a large municipal library. All without writing so much as a word of their proposed opus.

Periodically I run into these same people at writers’ events or local libraries. They will accost me with the enthusiasm of new converts wishing to share religious revelation: they just discovered a fascinating fact about the country where their novel will eventually be set; the history of this or that region works wonderfully with their plot; did I know that such and such a ruler had a horse exactly like the main character’s horse?

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All Comments   (3)
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I'm usually writing "make believe" so I never feel like I need to research. And I'm usually wrong, but even realizing that doesn't help me know *what* to research. So what happens is I start writing and get stuck right away. Making the notes in brackets helps quite a bit. Or putting a note in asking myself if I want to make some major change about what I just wrote instead of going back and making that big decision before I go on.

The little thing I trip on most is not knowing what to name anyone. It's amazing how many bit characters walk through a scene and of course the protag knows who they are, so the protag is going to say "Hey, Bob..." and there I sit completely paralyzed because *I* don't know that his name is Bob. An author (I don't recall who) once said that what she does is make a list of bit-part names, just a list, and when she needs another name she's got one. I have pretty good luck with that.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Useful advice. Definitely bookmarking this in my writing links folder.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As a reader, I don't like to see novels devolve into pedantry. If one is using a real culture as the centerpiece, yes it's probably better to have some fundamental grasp of that culture. If someone has electromagnetic pulse bursts to disable a space plane in atmosphere, and the same weapon used the same way in outer space where there is little means to convey EMP, and if the acts are relatively divorced from the rest of the novel, then I don't care.

Relentlessly crossing "T's" and dotting "I's" can kill a story for me. Science fiction is equal parts both things, not a scientific theory that needs to pass muster with an academic journal. Verisimilitude and artistic license can cross paths in many ways in SF and we shouldn't forget how dumb it is to make a perfect science about things that don't exist in the first place, like a specific alien culture.
1 year ago
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