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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

Don’t fall into the endless research trap!

I nod sagely and smile. They have now been researching for thirty five years. Research has become a hobby, a way of life. If they wrote their novel, it would upend their entire routine. The novel will never be started, let alone finished.

It is also a disturbingly easy trap to fall into.

When I sold that book on proposal and dove into research, it was three months before I surfaced. I was about to buy another dozen books, when I stopped and thought, “Do I really need them? Or am I just afraid to write the book?”

I’d written eight novels before, but this one scared me more than others ever had. It was pre-sold. I’d cashed the check. Now I needed to live up to the editor’s expectations, right? She’d asked me for a witty, literary interpretation of the outline she’d seen. What if I fell on my face and proved incapable of doing what she wanted?

That was when I realized that no matter how many books I read, none would make the fear go away. I still had to start the novel eventually.  Would the next dozen books help? Would reading another scholarly dissertation on the meaning of the sonnets help me write about Shakespeare’s life before he ever went to London?

No, I didn’t know everything I needed. What did they eat for breakfast at the time? What were they likely to wear? What—

No matter how detailed an outline I had – and I had a very detailed one – there would be little things that arose in the writing which I would not know. Things like: “What type of pots did they use at the time? Were they ceramic or metal?” No matter how many books I read which describe everyday events, it was impossible to know every little detail as though I’d lived at that time.

To start writing I needed a general sense of the times.  And I couldn’t possibly know every little detail I’d need until I had a finished first draft. What to do then?

I learned the magic of unusual characters and search-replace. Say, in a scene I needed Shakespeare’s sister to come in, and I had no idea what her name was (yes, I did, but suppose I didn’t).  I’d either give her a place holder name and mark it with some character not common in novels – say, ^ — or use {look up name later}.

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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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