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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

Find your experts before they find you!

At the end of the writing day, I usually spent half an hour or so looking through the manuscript for those marks that I only used in those circumstances, and then going through my books – or the net, or my acquaintance – for information to replace them with the real name, place name, or date or relevant detail.

Writing the Shakespeare fantasies, I answered most “how did they” questions of the everyday sort by using two volumes: Daily Life In Elizabethan England by Jeffrey L. Singman and The Writer’s Guide To Life in Renaissance England by Kathy Lynn Emerson.

More detailed questions or those on which the books disagreed, I made a note to investigate afterwards. One of the great advantages of novel writing is that you can always fix it until the book is finished. No one needs to know how many passes it took you.

Another good part of starting to write is that you start seeing what you need very clearly. This will allow you to ask the right questions of experts. What experts, you ask? The experts that you’ll discover. Or that, in some cases, will discover you.

Most experts are passionate about their subject, but could never write a novel. To them, you’re both fascinating and unreliable. You fill them with a desire to make sure you get things right.

So, where do you find these experts? Well, once you have a few novels published, they’ll beat a path to your door, usually starting with a letter headed, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that in winter they’d never burn that type of wood/cook with that type of fat/wear that type of coat.”  Treat those notes with respect. Explain the efforts you made to find answers and tell them how much you wish you’d had an expert on hand when you wrote the first book. Most people will offer to be on-call.

But what about that very first book? How do you find your experts then? First do a net search. There will be blogs about your subject, written by college professors, scientists or other experts, and most are amenable to a polite questions via email. Failing that, call your local library reference desk. They will often be able to connect you with experts. Failing that, call the local college and ask if they have an expert in x.

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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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