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

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?

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}.

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.

Finish researching! Start writing!

Make your question concise and articulate. You don’t ask “Tell me everything you know about glass manufacture in the seventeenth century”; you ask – as I did for one of the Musketeer Mysteries, “How big a mirror would a middle class woman in seventeenth century France own? And would it be glass or polished metal?”

(It is, however, a bad idea to call your local police and ask: “If you have a corpse, massing around 150lbs, where would you hide it in the metro area so it’s never found?” Another novice writer who was part of my group 15 years ago did that. The police did let her go after two hours.)

Accept that your time is finite, and that you can’t research every detail. Research just enough to write a first draft of your book, and any missing information will be both obvious and accurately pinpointed. Fix any missing information in revision, then hand it to your experts to read for accuracy before the publisher ever sees it.

When you’re done, remember to thank all your human sources of information.

But the most important thing is to know when you’ve researched enough and when to set the research aside and start writing.

You know enough to begin. What you don’t know can always be filled in. The alternative is to spend the rest of your life researching the perfect novel you will never write.


Check out the previous installments in the series:

The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program

3 Questions To Ask Before You Write Your Novel In 13 Weeks

Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 2: First You Catch Your Idea

Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 3: The Plot Wars

Your Novel In 13 Weeks, Part 4: How To Find The Time For Writing

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