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

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}.