Thursday, November 5, 2009

Research: when it's enough, already!

Research. We all have to do it, pretty much no matter what genre you write. If your main character is a lawyer, you’re going to have to bone up on court procedures and formalities, legal terminology, legal ethics (yes, despite all the shark jokes, there is such a thing!). If you set your book in a real city, you’ll have to research landmarks, street names, in order to get your setting just right. This is all to ground your story and your characters in believability - nothing worse than reading a book and being hit in the face by some fact or word you know is just plain wrong. Ugh.

So, we research. Some find it torturous. Some love it. And some just take it too far …

Erm, that’d be me.

I freely admit I’m a research junkie. Part of the thrill I experienced when I first started writing Blood of the Heart was the prospect of all that juicy research. I re-joined my university library, with its humungous French History collection, and dived straight in. All those books to pore over, some of them 80 years old, 100 years old, 150 years old, and there I was, holding them in my hot little hands. Swoon.

Like a kid in a lolly shop, I was in that library every other week, borrowing my ten book limit every time, filling my brain to capacity with all sorts of facts about nineteenth century medicine, nineteenth century clothing, nineteenth century transport, nineteenth century etiquette, nineteenth century Paris …

I was writing all the while, too. I wasn’t ever one to think I had to know everything before I could write. How much more fun it is to research and write!

Except it didn't quite work that way. What I noticed, in my hyper-research phase, was that I was becoming a little paralyzed. I’d write a sentence: “She held her breath as she struck the match.” I’d stop. Damn. I think they had matches back then, I know I read about them somewhere, but I’m not one hundred percent sure … and did they call them matches? The term ‘lucifiers’ rings a bell … Off I’d scurry, flipping through text books, poring over my notes, Googling like a madwoman, to nail down the answers. A good hour or so later I’d be back to type the next sentence: “What she saw turned her legs to liquid; she stumbled back, spilling the whisky …” Whoa. We’re in France. Wouldn’t they be drinking cognac? And off I’d go again …

I was writing at a snail’s pace, people. Snail’s pace. Being slowed down by worrying over things I thought I had to get right, the first time round.


You don’t.

One day, whilst noodling around the CompuServe Forum, one of the brilliant Research and Craft Section leaders posted about these things called … (drum roll) …SQUARE BRACKETS. I cannot remember who it was; I wish I could because I’d buy her a drink, for these magical square brackets have saved me from being stuck on page twenty of my first draft forever. Now, when I’m unsure whether a fact or a name is correct, instead of researching it to death I simply whack a pair of square brackets round it and keep going. These brackets serve as a visual reminder that I need to do some research – after my first draft is done, leaving me free to get on with my story right now.

Ah, the liberty!

And another thing; after my initial burst of full-on research (I have 92 books listed on a very rough bibliography, which I haven’t updated for nearly a year!) I’ve cut back dramatically on how much research-related reading I do. I might use Google for a quick fact-check, but that’s about it. And you know what I’ve discovered? Knowing when to call it quits with the research in my first draft not only eliminated the stop-start writing, it also helped me avoid the dreaded info dump. When you know close to all that can be known about a topic, it can be hard to be objective enough to determine just how much information the reader really needs. So you end up putting everything in and write some of the most boring scenes known to mankind. I know this because that first 70k of my book had way too many of these brain-busters. Thank God I deleted the whole thing two years ago, so I don't have to share any of my clangers with you. Shudder!

So, when your love of research is actually holding back your writing, you need to let it go and just write, and tell yourself you’ll plug all the holes when you revise. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in SFD land forever, with a manuscript that more closely resembles a text book than a novel, and who the heck wants that?

That said, I do have a confession – I’m going to the library this Friday. I’ve come across a book I just have to read ... OK, it’s two books, but I swear that’s all I’ll borrow. What’s that? My fingers are crossed? Never! (g)

Anyway, that’s my take on research. How about you? Do you love or loathe it? Do you marinate your brain for months and refused to write until you’re across your subject matter in every possible way? Or like me, (the reformed me, that is) dot your manuscript with square brackets like they’re going out of fashion?


  1. Hi Rachel,

    Square brackets all the way *g* It generally doesn't make much difference to a scene so I usually just bracket the troublesome detail and move on. Looking up the finickity details just seems like Too Much Hard Work to me *g* I know, I know, I'll have to do it eventually...but in the meantime I have shiny writing to do.

  2. Rachel

    I adore research. I could spend my life 24/7 doing nothing but research. Finding obscure details makes me so happy! I'm like a rat in a rubbish bin when it comes to research. (Are you getting the idea how much I love it?)

    Unfortunately time spent researching is not time spent writing, so I have to ration myself. I make good use of the square bracket technique while I'm writing. I set up my blog 1841...and now as the place where I can dump the fruits of my research and the strange places it takes me - that gets it all out of my system, generates even more interesting research questions by email from friends and family, and hopefully saves me from the ghastly info dump in the middle of my story.

  3. Rachel,

    I'm another one who adores research, and have had the same experience you described about the matches. Another pitfall of too much research on my part is that it seems to "color" what sort of my book I think I am writing.

    For example, I read the most wonderful memoir ever that came from my time period. Afterwards I began to consider how great the memoir form (a fictional memoir, of course) would be for my WIP. Sigh.

  4. Rachel,

    I got the square bracket habit from Diana G. But I'm sure others have mentioned it too. As for me, I use 'em. The only time I halt the first drafting is when the answer to my research/historical question will dictate the direction of an important story thread. I can't write past that point, even if I'm pretty sure what direction the story will take, because I'll feel on too shaky ground. What if I'm wrong and I don't bother to check? It's happened before. And then I spent way too much time editing/rethinking/scrapping scenes. I need to know I'm on solid footing story-wise, historically speaking. But for little things, brackets are a writer's best friend!

  5. Helen R-S: You're right. Forward momentum with the writing is so much better than hand-wringing over the details (as I have come to learn!)

    Helen: Ah, a girl after my own heart! (g) My poor husband is often forced to endure my excited ravings over some obscure factoid I've managed to unearth - he either rolls his eyes or feigns sleep. (g)

    Stephanie - Ah, yes, there is that. You do want your research to influence your writing, but not completely take it over!

    Lori - Ah, yes, it probably was DG. I also have a vague recollection of Eve Ackerman extolling the virtues of square brackets, too. The Forum is such a fabulous place for writers, isn't it?

  6. I got the square bracket thing from Diana too, and it saved my life! Before that, I would just keep writing and writing, which was fine - until I got to the editing stage, and then had to stop every two seconds and question myself "did you look this up? are you sure this is right? better check again!" Now, with the square brackets, I know exactly where to direct my research, since I try to have most of the story written before starting in on real research (it's hard to stop myself from Googling random things every few days). I haven't tried it, but I'm afraid that if I do extensive research before even starting a story, it'll affect the way I write. So far so good - I haven't hit any major inaccuracies that force me change entire story arcs. Knock on wood!
    I like Helen's idea of putting many of the research details on one's blog - seems like a good way to ward off info-dumping. Though it's true, I do tend to start babbling about my research topics to the people around me. Yet I can't seem to brag about my books :-(

  7. Hi guys, I'm another believer in square brackets and again it was Diana that said it. It makes such a difference. Thanks for reminding me. I'm stuck in a police station not knowing what people's ranks would be and the scene has stalled here for months. I'll just square bracket it now and move on.

  8. Ah yes, the brackets. :) Thank goodness I don't have to deal with a lot of them --given that most of my stuff is contemporary and doesn't require a lot of research. I DO have some brackets, tho--some that are still there, no matter how hard I try to fill them in. LOL. There's one in BTPM that's been there for over two years. NO clue what to put in's a song...not sure which one, yet. Silly.

    But yeah, using brackets is a great way to get past sticking points. I use them A LOT when I don't know the name of a character. i.e. [] stepped forward and saluted the captain. Blah blah blah. Names are hard for me for whatever reason--even Gabe and Drew were []'s at one point. LOL.

    One thing is for sure, tho. I'm not sure I'll ever have quite the research bug that y'all have. (g) It's NOT my thang. At all.

  9. Oh, Jen, me too! The most inappropriate names come so easily, and then I have to work at finding names that are actually suited to the era/age/character...

  10. Tee hee, I SO did this, Rach. Man, could I go off in a research tangent. Like, writing a scene involving the police in 1850's Chicago -did they have police? What did they dress like? Called? And where _was_ the police station anyway. Next thing I know two hour have gone by. :P

    Like others have said, I first remember seeing Diana using the bracket and it was a light bulb/big ole "duh" moment for me as well. Sooo helpful, those brackets!