Friday, August 17, 2018

How Much Research Is Really Enough? Building Worlds, Bringing Back Worlds

A writer from Minneapolis recently sent me a good question about research.  He wondered how much and what kind of research a writer should do when writing historical novels.  I've gotten the same question from writers working on fantasy or sci-fi novels.  When is enough, enough?  When do you stop researching and start writing?  Or vice versa?




When you're world building, whether that world lives in past, in future, or entirely in imagination, you have to research.  Aspects you'll need to know about include: physical setting details, landscape including the weather and seasons and how they affect the characters, maybe the history of the place you're setting the novel, clothing or garments, science or technology details, food, daily activities, transportation, maybe weapons, maybe medicines or other healing modalities, and much more.  Building the world means welcoming your reader into it, and the world needs to be believable.

When I work on world building for my novels, I have a few fun research steps, which you may have also tried.  My goal is to know enough to be able to choose certain salient details that will make the world authentic enough for the reader to fully enter.

I start a research folder either on my desktop or in the Scrivener file for the new novel.  Then I gather.  I browse websites that might have good articles or information; I copy and paste the links into my research folder.  Sometimes, when I want to shuffle actual papers, I'll borrow library books or print out the articles I find.  I allow myself a month of this before I begin writing, because I want to get the flavor of the place clearly in heart and head.

I also gather images.  Those are often more useful at first, when I'm trying to visualize details like clothing and how someone would walk or move when wearing it; food and how it might be cooked or served; how the climate and landscape affects the characters.  I often create an image board (collage) in my writing notebook for that project or in Scrivener (uploading images and saving them on that software is surprisingly easy).     

There's a critical mass moment with research, though, and maybe you know what I'm talking about.  It's all too easy to lost in the wonderful world of research and avoid the writing itself.  After all, research does not a story make.  So I give myself a week, at the beginning, to gather as much as I can and pour through it.  Then I get to work.

During the drafting process, when I hit a hole in my research, I use the journalist's notation of TK ("to come").  I learned this as a newspaper writer.  If the story is flowing but you need a quote just here or a piece of setting detail, you just write TK and come back to it later.  A great trick--otherwise, it's way too easy to get derailed and never complete even one scene.  This week's writing exercise is to think about your research and make a list of questions you'd like to research for your book-in-progress.  What information still feels a little shaky in your mind?  What details need to be authenticated?

And if you're a research lover, honestly evaluate your percentages.  How much time do you spend researching and how much actually writing?  Could you try the TK trick to keep yourself moving forward and not get derailed this week?