Friday, July 30, 2021

When to Research, When to Write: How to Balance the Different Kinds of Book-Writing Tasks

Starting a new book is always a great adventure. The idea comes--so many different ways that can happen, from a dream, some intriguing research or a news article, a question ruminating, the image of characters, even a conversation playing in your head. Some writers begin with a storyboard, some with an outline, some launch right into scenes and chapters.

Most books require research, no matter the genre. Take my current novel, located on an island I once visited and never forgot. I spent a half day online verifying facts about the geography and climate, so I could pepper the narrative with realistic details (not quite as delightful as another visit but necessary). A writing colleague is working on Civil-War historical fiction--tons of research about place, era, clothing, even speech is essential to create a believable setting. Memoir might need rereading journals or diaries, interviewing family and friends. Nonfiction is often the most research-intense, with hours or weeks of fact-searching and checking to make everything accurate.

A student wrote me this week about balancing the research and the writing. How do you know you have enough research in hand, she wondered, to begin the writing itself? Another writer recently had a similar question. He's working on his second novel . He told me, "I’ve done 6 months of research, read 10 books, did the Google searches, and related readings, but don’t know if I have enough research for my sequel. I once thought that as you wrote you continued with research, but since I’m covering a time span of 60 years, I don’t want go get bogged down."

For me, this has always been a dilemma. I usually need some research to anchor my draft and get me started, but like my student says, it's all too easy to get lost in the online searches, which can become endless and endlessly distracting. That's the beauty and the creative handicap of the internet: it leads to more and more, and you can lose your momentum to just begin the book.

I can share my process, as one writer: I like to begin with a list of ideas for scenes, which I call my brainstorming list of "islands," or snippets of writing that will become full scenes and eventually chapters. That comes before research. It's a kind of mind dump. I create it over several weeks, even months, in my writer's notebook. Each book has a writer's notebook and the list has a home (where I can easily find it again). Other writers like to create a folder on their desktop and a document called "brainstorming list." I try to have 150-200 ideas on this list. Honestly, it's one of the simplest and best tools for preventing writer's block.

Once I have enough on the list (nearing 100 ideas), I'll highlight the ones that will need research. Then I dedicate a small part of each writing session to brief research forays. By brief, I mean 10-15 minutes. I set a timer. No way around that--the internet sucks me in and time vanishes if I don't. I accumulate links or print pages or images and keep them in a folder, either on the desktop or on my desk, labeled "research." In Scrivener, which I love as an organizational tool for book writers, I can upload these links, pages, and images and attach them to the relevant scene or chapter as it develops.

My personal wiring is such that I can't do more than those brief forays of research. It's mind-numbing and it can sap my creative juices fast. I have to limit it, as well as make it relevant to my brainstorming list topics. Others can spend hours on research and their writing is better for it. Not me.

When my scenes and chapters begin to come together, I look back at my research and use it to fill gaps. But often the writing itself reveals areas that aren't substantiated enough. I don't know if there is a gated community on the island. I don't know the weather in mid-October, around hurricane season. But here's my personal rule: I don't stop writing to go find out. Not right then. I make a note about the questions then keep drafting until I come to the end of the writing session. Tomorrow, first thing, I'll get online and research. It'll be fun, I look forward to it, and my brain will chew over the topic until then--a great way to stay connected to the book overnight.

So, yes, to answer my student's question, I do keep research going as I write. But I control how and when I do it, never letting it interrupt a writing session. I think he's definitely ready to write, after all the months of research, and I wish him a very engaging and happy journey into the new world of this second novel.

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