Writers are really life-long scholars. Sure, we get to play around in fiction and make up rules in our fantasy worlds sometimes, but when push comes to shove we are constantly having to “Google” one thing or another. Whether we’re researching words (Hello, online Thesaurus) or we need to find out just how far away Pluto is from Earth (NASA has a really cool site for that) the research of a writer never seems to be done.
With each book comes a new set of questions, new things we need to know to make the novel believable because the last thing we want to do is insult our readers.
Science Fiction authors find themselves having to explain gravity on a ship. Historical Fiction authors need to know their time period well enough to keep readers rooted in the story. Crime writers need to know police procedure and proper investigative techniques. And the list goes on.
The bottom line is, if you’re a writer then you’re a researcher too. There’s just no getting around this work.
Now, I’ve heard horror stories of authors who get lost in the library, researching so much that they never actually start to write the story. When I started my first historical fiction (Persona) I was seriously afraid of this happening.
I absolutely love history. It would have been easy for me to get sucked into all the facts and true stories about what happened in WWII and I knew it. So I made a list of rules for myself before I started the project and, because I’m about to start my second historical fiction (The Abolitionist) in November, I thought I would share those rules today.
1) Write the Character First
Before I did any research I had to have my main character firmly in my sights. With Persona this was Megan Crossweathers, and I wrote the entire first chapter before I began researching. Now, I did have to go back and edit that chapter quite a bit after I’d done my research, but that first chapter helped me ask very specific questions for my research.
Example: After writing that first chapter I knew I had Megan on a boat that was about to sink. So I researched boats that sank until I found the S.S. Ceramic (No, really, that’s its name) which sank right about where I needed it to and had only one reported survivor.
2) Know What You Need
I’m pointing to the first rule up there “Know your character” again because if you know your character and the story you’re meaning to tell then you won’t get lost in a sea of information as you’re writing. As much fun as it is to learn about history (or science or crime or whatever your passion is) there’s only so much that’s actually going to be useful.
So, you need to know what you need.
Example: During my recent editing of Tapped I found my characters walking on Pluto. (The dwarf planet, not the Disney character or the Roman god of the Underworld.) In order to do that I needed to know the climate of the dwarf planet (which is very, very cold by the way) and the terrain and … you get it.
Generally speaking, you come up with these questions as you write which brings me to my third and final rule …
3) Keep Writing
Many things constitute as research in my book. Preparing for The Abolitionist, I’ve begun watching movies centered on the Civil War (just watched Gettysburg this weekend) and gathered documentaries which I will slowly begin to consume. These help me two-fold because documentaries let me get my learning on (I totally love The History Channel) while also seeing the styles (hair, clothing, weaponry) right in front of me.
Here’s the thing …
All that information is useless unless I have someplace to put it. And I’ll never find a place to put it unless I’m still writing.
So for every hour I spend watching a documentary, I have to spend an hour writing too. Sometimes I start the day writing and then watch a documentary, other times I watch first and then write. Either way, I’m researching as I go.
I’m one of those bizarre hybrid writers who can never start a novel with an outline. The first dozen chapters are what I like to call “cause and effect” writing, which presents the character and a particular problem and then watching said character try to resolve that particular problem. But I can’t finish a novel without an outline either.
By the middle of the book I have a firm enough grasp on the character, theme, and plot of the novel that I can write a sketchy outline to help me reach the end. I call this “Muse Central” because I go about a week or so where I don’t write anything on the novel itself, but instead let my Muse take control to write the outline.
These are just my rules. It’s not a “one size fits all” thing here.
Authors who like to have an outline from the get-go probably won’t benefit here. Discovery writers (writers who don’t use an outline) might.
I don’t know. I’m really just winging it here. These are rules that helped me and on the off chance that they might help someone else, I decided to share them. Writing is a craft, after all, and no one way is going to work for everybody.