Tuesday, 4 January 2011


Are you bogged down with research for your book? Don't be. When I was looking for amusing and pointful videos clips for your holiday gifts, I came across one about research. It's not a brilliant presentation, but the guy (I can't find his name) does make two good points. You don't have to watch it because I'll make the points below.

These are the two important points:

1. The idea of writing the book first (or at least the first draft) and then doing the research later is not as stupid as it seems. It is what I do, so how could it be stupid? With Mondays are Red I did no research on synaesthesia until just before publication, when I realised I'd have to give talks about it. That's a bit extreme but I have done first drafts of most of my other books without much, or any, research. Even historical novels. Yes, I might do some research earlier but only for the broad points such as dates and main events, not details.

Of course, it does depend very much on the book. But for many books, even most books, it's perfectly possible to get the story down after minimum research. And the point that the guy in the video and I want to make is that too many writers attach so much importance to the research that it actually stops them writing the book.

Let me also point out, lest you think I favour books that are light on detail, that the level of research I sometimes do, certainly for historical novels (of which I've written three) is intense and immense. I need to know how buildings were made, how clothes were woven, the material of every cup and plate, even if I never actually describe or mention them. But I don't need to know it all for the first draft. I dip and skim and am magpie-like at that stage. Later, I fill in the gaps and enrich everything.

You can also research as you go. That way, you'll only research what you need and not waste time. I'm halfway through a novel at the moment and have decided on a new scene that requires some research and a trip to London; I know I can't do that trip till later in January, so I'm just noting what I need to know or check, but writing the scene anyway. Actually, what I'm doing is "writing past the scene", sketching out the action so that I can move ahead and fill it in later. What I can't do is leave a huge blank for it: I need to know what the characters do during that scene, even if there are details I don't know.

I should also point out that one of the great things about research is that it can throw up new ideas and inspiration. So, I wouldn't want to knock that. However, if you take that view too strongly, you'll keep researching for ever because you think that in the next thing you read you MIGHT come across a wonderful story. No. Stop. Write.

2. I also hugely agree with the guy's tip about putting an asterisk at a bit where you need to do research later, and then carrying on with the first draft. That is something I learnt recently. (Or, better than an asterisk, a bit of yellow highlighting or a comment box.) Then, you don't lose the flow and can easily find the bits later and deal with them.

That is one change I made to my writing process last year and I urge you to try it. It helps switch off the internal editor and just get the damned first draft down.

So, stop researching. Now. Write the book. Finish the research later.


catdownunder said...

My supervisor at university said much the same thing, "There comes a point where you have to stop reading, start thinking and then doing some writing."
I have read things I never expected to read (like a book on the history of lighthouses) and it can be fun but yes, you need to know when to stop.
But, and it is a big but, you also need to know you have done enough to start or you could end up with a plot that will not work. For my current WIP I needed to know about school leaving ages. The Education Act of 1944 raised the school leaving age in the UK but it was not in 1944 - I could have been caught if I had not read a little further. If you do research well I think you can learn to sense when to stop and what to check further.

Sarah Hilary said...

And can there be a caveat about not dumping the research in the text just because you sweated blood doing it? I've just given up on a book I was enjoying because of just such an info dump. First the heroine sat and read and the author put page after page of what she was reading into italics and seemed to think that would be exciting for the reader. THEN he had her talking to another expert who spouted page after page of further research. Bah!

Kate Kyle said...

Thanks for this post, Nicola. I feel less guilty that I've written my novel without doing much research and actually did it after finishing the 1st draft.

I hate researching for many reasons, mainly because I get bored very quickly and can't rememebr all the details anyway.
So I follow two pieces of advice:
1/'Go deep by stay narrow' by Jody Hedlund (http://jodyhedlund.blogspot.com/2010/10/4-tips-for-researching-novel.html)
2/'My duty is to the fiction' by Greg Rucka (http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2010/10/11/sinking-the-titanic/)

suits me :)

Cathy said...

This post has just hit the spot for me. My second novel had stalled almost at the start because I'm bogged down in research for what will be two small sections. The research is important, because it involves sensitive historical events with potential to offend, but I can see now that I know enough to just get the story down and then go back to check facts and adjust as necessary. Thank you for clearing my mind at the start of a new writing year.

Leela Soma said...

As always a sensible piece of advice Nicola. Research can sometimes take over and procrastinating your own work becomes so easy. I am doing a family memoir and the research is fascinating and taking up so much time. I love it but must reign it in. Thanks for the advice.

Lauri said...

I absolutely agree. I re-read Birdsong over the holidays and I couldn't help but think he'd done the research and wanted to make sure it wasn't a waste. As far as I'm concerned the details about guns were boring. It added nothing to the story for me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat - I agree about needing to do enough research first, and for the rreasons you say. As I said in my blog post, I do the research for crucial facts such as dates first. It's also the case that by not doing masses of research beforehand, one might hit a snag when one discovers a crucial fact later, but these problems can always be solved, often more easily than we imagine.

Sarah and Lauri - indeed. I've blogged about this somewhere before but this blog has become so huge that it's hard to find thigns. I'll do it again soon. I call it "wearing your research lightly". And if you want an example of how to do it badly and yet make a fortune, try Dan Brown!! :(0

Scribocin - thanks for those links. I'll check them out.

Cathy and Leela - hooray!

Unknown said...

I agree too much detail is unnecessary and slows plot development. I try to think like a reader when I'm writing: beyond the colour, the sound, and a sense of how it feels to the character I'm not interested in a lot of detail. I need the story; I want to feel like the character does

Unknown said...

This is very helpful. I had been wondering how much research to do for my next project and exactly what information I would need. I think the best thing for me to do is write and research in parallel. That will help me rank the most important information which I'll need to shape the story.

Ali George said...

This is great advice for the project I'm currently working on. I've challenged myself to write 12 first drafts of 12 books this year, and decided before I started I would lightly research as I went and go back later to add further detail. But because the first book happens to be historical, I've spent the past few days researching without writing... you have reminded me not to get bogged down, so thanks for this post!

Mary Hoffman said...

I'd like to agree and to an extent I do but I know full well, that, having written 8 full-length novels with a historical component, I absolutely HAVE to research first. Of course I know when to stop and also when to break off writing to do a bit more, but so much of what I create depends on knowing the facts (especially in the 'straight' historicals)that I would go sadly wrong if I attempted a D1 without research.

Having said that, I think your advice is excellent to a first-time novelist who is clinging on to the research phase just to postpone the hard grind of writing. We all know the appeal of that!

Matt said...

Good post! It's almost like you're writing specifically for me. :)

Regarding point 2, this appears to be a time-honoured trick. Lifehacker recently covered this topic, with people like Cory Doctorow advocating the use of 'TK' as a followup marker, due to it being a rare bigram in English.

Though I suppose anything similar would work. For instance, I often use 'ZZZZZ' to denote ^p^p when doing mass formatting changes in Word, etc (normally when reformatting Project Gutenberg TXT files for my Kindle :)).

Tom M Franklin said...

i just spent part of the last week doing research on something relatively obscure, about which i had no background on. luckily, The Google was my friend, as was a long-time RL friend with a PhD in astrophysics.

i had my rough draft of the scene written, but the scientific specifics were essential to the action, specifically for what could go right and what i could make go wrong for my characters.

i completely agree with the idea that you need to stop doing research at some point and start writing. that's usually at the start of the process. hip-deep in revisions, there are times when i find i need to stop and get story points clear in my head before i can make the scene work for me.

-- Tom

Marshall Buckley said...

And never forget that this is fiction, so if you need to bend the rules a little, do so.

For my last book, I needed information about nuclear power stations. The nice lady at British Energy didn't seem too concerned at my probing questions, but gave me the complete opposite of what I wanted to hear.

So I chose to ignore it. As long as it sounds plausible to the average reader, I figure that's OK!

Jim Murdoch said...

Much depends on what kind of book you’re doing but I think for novels that don’t revolve around specific historical events then this is good advice. I tend to write what I hope is right, then check it later and amend. I also switch between writing, editing and research: I write until I reach a natural stopping point (or hit a wall usually) then go back, reread from the start, graft in notes and expand where necessary and it’s usually at this point I will also double check my facts. It’s a slower process that would suit some writers but I’m just about finished my fifth novel this way so it does work for me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jim - that mirrors my usual method rather exactly. And you are right: it depends hugely on the book. In fact, pretty much everything anyone says about anything depends on the book!

Marshall - agree, though it's hard to put one's finger on what is ok to bend and what isn't. for example, I referred to umbrellas in Fleshmarket because I happened to know they had just been invented. I feel that if I'd mentioned them and they hadn't been invented, I'd have picked up for an anachronism, and rightly criticised. On the other hand, I had a fire happening in a particular year in particular streets, which happened to be true, but if they hadn't been then inventing them would simply have been legitimate fiction.

Book Maven - absolutely. All books are different and all writers.

Matt - interesting!

Julie P said...

I used asterix when I was writing my NaNo novel as I didn't have the time to do the research. But I'm looking forward to going back through that manuscript and researching!

JO said...

Of course, you are right. But you have forgotten one vital function of research - putting off writing! And it doesn't feel as sinful as cleaning the oven or walking the dog - all the other things we do to prevaricate, as it feels as if it is part of the writing process. (Please tell me I'm not the only one that does this!)

Hart Johnson said...

I sometimes pull up maps or location information as I go because it makes a difference to the action, but MOST stuff I ABSOLUTELY wait to research. My reason? I get too excited about things that sort of fit the story and work hard to fit it all in--it ends up a mess. Far better to put the right details in after the story has been drafted. Then you only have what you need. Yes, sometimes you need to revise some, but that is far easier to cope with than the jumbled mess I get with researching first.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

The worst writing you'll ever do is when you've got the history or geography book in the other hand. Research needs time to stew down in your writerly head, until they're facts in the way that your knowledge of human behaviour or you home town are facts, and can emerge on the page in the same natural way.

I regard it as my failure if anyone except a fellow writer thinks while they're reading a novel of mine, "Blimey, she must have done tons of research." They're welcome to be impressed afterwards. Specially if they're also buying me a large drink and telling me it's the best book they've read in years.

So, like you, Nicola, I research only the things which will really derail my first draft if I get them wrong (I once had to re-plot an entire novel because broken legs turned out to take twice as long to mend as my guesswork thought.).

I don't research during the first draft if I can possibly help it - and yes, that's where the asterisks come in. (Although research which involves serious travelling just has to happen when the childcare can be got.)

Then I emerge from the first draft with a monster list of things to find out, and get on with it. Usually I end up not using them, but stumbling on all sorts of other juicy morsels instead.

And in the end I rely on writers' circle, editor, etc., to tell me when I still haven't murdered enough researchly darlings - "Get that knife out!" is the cry.

Anonymous said...

One other thought: if you possibly can, it's really worth actually buying the main books you're going to need throughout writing the novel. Also any books which will be useful for more than one novel.

If you can honestly check a fact quickly, mid-write, because your own copy of The History of Underwear (no historical sex scene can be written without...) is to hand, then you can deal with it quickly, without being lured online and wading through dozens of useless sites which don't tell you a fiftieth of what a single decent book will, or stalling the scene for want of knowing whether he can unlace her corset from behind...

Same with food, architecture etc. etc. You're also less tempted to bung in all your research, as Sarah Hilary says, because it didn't cost you all those hours in the library and pages of notes.

CC MacKenzie said...

Happy New Year Nicola!

Yes, I agree totally. The trouble with too much research is that you can become a tad anal about it. Next thing you know an Editor is telling you to take 'the nerdy bits out.' I believe this happens because fiction writers are naturally curious people and become hugely excited by the info they've found.

I've spent many a happy hour on google, the library, on trips to Cathedrals - Lincoln is spookily amazing btw.

Start me on the subject of Veronica Franco and ... well ... see what I mean?

I think the other 'thing' about authors is, they don't want to get it wrong, because you just know that a wee gremlin is going to read your book and spot it. And mention it on your blog, or tell the SmartBitches or TWITTER and then your editor will be seriously displeased with you. Even though you did everything except climb up the trouser leg of a brain surgeon to find out the correct name of the whatdyamacallit they use to dissect the cerebellum hemisphere.

So, don't rely on Google, go to a man who can and find out for yourself. Just keep it all in perspective and write the bloody book!

Christine Carmichael.

Pelotard said...

I knew I was doing something right when I typed "Masada is still an impressive sight, blah blah there's bound to be pictures on Wikipedia" and formatted it red, then continued with the action :) (I ended up reading a book on it, none of which went onto the pages)

Anonymous said...

ONOH, dear crabbity old bat, that research may impact the story to the point where it takes a completely different twist. This happened to me when I wrote my novel, and I ended up taking tons of extra time to re-write the foundation of the book. Maybe I just suck, eh?

Leila said...

This was really useful, Nicola, thanks! I shall take the advice on board.

AnneR said...

Research isn't all reading - it involves looking at paintings, going on trips, watching films, eating... Contemporary paintings are often the quickest way to research some aspects of life in the past.

I'm doing a class on research for MA students at Essex next month, with Tobias Hill. His take is 'sod research - don't do it'. Just goes to show there is a huge range of approaches.

But as for doing none for a historical... I came seriously unstuck with that, having invented a character to slip into a real historical event, centred the story around him, and then discovered he actually existed. It derailed the whole thing. Panicked calls to editor ensued.

Alexis said...

Brilliant post, as usual, but I'd like to point out that sometimes you need the research to continue the story. I had to stop writing one of my stories because I had to shoot one of my characters, yet I didn't know (still don't) how long she'd be in hospital, how long until she was allowed to go back to the gym/school - things that were crucial to writing the rest.

That then raises the question: where do you do your research? There's no library anywhere near me, so I have to rely on Google which is not so reliable or specific.

Anyway, thanks for another great post.