April 30, 2014

On Novel Research

As I've mentioned, I'm currently deep in the research phase for my next novel. I enjoy the various aspects of research: the obtaining of new knowledge, the tracking down of obscure facts, the delaying of actual writing. In the course of many years and drafts, I've refined my research process through trial and error, and I thought I'd pass along some strategies and techniques.

Much of novel research is similar to any other research, including the work you probably had to do for term papers in school. While I still find it ludicrous that in sixth grade, each student in my class had to create a box of index cards filled with details of every major battle of the Civil War, I will concede that this project gave me a strong foundation in research skills. I was fortunate to receive an education that helped me refine these skills as I got older, and later I worked at jobs that gave me further practice. As with any research task, when fact-finding for your fiction, spend time thinking up relevant keyword combinations to run through a library catalog or web search, and always remember to judge the quality of sources. It's also useful if you have an ability to skim information to find the sections that are worth reading carefully.

I do novel research at several different points in the writing process. The initial stage, before I start a first draft, is my opportunity to get an overview of major subjects in the story that I don't know much about. This is where I am right now with INCONCLUSIVE, and one thing I need to learn about is life in a biology lab, so I've been consulting a ton of library books on this topic. I also anticipate plenty of online research, but books tend to be a good place to start for in-depth, curated information.

The advance research stage is the time to immerse yourself in whatever parts of the world of your novel aren't familiar to you, whether it's a time period, geographical area, culture, or career. (If your novel is set in a world of your own invention, you might be doing more world-building than research at this point, but most likely there are reality-based aspects you'll need to learn about.) This is also the part where it's really easy to get trapped forever and never begin writing the story, so it's advisable to give yourself a research deadline. (Note to self: Set a research deadline.)

Once you've decided that you know enough and can start writing, you're going to quickly find out how much more research you wish you'd done. When you're in the middle of a scene and there's some information you want to look up, you're supposed to make a note of it, keep writing, and fix it at the end. That's what everyone says, but I'm terrible about this, because I don't like moving forward in a story if I'm uncertain about what's happened so far. The deal I try to make with myself is that instead of interrupting my writing for a research excursion, I can investigate the question that night, or the next day at the beginning of my writing session, so I feel comfortable knowing I'm not getting too far ahead with a fact unchecked.

There's always the potential for more research, so I always have to exercise judgment about how much to do when, and sometimes I don't get the balance right. I'm sure I've put dozens of hours into verifying details of scenes that I removed in a subsequent draft. Ideally, you'll stick to more general research early in the writing process, when a story is still in flux. Then plan to devote time to another research stage after you've completed a draft or two and have some certainty about both what's happening in your story and what you still don't know.

I'll wrap up my research advice next time with some tips on record-keeping and choosing sources.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bill Morris at The Millions considers second novels and asks, Are We Entering a Golden Age of the Second Novel?: "There's plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write -- and that it can be even harder to live down."

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