Research—that word writers hate.
One of the sobering facts of writing fiction is that all writers must research. Does your starship have an engineer? Do you know how real engineers think, talk, and dress? No? Do research.
Is your story set in an exotic locale? Have you ever been there? Do research.
Does your story take place on a fantastic world of your own creation? Does it resemble other fantastic worlds with which your readers might be familiar? Do research, my friend.
When In Rome . . .
The importance of doing research surfaced again while writing my latest work in progress. One of my central characters faces a choice that is rooted in overcoming obstacles in his past.
Without giving away too much, let’s say the character is very long lived and that the incident in question occurred in First Century A.D. Rome.
The problem? I don’t know much about that era.
So, naturally, I will do research. But the question is, exactly when should a writer do research for a novel—before beginning to write, in the middle of writing, or after completing the first draft?
While you can find the method that works best for you, each strategy offers advantages and disadvantages.
This is the ideal situation if you know in advance where your story is going, and what locations, customs, politics, science, etc., will play a role.
But sometimes you don’t know exactly what you will need to know beforehand. Even the most meticulous outline can be derailed by an unexpected need to know something, such as how to ride a horse or what do they call that place where ministers sit during church services? (The chancel.)
Doing a lot of unfocused research beforehand can also bog down your story with “Lecturer’s Syndrome”: You now know so much about the topic that you have to share every piece of minutiae with the reader, whether it’s important to the story or not.
Research In the Middle
Doing research while writing your first draft is sometimes the only option available to writers who are on deadline. From my own experience, however, it's the least effective strategy.
Researching in the middle means you either continue writing while doing your research or you suspend writing until you’ve found what you need to know.
Researching while continuing to write can be fun. You get to shape your story as new information enters your brain. But the more you learn, the more you realize how earlier parts of your story are “wrong” and will need to be revised or rewritten later. Such a realization can inhibit writers from completing the draft.
Suspending your writing is usually the worst choice a writer can make. This means you have to start “cold” again at a later date. Writers, like anyone else, will look for any excuse to stop writing. Don’t give yourself that excuse.
Research After the Fact
The third option is to plow on through your draft and then do the research after you have completed it.
- You can be really creative when you don’t know much. (Think of when you were a kid and "had to" tell a fib to your parents. Sure, they caught on, but it was fun while it lasted.)
- The Story is King. The history, politics, culture, and science of a particular era serve the needs of the story, not the other way around. This isn’t to say you should completely ignore facts when writing fiction. However, the story comes first. The King has to have a vision before he knows how the various parts are going to fit.
- Following Anne Lamott’s maxim to give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft, you can liberate yourself as a writer if you know your first draft is going to be bad and that it should be.
- You may already know more than you think you do. There must be a reason why the King wanted me to write about First Century A.D. Rome. I must know something or can relate to something from that era. (And, in fact, as I’ve continued to write the story, details are starting to emerge which will focus the direction my research will take.)
If you don’t know anything about a particular subject, perhaps your King is telling you it’s time to explore.
There are drawbacks to doing Research After the Fact, as well. If you truly don’t know anything about the subject, you can find your character standing at a crossroads without any idea of where he will turn.
Even if you know a little about the subject, indecision can bring your story to a standstill.
Follow the King
Whatever method you use, don't let research bog down your story. If you find yourself getting stuck, keep in mind that research is meant to get your story across to its audience in the most effective manner possible.
Trust your King and see where he leads you.