The Great Research Debate
Do you exhaustively research before you begin work on a writing project, or instead, do you concern yourself first and foremost with story and only afterward go back and clean things up? I've known champions of both methods, and I've also run across those who have erred on one side or the other. Some would-be writers delve so deeply into the research that they become hopelessly mired in it, so much so that they risk never actually getting to the writing. Or they worry that unless they become a leading expert on the area in question, they won't be able to pull off writing about it convincingly. Others whip through the story and then belatedly find out the research doesn't at all support their plot points. When they try to rearrange the scaffolding, the whole sad mess collapses, never to rise again. My solution has been a hybrid approach. While preparing to embark on a project that includes an unfamiliar component, I spend a couple of weeks checking out primary source websites, read two or three books, and sometimes (depending on how important a part I feel the subject will play in the completed manuscript or how confident I am about selling the idea) making contact with an expert. (This may include traveling to the book's prospective setting or experiencing something crucial, where possible--such as a horseback tour of ranch country or a flight in a glider, as I've done a couple of memorable occasions.) This preliminary research always gives me a number of interesting ideas and helps to shape the story, but at some point, I shove it all aside and focus on the characters and the inciting incident. Most often, I begin writing at this time, just noodling about until I find my opening. I'll usually write a few "discovery" chapters to get to know the characters, and then I'll stop to write a synopsis for the book proposal. (I generally sell on proposal--or try to.) Once I have the plot sketched out to make sure the story works as a story, the protagonist has a satisfying character arc, and all that good stuff, I usually come up with a list of further research questions I'll need answered. As I work on the chapters, I look up any "road-block" questions but often leave the detail stuff for later. I'm a big fan of jotting myself to-do notes inside the manuscript so I'm not stopping to research constantly and interrupting the flow of the writing. It's a survival technique learned from writing on short deadlines, but it's an efficient use of time, too, whether or not you're working under contract. I'm also a big fan of the "fake-it 'til you make it" approach, where I do my best to bluff the reader into thinking I know way more than I actually do. I start this by leading off strong with convincing details. Once I've earned the readers' trust, it buys me a little room for fudging as the plot demands. As a former middle and junior high school teacher, I've developed some pretty strong b.s.-ing skills, but when it comes to pulling off a book, even those are not enough. That's why I have good beta readers/critique partners to call my bluff when needed. And if the material's especially tricky, I definitely do some detailed fact checking with a expert in the field. Thankfully, most are willing to help a novelist who expresses a commitment to "getting it right." People hate seeing their area of expertise botched in books and movies, and they're often just as interested in what you do as you are in their field. Sometimes, I've had experts read passages from the manuscripts, though I don't hand them the whole thing because (confession time) it freaks me out to risk having them monkey in the works of the storytelling. At the end of the day, I make sure to thank everyone for their assistance by including them in the book's acknowledgments and (especially in the case of expert sources) sending them an autographed copy. I also often include a note in my acknowledgments section that explains that some facts might be gently tweaked, massaged, or even omitted in the service of the story. So far, I haven't had any complaints. The methods I have outlined may not work for everyone, but over the course of the more than twenty books I've had published/contracted, they've proven to be an effective way of dealing with the facts that inform fiction. Do you have any tips of your own to share or any questions about research? Pictured: One of my favorite research trips, to Fort Davis, Texas.