Saturday, March 20, 2010

Let's Get Ready to Research

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A commenter asked what my policy was for research while writing. An interesting question really, because I do a lot of research, but it's not something I think about much post-world the building stage. But there are times when I find I need to know something as I'm writing, and I'll stop to figure it out before I go on.

I like to do as much research as I can before I start a book, because stopping while I write can interrupt my train of thought and knock me out of my writing groove. But not everything I'll need can be foreseen.

I keep a file with world building notes and other important details that I can easily access as I write. A list of names based on Afrikaans words (which is where a lot of my names come from), foods, plants, animals, clothes, etc. Things that bring a world to life that I'll need to look up on a regular basis.

Then there are things that I don't expect I'll need. For example, I needed to know a lot about forging and metal working for Blue Fire, and I did some research, but as I wrote, I found that I needed more details to make the scene come alive.

When I couldn't go forward in the scene without knowing that detail, I stopped and looked it up. Understanding the layout of my forge was pretty critical to knowing how Nya was going to interact with it, and writing the scene without those details was a waste of time for me. I knew I'd have to rewirte it once I got the setting down anyway. So I stopped and found out what I needed to know.

Sometimes I just make notes on things. There's a holiday in Darkfall and I wanted to create a good name for it, but it was just called the Harvest Festival, and the first time I use it I put (need name) after it. It doesn't matter what I call it right now, and later, I can spend the time to come with something that fits the story best. I have quite a few of these notes in the first draft, and I'll look them all up before I start the second draft and fix whatever I noted to fix.

Then there's after the fact stuff I discover I'll need, but it's not critical to the story at the moment. A lot of this is setting or descriptive details. Architecture, clothes, smells, etc. I'll want to flesh out a descriptive scene and I'll make a quick note in my outline file on what to look for and do in the next edit pass. This happens most often when I end up somewhere I wasn't expecting and didn't have a lot planned for it beforehand. Or when I make up a building or place on the fly because it works with where the plot is going.

So there ya go. There's no one thing that I do, and it all depends on what's needed at what time. I do find that if I'm stopping frequently to look something up, I'll set the writing aside and spend more research time, because obviously I didn't do enough before I started.


  1. Love this post! I too try and do as much research before hand but sometimes I don't always know where the story is going therefore I'll have to make a stopping point when I reach that road block, however sometimes it's fun to stop and research something, gives you a new outlook on some things!

  2. I tend to have a similar pattern.

    Although, I tend to go a little heavier on the research at the beginning, especially during the world-building stage, because I want the story to be influenced by the world as well as influencing it. And that means having enough world-building that I get to a point in the story and can say, "The world is like this, so the story has to go like that."

    But I do research/plan research while drafting, as well.

  3. I think flexibility is good when writing. It's important to be true to your research, but not if it starts controlling the story or making you feel forced to write a certain way.

  4. This sounds like what I do! (Except I'm just starting to keep the separate world building notes. And use square brackets around things and people that need renaming. *g*)

    I have one short story that started off with a vague sense of what I wanted--a slaughtering of "Romeo & Juliet" with fantasy creatures. In doing my research, I discovered that the Inquisition was first started in 12th century Italy by Pope Gregory IX, and before that basic "magic" was fairly acceptable.

    That gave me the preferred time period. And other little details--like women in Rome tossing unwanted infants in the Tiber even in broad daylight--and historical events that shaped the story. Without the research, I wouldn't have been able to create the story.

    But I've also been drawn down the research rabbit-hole, before, so it's a careful balance beam to walk.

    I love hearing how diff writers do things! *g*

  5. I think research is important because you should credit your readers with some intelligence. Whilst I am sure there are a number of "passive" readers who simply read a book cover-to-cover and put it down without a second though, I'd like to think there are a number of active readers who find elements in books interesting and go and find out the "truth" of those elements. At that point, as the writer, you need to be accurate or as close to accurate as possible.

  6. So true. I'm fine with taking a bit of creative license to make the story work, but when a writer blatantly ignores something major that's known information, it just makes me lose all faith in the story.

  7. And some folk assume that fiction just means you can make everything up willy-nilly. I tell some people that I'm researching something for a story, and they give me blank looks and say they thought I was writing fantasy—the unspoken assumption being I should just be able to invent what I don't know.


    Note: I meant 1200s AD, 13th century when I was talking about Pope Gregory IX and all. I get that hundreds/century thing confused, sometimes.