Happy New Year and congratulations, writers! You have officially navigated the holiday season. Whether you wrote a lot, a little, or not at all in December, it’s time to pursue those big projects you’ve resolved to start–or even finish–in 2015. Get ready to apply some fingers to keys (or pen to paper, if you’re old school). It’s the time of year to establish good writing habits.
If you’re starting a first draft of a novel or maybe digging into a later version of an older project, you’ve probably got some questions as you set out to kick ass and take names this year. Not just questions of character or plot, of course, but factual questions regarding setting and details. Questions only research can answer.
As we discussed in our Space vs. Outlines post, it’s helpful to know something but not too much about our novel at the outset. It is absolutely possible to over-research–your novel gets bogged down in historical minutiae and you forget all about your central conflict. On the other hand, you don’t want to write three chapters and forty pages about your character’s first ride on a zeppelin, only to find out that there were no airships flying the skies in 1889, when your novel is set.
How do we strike the right balance in research? Here are our suggestions:
Deal in broad strokes.
On the one hand, big mistakes are embarrassing and exasperating to no end. On the other, knowing the exact kind of brick they used to build factories in 19th century Baltimore may not be the best use of your time. You’re writing a novel–which should still take more time than researching your novel. Stick the major points like city layouts, slang, fashion, and critical historical moments.
Have a cousin who’s a Civil War buff? A coworker who knows everything about trains? A friend who specializes in epidemiology? Buy that person a drink or dinner, then pick her brain. You don’t need to be an expert on every relevant field to your novel–if you did, you would never actually do any writing. Make use of your resources and contacts.
Patronize your local library.
It might be tempting to buy all the books you need off Amazon or solely mine Wikipedia for information. But it’s much more economical and often more helpful to consult your local librarian. They’ll point you in the right direction–and you can be assured of finding accurate details.
Go on a field trip.
Unless your novel is set in the early Pleistocene, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to see something of the milieu you’ve imagined in our world today. Hit up some museums relevant to your novel or do a walking tour of historical buildings. If your novel isn’t historical, then you have even fewer excuses. Walk in your characters’ shoes for a day or two.
Engage your other senses.
Is your protagonist a classically trained French chef? Take a class! Eat French food. (Drink French wine!) Research is more than flipping through dusty reference texts. It’s also about experience. Have fun with it.
But most importantly, don’t let research stand in for writing. While it’s important to be accurate and attentive, novel-writing is not journalism. The truths we care most about are emotional and psychological, not historical or geographic. And remember, Edward P. Jones famously claims he never got around to researching for The Known World. The rest of us should probably do a bit more, but never at the expense of the story.
How do you approach research? What’s the most fun research you’ve ever done? The most difficult? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author: Julia Patt
Julia Patt, Contributing Editor, from Chestertown, MD, is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Her young adult novels—i was a fourth grade zombie slayer and Through Waterless Places—were both shortlisted for Mslexia’s 2012 Children’s Novel Competition, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Surreal South ’11, Stymie, and PANK.