You probably know the feeling. You might be stuck on something in your manuscript, or you might be flying through a section, when you hit a place that needs…research. What do you do?
If you’re like me and many other writers, you open up a new tab on your browser and start furiously typing in search terms. Or you head to your reference books and start flipping pages. Woe be unto you if you actually decide to leave your desk and head to the library…that’s when you know you’ve truly gone down the rabbit hole of research.
Who knows when you might return? Rabbit holes lead to rabbit warrens, complicated places that sometimes connect but often do not, leaving you at a dead end after hours spent looking at documents, images, and more. I say “spent” and not “wasted,” because all of us have anecdotes about the time when what seemed like a fruitless search yielded the one nugget of information that made a scene sing or tied up an important plot point.
However, just as often, research done at the wrong time or to the wrong degree leads too far away from the page, which is where we truly want to be. I was reminded of this when my friend and fellow writer Michele Filgate posted on Facebook about a conversation she had with the novelist Matt Bell during an event. She told him that she was working on a novel but kept getting sidetracked by research. Bell urged her to avoid research entirely until she has finished half of her manuscript. Then, and only then, he said, should she start looking at details and information to fill out the pages.
That’s sound advice — if it works for you. I, for example, find that small bouts of research help spark new scenes, as long as I control the amount of time I spend on them. Out comes the faithful kitchen timer, set for ten or twenty minutes. Even if I’m in the middle of a juicy lead on something, I go back to my manuscript. Yes, it’s sprinkled liberally with “TKs” (the journalistic shorthand for “facts to come”), I just keep going. I’ve been following this routine since I began my latest work in progress, and I’m now at 50,000 words. Works—-for me.
Other novelists (the published kind) follow routines as individual as their writing. Dawn Tripp, whose latest release is Game of Secrets, says, “I find that how I manage research is integral to how I build a story. For me, I have to have a keen, visceral sense of the world of the story I am writing into, without allowing details of that world to clutter or slow down the drive of that story as I am drafting it onto the page.”
Tripp’s solution is to “read and read and read” for a few months before she begins writing, and to take notes. “Other than that, during this period of time, I do not write at all,” she says. “That immersion research is, for me, crucial to absorb the essence of a culture, place, and time.” After that, she puts all of her research books away and does not open them again until she’s finished a complete draft.
Other novelists have a more “pick and mix” approach. Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim, says that after she’s written a first draft she does the bulk of her research, calling and emailing and meeting people who might have answers, as well as using the Intenet. “I may not use 80 percent of the material I harvest, but it feels important to have this stuff available if I need it.” However, Keener also admits that research isn’t her particular rabbit hole: “My rabbit hole is usually around plotting.”
One of the toughest things that happens to all writers is not knowing which details will be important.
“That’s why I’m always researching as I write,” says best-selling novelist Caroline Leavitt. But Leavitt makes an important observation, which is that when you know that a particular detail will be crucial but you can’t find it, even after hours of research, hire help: “I recently did this for the first time because I needed to know what they used instead of crime tape in the 1950s,” she says. “The answer? Wooden sawhorses and rope. My best research tool for those kinds of questions was, believe it not, Facebook.”
Facebook as research tool? Don’t tell Zuckerberg. Or surely a premium will be put on our querying posts.