Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 2, 2015

How I Kicked Writing Research in the Butt

Nicole Winters

writing research

The Research Rabbit Hole

Years ago, I remember listening to writers lament about the perils of research. I thought, how terrible to psych yourself out of a wonderful story before you’ve even begun.

Now, before I continue, let’s be clear, what I do is probably more suitable for the contemporary fiction writer. Someone who, say, wants to set their story in an arena they know a bit about already. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to nonfiction or historical writing.

A few years ago, when I was presented with the opportunity to write TT FULL THROTTLE, a YA novel based upon the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Races (European motorcycle road racing) I jumped at it; I like sports and motorcycles.

However, even though I knew the basics about the TT Races, I’ve never raced a motorcycle on a racetrack. I’m not a race mechanic, and I’ve never been part of a pit crew. I needed to research, a lot. And I needed a game plan, so I didn’t get bogged down.

My research secrets:

1. Every time you come across something technical type the letters “TK” and move on.

Yup. That’s it.

“TK” is my fancy pants way of saying “Technical. I’ll get to it later, but right now I’m in the middle of writing here.” This allows me to not get bogged down with research, but instead, focus on the emotional arc of the scene. Use whatever code works for you.

Nicole WintersHere’s an example of a draft scene between my hero (a road racer) and his love interest (a mechanic), where I didn’t know the technical words or even what kind of mechanical breakdown the race bike could have. However, that’s not what’s important. By focusing on the emotional arc, I was able to push through and write emotions into the scene.

We start working on the engine. She disassembles and I wipe down the TK-parts. We listen to classic rock songs from Manx Radio and it makes me a little nostalgic, thinking about my dad and Terry and how we used to work together late into the night like this. To pass time, they’d dish out advice on girls and my racing career, or tell stories about travelling across Canada and the US by bike in the late 80s and all the adventures they’d had.

When we work our way to the TK, Mags picks up the TK. Sure enough, it’s TK broken/damaged/cracked???

See what I did there? I didn’t let the research stop me when it could have. For the next draft I spoke with a bike mechanic and it took him about two seconds to say, “He’s got a broken counter shaft seal.”

Try adopting a code like “TK” and see if it’ll work for you. Plug it into your story as much as you want, but keep moving forward by focusing on the emotional arc. The goal is to get that first draft done, right? Empty your story onto the page, complete it, celebrate and take a break (a few weeks even), then tackle research.

So let’s fast forward...

Are you ready to have fun and dive into some research?

Let’s face it, you wouldn’t have chosen to set your story in a certain arena (cooking, road racing, dancing, etc.) unless there was something you were already curious to know more about. I’ve always been an explorer by nature, so research to me is like a new adventure.

Here’s an example of how I’m currently tackling the research for my next novel, THE CONJURER, about magic (as in regular ol’ close-up/parlor magic, not fantasy magic).

  • I’ve written my first draft using TKs, and focused on the story’s structure and the hero’s arc. Where there some missing chunks all dedicated to the TK? Yup, but I didn’t sweat it. I knew the beginning, middle and end.
  • During the first draft resting period, I binge watched magician videos, documentaries, etc. and started reading blogs and following magicians on social media.
  • I looked up magician organizations in my area to find out where and when they meet. A quick email to the president, introducing myself and my project, and the next thing I know I’m invited to attend a meeting. Once there, I introduced myself and then sat back, kept quiet and watched magicians in their natural habitat. I did not force my questions or even presence onto people (my magic trick was to ‘disappear’ so they wouldn’t be self-conscious of me being there watching and listening). It took a couple of meetings for members to realize I was sincere in my craft and now I have a wealth of experts who approach me asking if they can help or answer questions. Awesomesauce!

I feel like I am now part of a terrific community who loves what they do. (BTW, I attended a meeting where a famous magician taught other magicians his latest inventions/tricks — my mind was blown!)

Will I end up gutting parts of my story to rewrite according to new information in draft two? Of course! But that’s all part of the process. Personally, I think new writers place too much pressure on the first draft, somehow thinking that it has to be perfect.

Belch… I consider all my first drafts as a “dawg’s breakfast” (said in a thick Southern drawl) because to me, that’s what it is.

My novels tend to go through 3-5 drafts before the polish (and yes some TKs linger throughout several drafts, but that’s okay). I just don’t want to spend any more time on the first draft psyching myself out. I write it, leave it, assess it, devise an action plan, and move onto draft two.

I’m someone who’s constantly trying new ways to strengthen my craft. I hope this makes sense and inspires you to give it a try. Let me know how it goes.

What research hacks push you through the first draft? Share your tricks down in the comments.

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p.s. Don't forget to join the Write Up a Storm Event - coming Monday Oct 12!

About Nicole


Nicole WintersNicole has an English B.A. from the University of Toronto and loves, books, bikes, horror films and globe hopping. Her debut romance novel, THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK hits the e-book stands October 13th. Nicole is currently at work on her third book involving magic called, The Conjurer.

Cool dudes and motorcycles: TT Full Throttle
Hot guys and romance: The Jock And The Fat Chick

Social hashtags: #rebellious #allthingsfunny #dudevoice
#braaap! #bodyacceptance #hotYARomance

Connect with Nicole via Twitter, her blog, or www.nicolewintersauthor.com.

42 comments on “How I Kicked Writing Research in the Butt”

  1. I am genetically incapable of doing it this way, Nicole. Don't get me wrong, it's logical, and I'm sure it will work for many people....it's just that I'm anally organized, and the thought of leaving something undone and unorganized makes me shudder.

    I have to go from 'once upon a time' to 'the end' word by word.

    I know, I'm sick. Let's not even get into writing out of order. *shudders*.

    1. Laura, you'd be throughly impressed with my super organized pantry and spice rack! (I'd post a photo if I could.) I found the world of european road racing so encompassing that I ended up applying for a Press Pass and emerging myself into the subculture, even volunteering as a roadside marshall. I had a character in the story who also knew nothing about road racing, so going over there without over researching allowed me to uncover information organically and I ended up with all kinds of extra storylines I never would have thought of adding or considering. When riders, mechanics, organizers and pit crew learned I was new to the sport and writing a book for teens, they opened up their world to me. It was amazing. I've been back four times and I'm working on a sidequel, this time through a mechanic's point of view.

    2. Nicole, she's talking about me with that writing out of order. I've tried to do it her way and I simply can't - it's way to linear for me. I'm more of a scene writer. And yes, my spices are in excellent order too. 🙂

  2. I like your TK idea - I usually leave a little parenthetical ? question mark next to the place where more research is needed, then write on. But sometimes I find that starting a chapter by researching a topic first that I know I'll need for my novel, leads me to some great creative ideas that I can follow through with later during my draft. Either way, I happen to love researching - although at times it can be scary (I had to research about drug running and meth for my book The Right Wrong Man, and I kept worrying that the DEA or FBI would be knocking on my door soon - they do monitor our computers, right?) :-0 Nice post, Nicole.

    1. I know what you mean. My search history would baffle the authorities, but I can also see them shrugging going, "Looks like another one of those writers has been at it again."
      I used to make ?-marks in my manuscript, but soon changed it to TK because it became a whole lot easier during the find/retrieval stage to search for TK.
      P.S. Your book sounds cool! I could see how any literal hands-on research might get you into a tiny bit trouble though. ; )

  3. My placeholder is [XXX] which is easy to search for, and I use it for everything from metaphors/description (bane of my writing existence) to the right adjective, to character names/places (a lot of those in early days). However, if things bog down, since I'm not a plotter, I'll do do some research-- Google, writing expertise groups, phone calls to the local police department (all prefaced with "I'm a writer researching a book" so they don't come knocking at my door.) I do have to write in order, but if it's not a plot point that could impact the whole story, I don't like staring at the computer waiting for that perfect word.

      1. I was impressed by an image in one of CJ Box's books -- 'ducks and geese scattered the lake like errant punctuation' and I asked him when in the process that came to him, and he said, "That just came to me as I was writing" -- Grrrrr to people who can do that on the first pass.

  4. Your advice is spot on, Nicole. When I was writing my historical novel Go Away Home, I stumbled into your TK approach although, like Terry, I use XXX as the placeholder. I love research and if I'd stopped every time I didn't know something, I'd never have gotten the book written. Now, I'm writing a contemporary novel and find research to be every bit as relevant - and potentially distracting to progress. My first draft is peppered with XXX's.

    1. Love it! XXX reminds me of when I was a kid, watching old fashioned cartoons and the character would hold up a jug with a XXX on it. Of course my wee brain thought it was poison and I got confused as to why he was drinking it. lol

  5. I tend to do it the other way around: I try to get to know my world and my characters well enough beforehand that the technical details are already lurking in my brain for use in those scenes. The goal is the same, though: don't let the technical stuff break your rhythm while you're writing. (It's also worth noting that A. I'm writing fantasy, so my TK is either magic, or older technologies and methodologies; and B. this approach means that my pre-writing process in an inchoate mess of false starts, noodling over ideas to see how/if they fit together, and writing scraps of things just to get to know the characters or the setting.)

  6. Nice advice to focus on the emotional arc, Nicole, thanks. I'm working with some similar challenges—with motorcycles too, no less! Cool you were able to get into the culture so well. Thanks again. :O)

    1. Colleen, if it's road bike type research, I'm available! Nicole, I almost got the chance to be a 'monkey' in a sidecar race! Dang it, if I'da lived, that would have made a great memory!

      1. The @SRAeast sidecar association has invited me to their open track days in the spring so I can get a crack at being the monkey. I figure if I do planks from now until May, I may just have a shot of being in good enough shape to hang on!

    1. Thanks, Christopher. Great idea! I know this has nothing to do with research, but as an aside, I was once taught a Word formula to turn all dialogue a certain colour for easier viewing, but sadly I can't remember it now. Then I think, wouldn't it be great to find a formula that could copy all dialogue and paste it on another page? I'd be curious to see it all together like this and if I could immediately spot any bad dialogue habits.

      Someone should make an app for that.

  7. I like to do a bit of research/reading on a few of the things that will be going into my book before I start writing but once I'm in first draft mode, I'm writing from start to finish without stopping. First draft tends to be light but I keep a notebook where I jot down what needs more research. That's the second draft.

    I've been threatening to write a book about a race car driver so I can use the research excuse to get my car on the track. Hubby is resisting. 🙂

    1. OMG, you should totally get the car on the track! They do have track days. My friend just did it this past summer. You go through driving instruction, etc. He had a blast. It was on his bucket list. If you're near a track you should sign up to volunteer at their events or ask the driving club if you can shadow a team. The second year I went to the IOMTT Races, I shadowed a pitcrew and they got me fireproof overalls and a special badge so that during the race I was in the pits during refueling. Um, wow!

  8. I, too, use XXX when I can't think of something or don't want to figure it out, and especially when writing against a timer. Names of things (and people!), what they're seeing or eating, technical stuff, whatever.

    (But Jenny Hansen, it *would* be you who has a porn clinic as a setting! Do any of your Undie Chronicles show up??)

    I write MG time travel (historical), so I hit some pretty detailed research. I love the way that early research suggests plot points for me, and then I fill in the XXXs at the end, or occasionally as I go. When I finish this trilogy, I'll be switching into some Women's Fiction, so I really like the idea of doing the first draft for the emotional arc, and then researching for technical stuff and plot twists.

    1. Let me know how it goes, Jennifer. Good luck! I write with a timer sometimes too - usually when revising the 3rd draft. I have a boxing app that lets me set up a 20/10 with a bell that dings between sets.) That way I write for 20, then do housework for 10, and back and forth. I stop no matter where I am in the paragraph. That way when I'm doing mundane housework I'm noodling around ideas in my head and can't wait to get back at it. Plus it's really good to get up and move my body. Otherwise I'd sit all day and not get out of my chair. The bonus is that chores are done.

  9. I think I read somewhere that TK is a good marker because their are no words in the English language that have T and K adjacent, so they show up easily when you do a search in your word processor.

    For me, I tend to write as if I know it all (my family would tell you that's my general attitude in life) and then as the creative juices slow I do my research and make changes, rather than stopping work for the day.

    I loved your second point. I often wonder how you move away from internet research and experience things first hand. I worry that if I approach people they'll think I'm trivialising their life or interests or that they'll feel like I'm using them.

  10. Oh, not at all. I find that if I'm upfront about what I'm doing and show them my passion for writing, people will open their hearts and show me their passion in return. Ever notice how we light up when we talk about storytelling? They'll light up too when they talk about dance/music/etc. just watch for it. It's a beautiful thing. Plus, it's kinda fun showing a newbee the ropes. In a way, they get to vicariously live through you and remember what it's like to discover their world for the first time. If they're not so receptive, thank them and find another person in the industry. Maybe they're not used to thinking about or explaining their subculture. One of my favourite questions that I like to ask (mind you it's a doozy, so I wouldn't ask it the first time I met with them) is this: "What's the one thing that I should put in my novel that would say to you, 'Yes! She's done her research?'"

  11. Nicole, I use a similar tool when writing my first draft poems or essays. I type/write the word that comes to mind, then bold/circle it for later work with my Thesaurus or sensory image file. I haven't blocked my muse with details because further drafts will be necessary anyway. Thanks.

    1. Nice way of putting it, Maxine. I used to agonize over the right word/phrase/description and when I wouldn't get it, self-doubt would creep in: Why is this always so hard? How come I always struggle? Now I mark it, move on and try again on another day.

  12. Mine is a little bit different. It's in the form of a government report from the Department of Homeland Security. This obviously presents research challenges of its own. Government reports usually have sections redacted when the agency needs information to remain classified. That's what I did. If there was information I couldn't find or didn't know, I just said it was redacted. It made it seem more like a real report.

  13. The WOW point for me was the excerpt from your book “Full Throttle.”

    It shows us three things:

    1) Marking where research goes is important!
    2) There are a lot of occasions throughout a manuscript where a writer might need to mark for research.
    3) It allows us to see exactly what we need to research and where we need to place it.

    Until today, I did not have a clear plan for research. I was simply going to write, and then go back and see where I needed to put technical information.

    Your approach is much more clear and much more dialed in.

    This post showed me just how important it is to know where you need to add research.

    Thank You.

    1. Cool, Skipper. Now if I can only discipline myself to rename photographs the second I download them from my camera, then I'd save myself so much time and frustration searching images for blog posts. I'm getting better though. I suppose it's all about what I can do in the moment that'll help me with future information retrieval.

      1. Thank you, Nicole, for replying; I appreciate the time you took.

        I sort my pictures visually, as well. It's just too much work changing everything (too many pictures). The only time I mess with them is when I am actually setting something up to send to a family member.

        Organization is overrated! 🙂

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