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.
Here’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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Nicole 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.
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