By Diana Clark
How we answer the knotty question of “how much research is enough” often says more about us as writers than we might suspect—or even want. I’ve discovered the only easy answer to this common query from friends and colleagues is “it depends,” which is a copout satisfying no one.
That doesn’t make it less true.
I know successful novelists who are perfectly content to use Wikipedia to locate or verify “facts” for their stories. For them, fiction is fiction, and accuracy is far less important than entertaining their readers.
A few of my other colleagues are obsessed with “getting it right” and research deeply, often checking the pages of their manuscripts multiple times for accuracy. Need I say these writers are usually less prolific than their more casual counterparts?
Still others have trouble putting a period to the research phase of writing. There is always one more article or yet-another source to check. Over the years, I’ve noticed that these writers tend to fall into two distinct groups.
Those in the first group simply finds research more fun than writing. I usually tell my friends in this group to “knock themselves out.” They’ll write less but have lots more fun doing it.
The second group is more complex. Most fear making a mistake in print so much they’re always giving a manuscript one more review. We all know a perfectionist or two. Some of us even fall into that category.
A smaller subset of this group might hide behind perfectionism, but they are actually using their research to avoid what they see as the hard work of writing. For them, it isn’t as simple as writer’s block; they see writing as a vast desert and can’t quite imagine the journey to the other side.
Most of us wind up somewhere in between these extremes. We want to do enough research to make our stories authentic, and we strive for accuracy if we are writing about real events even if they took place long ago. Still, it’s the story that intrigues us, and our focus is on getting the story told.
One real drawback to spending too much time researching is a tendency to info-dump. You all know what that is—telling the reader more than they need or even want to know. Just because something is interesting, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it belongs in the story. A good editor, in fact, will make writers take this extraneous material out—no matter how much it hurts.
Full disclosure here. I usually do a week or two of general research if it’s a topic I’m familiar with and then develop an outline (with questions I need answers to). This outline will guide my additional, in-depth research.
I must admit those early notes are full of sidebars—interesting snippets that I might or might not work into the story. I do have one firm rule. These add-ons must drive the story forward not sidetrack it.
A rough guide I use in fiction writing is that my research time shouldn’t exceed my writing time. If I expect to produce a first draft in ten weeks, then, I will spend ten weeks or less researching my book and establishing a timeline and character chart. That block of time doesn’t include the simple fact-checking I will do later as part of the review process.
Let me reiterate here that I’m discussing fiction. Nonfiction is an altogether different ballgame. You could legitimately spend months, even years, in research before writing a line.
Despite all that research, most of us discover holes in our knowledge at specific points of a story. Some of it is quite specific. What kind of gun, for example, did FBI agents use in 1952? There are two schools of thought on how we writers should handle these kinds of gaps. One approach is to make a line of question marks or group of asterisks to indicate the problem and get on with our story, filling in the gap later.
Others prefer to answer the questions as they occur, particularly when the answer might shape the narrative. This approach makes sense if it occurs infrequently, but too many unanswered questions can slow down anyone’s writing and cause problems with flow. Always ask yourself—is this bit of research creeping perfectionism or plain, old avoidance?
I suspect most of us use both methodologies. Curiosity sometimes has to be satisfied immediately. Still, unless the information is likely to affect the narrative, it’s probably best to go back later and fill in the gap.
Whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, no writer gets very far in this business before discovering a hiccup that I don’t see discussed often in blogs or articles about research. And that is the simple fact that online and off-site research can only take us so far.
It’s true we can learn a lot about a subject or an area by watching YouTube videos, surfing the web, and spending quality time in a library, but this research will never replace an onsite visit or a live interview. Ignorance may be bliss, but it frequently leads to fuzzy writing.
If a sense of place is central to your story, your research should include time spent in the locale. I know, I know—time and money, those nasty limiters we all face. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve avoided embarrassing errors by putting foot to ground and asking questions of those with first-hand knowledge.
One of my unpublished stories, “Touchstone,” is a good example of why in-person research matters. It’s about an American artist, a female painter, who spends much of her life capturing images of UNESCO’s historic sites in eastern and southern Spain in the last years of the twentieth century.
I did due diligence—everything from videos and online websites to scholarly sources—but a trip to the sites I focused on in the story helped me avoid several embarrassing errors. Some were relatively small—like the color of the sand along the shore of a site bordering the Mediterranean.
Other errors were more egregious. In one case, the artist wouldn’t have had access to the part of the site she supposedly painted. It was closed for repair during the time she was there—and for nearly a year afterward.
On-site investigation isn’t just about avoiding errors, however. It can also provide tantalizing anecdotes and insights all of us love incorporating into our stories.
I’m not saying you can’t write a good story without visiting where it takes place or interviewing people who observed the events you’re writing about when that’s possible, but I promise you’ll write a better story if you do. It’s that whole write what you know thing. Who came up with that anyway? No, don’t bother to email or call. I know it was Mark Twain.
How much to research isn’t the only decision we face as we prepare to write. How we choose to go about that research is equally telling. Every writer conducts his or her research in a specific way.
Some begin the research phase as soon as they have a rough idea about their story. These writers enjoy the process of open-ended research. They like to see where it takes them. This meandering journey often plays a major role in shaping the final story. A writer using this approach will often write and research at the same time—or, to be more accurate since multi-tasking is a myth, intermittently.
“How can I possibly know how the story ends?” one of my Mazatlán writer friends once chided me. “I haven’t finished my research yet.” Her Beta readers (I’m one of them) were reading her fifteenth chapter at the time. That far into the story and no ending in sight!
My colleague and friend takes pride in telling anyone who’ll listen that she’s never used an outline in over two decades of writing, preferring to “let the story tell itself.” She is one of those exotic (to me) writers who write and research intermittently, wandering toward the final chapter.
Others know exactly how the story will end because they’ve worked through the storyline, developed a firm timeline, and decided on a complete cast of characters. The narrative may change slightly as they complete their research and begin writing, but their stories are already in their heads and hearts.
Different strokes for different folks. I happen to fall into the second category most of the time, but I’ve been known to follow an interesting bit of history down the rabbit hole, whether it is directly relevant or not. There’s always that next story, after all. Maybe, I can use this intriguing tidbit there.
So, how much research is enough?
Only the writer knows. Oh, there might be one other person—that pesky reader who finds an error and gleefully reports it in a scathing and embarrassing review. Happy writing.
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A late bloomer as a fiction writer, Diana Clark is a much-published former editor and historian who lives and works in Mazatlán, Mexico. It was her love of history, specifically Latin American history, that led to her Points South series, which examines the turbulent 1970s and 1980s in Chile, Argentina, and Central America through novels. Some titles include Stolen, Tapestries, Song of Despair, and, most recently, The Long Game.
She admits to another longtime love, Latin American and Spanish protest music of the 60s and 70s. This interest has taken her to Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Cuba, and Mexico, where she’s interviewed cantautores (singers/songwriters), whose songs are still performed today.
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